By Amber Healy
Now Hear This…
National Radio Day is designed to promote cooperation among non-commercial stations. But it’s an opportunity to look at the entire medium and take stock of its health.
Sabrina Roach got her start in radio by walking into her local NPR affiliate and answering phones during a pledge drive. Her mom listened to a lot of public radio in the morning and one of the on-air personalities went to the same church they attended, so becoming involved in the station was an extension of the community she already knew.
Now, Roach is a “Doer” with a non-profit organization based in Seattle, leading the effort to celebrate non-commercial local and community radio stations through the first coast-to-coast National Radio Day in the United States. Canada might have such a day in the future, as Roach has some contacts with the Campus Community Radio network north of the Great Lakes, but it’s not quite ready yet.
The goal of National Radio Day, commemorated on August 20, is to bring new life into local and community non-commercial radio stations and help them incubate a new generation of content providers and volunteers. There was a time when public and community radio stations were, well, not the best of friends, but they’ve got a shared goal: helping people know more about what’s going on in their communities and encouraging more local voices and points of view to be featured on the airwaves.
There’s a difference between the two types of radio, Roach explains. Public radio stations can be affiliates of non-commercial entities, like NPR outposts or contributors, whereas community stations tend to be on the low-power FM frequencies, based within a limited geographical area and unaffiliated with any other network of broadcasters or stations. Public radio can include community stations, Roach noted.
Recently, the Federal Communications Commission—you know, the ones dealing with net neutrality, among other issues—made available some low-power FM radio licenses, creating the possibility of more new information and programming on community airwaves. Some stations, including a handful in the Seattle area and at least one in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia, are furiously preparing both content and studio space to start broadcasting. Some are opting to start recording content now so that when their antennas are up and running and their frequency is ready to go, they can be on the air immediately. At least one station decided, after securing a license, that going online and broadcasting via a website was more advantageous than starting a radio station, but the end result was the same: There’s a growing number of people getting involved in radio and providing information about where they live.
Both public and community stations are vital parts of the radio spectrum, Roach says. “Low-power FM is a new, closer-to-the-ground layer in the ecosystem, with low barriers to access to tools and training, which help people get on the airways and get training to create new content. Ultimately, the goal of something like National Radio Day is to get more people tuning in, but also to encourage them to find a way to participate, even if that means sipping on coffee and answering phones during a pledge drive, like she did so many years ago.
Speaking of radio…
There’s been a lot of talk about radio’s death lately. YouTube and streaming services and SiriusXM and the like are killing “traditional” radio. No one wants to hear some person talking over the intro or outro of a song; no one wants to listen to commercials; no one flips on the regular radio in their car anymore unless they’re listening to traffic reports. Who wants anything to do with a dying medium, right?
Not so fast.
Since Beats 1 came online about a month or so ago, a strange thing has been happening: People are talking about and tuning in to old-school radio again. But did they ever leave?
Writing for Re/Code on July 2, Dawn Chmielewski says Beats 1 and its first DJ, Zane Lowe, “reminded me of what has been missing from my iTunes music collection: Personality.”
She goes on to say how much she enjoyed listening to the former BBC DJ explain how he selected the first song to be played on Apple’s online radio station, how she “felt swept up into a global music party” as Lowe’s show progressed and he named the cities from which listeners were tuning in. “The music selections were as diverse as the geography, as Lowe played tracks from Gallant, a soul singer from Los Angeles, followed by Slaves, a punk band from Kent, Jack Garratt, a British pop singer, and an exclusive first broadcast of Pharrell Williams’ new single, ‘Freedom.’”
Turning in to that broadcast, she says she “felt part of some larger, shared music experience. Judging from the conversation on Twitter, I wasn’t alone…” Beats 1 reminded her of radio in the old days, when radio “offered the urgency of a concert or an event.”
While it’ll be a while before any data is available on whether people are getting interested in “traditional” radio again due to the onset of Beats 1, radio is far from dying or fading into the shadows.
New research from Westwood One, a media company based in New York City, provides some interesting statistics: Radio reaches 93% of the US population over the age of 18 every week, according to the Nielsen Total Audience Report for the first quarter for Fiscal Year 2015, beating TV (87%), smartphones (70%), computers (54%) and tablets (35%). Radio-based advertising is a better buy than ads on TV, as one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 are eschewing that broadcast format in growing numbers. Advertisers might think services like Pandora and Spotify are reaching more of the audience than AM/FM radio stations, by a rate of 45% combined to 55% for radio, but the numbers are drastically different: the radio share is nine times greater than Pandora and 17 times greater than Spotify, according to an Edison Research “Share of Ear” report in the second quarter of 2015. Some 95% of Americans aren’t using either streaming service, the same report notes.
What do listeners get by tuning in to radio that they don’t get by relying on a streaming service? Personality.
Listeners miss out on “the company and companionship of the people ON the radio,” says Alan Cross, longtime host of The Ongoing History of New Music on 102.1 The Edge out of Toronto and esteemed co-host of the Geeks and Beats podcast, among other music-related endeavors.
Plus, people who tune in to radio get that local content they can’t get on a streaming service, from weather and traffic updates to news on what’s going on in their hometowns—and making content available online helps those who move away stay informed on what’s going on back at home.
Some morning shows don’t play music as a centerpiece, dedicating the time instead to fully local content, including interviews with local officials or the occasional contest to win concert tickets, trips or other prizes. Those voices and personalities become part of a listener’s morning, a way of easing them into their day. There’s a place for streaming services, “but it can’t replicate a listening experience,” says James Kurdziel, program director and on-air personality at 103.3 The Edge in Buffalo. “People want to have, like and relate to local talent, but that talent has to be good and enhance the listening experience, not slow it down.”
There’s also the ease of listening to the radio compared with other forms of music enjoyment. The listener pushes a button and that’s it. “No cords, no battery, no subscriptions, no issue of connectivity. It’s just there and it’s very reliable. But something else to note is radio is the best of ‘old media’ in terms of modernization. We have podcasts, apps, streams, and even free radio pure plays like Rdio and iHeartRadio. Our content is all over the place now and radio-based alternatives outperform their counterparts by a wide margin.
So where’s this idea that radio is dying coming from? Simple: People are saying it, and radio-types aren’t necessarily doing the best job of refuting it.
“The reality is, even as streamers have absolutely grown, so has radio. It’s just not ‘cool’ to say that,” Kurdziel says. “Radio has been around forever. That’s a good thing, but no one is ever going to call you the cool kid, even while they’re using your content.”