Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Radio Criticism: Radio's Free Ride

You can’t open a paper or magazine or website nowadays without stumbling across critical reviews of movies, plays, TV shows, web videos, restaurants, chiropractors and plumbers. For some reason, the same can’t be said of, you guessed it, radio. In Seattle, we were lucky enough until a few months ago to have two daily papers (each of which, unusually, had a full-time TV critic until 2008). The now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer (still online but no longer publishing a print edition) had a weekly radio column written by Bill Virgin. While Bill (who—full disclosure—is a friend) wasn’t exactly a radio critic, he covered local and national trends in the radio industry, previewed upcoming programs (including several radio dramas and documentaries produced by yours truly), and kept readers abreast of the constant personnel and format changes that are a fixture of local radio. Bill’s weekly column is deeply missed, and its absence calls attention to a larger issue many decades in the making.

Even though there are more than 600 million radios in use in the U.S., the average household has 5.6 radio receivers, and radio reaches 96% of people 12 and older weekly (these Arbitron figures are quoted here), it’s been years since a national publication has devoted significant and consistent resources to previewing and reviewing national radio programs. Most column inches about radio are devoted to controversy: statements made by Imus, Stern or Limbaugh; layoffs at NPR; stunts pulled by local FM jocks. Nobody looks at programming trends, history, technique, production quality, or treatment of subject matter—in short, radio content gets a critical free ride. Try to remember the last time you read anything thoughtful in a general circulation publication about the content or performance quality of This American Life , A Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, Air America, Phil Hendrie, Sirius/XM, Tavis Smiley, or Rush Limbaugh.

For examples of what radio criticism can be, one must look to the distant past, when writers such as Jack Gould of the New York Times, John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune, and Ben Gross of the New York Daily News regularly wrote about radio (and TV) for their respective publications, and (in the case of Crosby and Gross) published books of radio and TV criticism. Crosby’s Out of the Blue and Gross’ I Looked and I Listened (both originally published in the 1950s) can be purchased secondhand without too much trouble; a posthumous collection of Gould’s TV columns was published in 2002.

My hope for contemporary radio criticism isn’t simply to trash bad programs. Effective criticism is fair, but it recognizes good work, and holds accountable executives, producers and performers when the work isn’t so good (yes, there is subjectivity in criticism). Effective criticism examines what went well and what didn’t, and ultimately inspires creation of better programming and fosters more choices for listeners. Effective well-written criticism is also fun to read, and can inspire new audiences to tune in or download something they otherwise would have ignored. Especially in the age of podcasts and downloads, reviews and recommendations of audio programs can be more useful than ever, since the option to easily hear a program again is a fairly new phenomenon. Add to this the programming on web radio, HD radio and satellite radio, and the choices available to the average listener are overwhelming.

So, I’m going to try and occasionally fill this critical void where I can with the I Still Love Radio blog. Stay tuned. And tell me if I suck.

1 comment:

  1. In the 60s and 70s before radio became so fragmented by so many choices, it was a unifying social factor. Listening to The National Lampoon Radio Hour on Sunday nights, and later, to Dr. Demento, and even Casey Kasem. The shared experience that would be discussed among your peers the next day. When every kid had radio in his/her room instead of a TV. Can't even tell you where to tune the radio listen to new popular music (at least not rap or hip-hop). Can't even tell you what the new music is, aside from VH-1's weekend countdown show. Seldom able to identify anything new on the radio. Unfortunately, TV has suffered a similar fate.