Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Radio’s Delicate Condition

For at least two generations, public radio has helped people to learn about each other and their problems, and share a common cultural experience. But digital media challenge that relationship. The blogosphere has doubled every six months in recent years, and it’s a multilingual, multicultural environment. Social networks have also exploded. By 2006, traffic on MySpace had already outstripped traffic to traditional news platforms such as the New York Times and CNN.
     The question is whether broadcasting operations can catch up. To survive and remain relevant, they must adapt.
     Technology slowly seems to be turning traditional broadcasting into a dinosaur. And it’s not just radio. In 2008 NBC formally declared itself an “Internet company,” and the end of analog TV broadcasting came in February 2009, another step in the most sweeping overhaul of TV viewing since its inception. After Mega-media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace in 2005, there were rumblings that he might dump his satellite assets in favor of wireless digital TV. At the same time, the audience and credibility of public broadcasting has been undermined. Most bloggers and iPod users don’t watch much TV, read newspapers, or wait for their favorite radio program.   
     The music industry has made a painful transformation, the movie business has resisted, and cable television has developed niche marketed, sometimes high-quality programming. But to a large extent, network TV hasn't figured out what to do. Viewers are leaving -- or "aging out," but the reaction of the networks has largely been to reduce not only the cost but also the quality of programs through reality-TV and tabloid formulas. Those are just ways of denying the inevitable.
     In commercial radio, the reaction has been mainly to rely on two models – talk and formulaic music. But this is just competing for a limited audience with undifferentiated products. Even though the broadcast spectrum is a scarce resource, those with licenses are in many cases writing their own death warrants by using it inefficiently. 
     Public radio’s problems are compounded by the fact that the Bush administration tried to rip the guts out of it. Before the election of a Democratic president, George W. Bush's 2009 budget proposed cutting the allocation to public broadcasting by half over two years. Had it been approved, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would have lost $420 million of the $820 million in federal funds it was set to receive.
     Beyond that, NPR and its local stations – much like Pacifica Radio – have continued to fight over money and control. But the real problem is that more and more listeners prefer "on-demand" content. They want programs that are more meaningful to them, and they want to listen at their convenience. So far most of community and public radio, with its current distribution model, hasn't responding fast or seriously enough.
     Talented people are doing the best they can, but it’s not just a management issue. The problem is systemic. Podcasting is to public radio what apps like Garage Band and Pro Tools have been to the music industry. Large recording outfits have closed because musicians can produce appealing new music in small project studios -- or even in their apartments. The traditional music industry has been forced to embrace new forms of production and distribution. The same is true for public radio.
     Traditional radio broadcasters need to acknowledge that the era of being a music jukebox is coming to an end. New media technologies like file sharing, online music clearinghouses, portable players, and smart phones provide much more flexibility for the user. Remaining a “jukebox" – even with a lovable, knowledgeable host – is a losing battle. Kids born today aren’t likely to listen to radio over accessing a playlist, a personalized streaming radio station via the Internet, or whatever comes next.
     Some stations are attempting to become facilitators of open public media spaces. For instance, Minnesota Public Radio turned its listeners into sources and generators of news stories with what they called Public Insight Journalism. StoryCorps began generating grassroots oral histories. These are promising ideas, but radio has to go farther. It needs to become a leader in training, participation, and developing new platforms, apps and formats.
 
Originally posted on March 24, 2008. Third of four parts. Material in this series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT strategic planning retreat.
 
Next: The Future of Radio
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