Thursday, July 9, 2009

Do National Radio News Networks Matter Anymore?

So-called traditional media, of which radio is certainly a part, is obviously in decline. With the prevalence of cable TV, the web, free WiFi and portable devices like iPods and iPhones, I wonder who actually listens to radio for news and coverage of “special events” these days besides senior citizens, the sight-impaired and truck drivers?

I’ve been listening to much CBS and ABC radio coverage of the death of Michael Jackson these past few weeks—including live remote coverage of the memorial on July 7, 2009 and live newsroom coverage the day Jackson died (which I wrote about in an earlier post)—and it got me wondering if national radio news networks matter at all anymore.

Recent blog postings in the New York Times provide evidence that radio coverage of special events is all but written off. This Media Decoder posting documented TV viewership (30 million) while another somewhat confusing Bits posting provided web stats and attempted to put the Michael Jackson memorial into context with other recent events, such as the Obama inauguration (not quite sure how to add up these numbers). Radio numbers? There was nary a mention. If TV and the web are the Panavision and Cinemascope of today’s media, then radio is a one reel silent film. Radio has become the forgotten medium—news about which is, apparently, not even fit to post.

Media expert Jerry Del Colliano wrote a piece this week for his Inside Music Media blog called Radio, Music & Michael Jackson Died Together that ends with this observation: "Now, perhaps it's fitting that the Assistant Chief of the LAPD trying to avoid congestion at today's downtown public memorial for Michael Jackson told the public to watch it on TV and the Internet.

 He never mentioned radio."

Network radio coverage of news and special events matured in the run-up to World War II, and then hit its prime in the first half of the 1940s. Americans followed the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Europe and then the Pacific by radio; the news was coming too fast for the newspaper extra to keep up, and the radio networks had people in place to cover the stories where they were happening, as they were happening.

Broadcasters such as Edward R. Murrow, H.V. Kaltenborn, Fred Bate, Max Jordan, Elmer Davis, John MacVane, Cecil Brown and Eric Sevareid became household names, their radio stories reprinted by newspapers and their first-hand reports heard via crackly shortwave relays from war-torn foreign capitals. It was as if the medium of radio news was spontaneously invented and simultaneously achieving perfection while millions listened in. American radio news perhaps reached its pinnacle during the “pooled” coverage of the Allied landings on D-Day in June 1944 (more about that in a future posting), but it remained the primary medium for broadcast news and public affairs programming throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s. Other media critics have pointed to the coverage of the JFK assassination as the moment that TV coverage of news and special events displaced radio—when the torch was passed to a new medium.

Network radio drama, comedy and variety programming also had its heyday in the 1940s and early 1950s in terms of quality, quantity and, most important, advertising revenue. In fact, revenue from radio programming in this era subsidized network investment in the equipment and talent necessary to launch TV; radio funded its own demise. TV rapidly became the medium of choice during this time, and displaced the audio-only format as primary domestic broadcast entertainment. To put it simply, TV kicked radio out of the living room, and radio morphed into a portable source for music and news in the bedroom, kitchen, shirt pocket or dashboard.

However, while network radio drama, comedy and variety were officially dead by 1962 and network radio revenue was decimated, all three of the American combined TV & radio networks in business at that time continued to maintain radio news operations throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s that were probably successful enough to remain solvent if not generate modest profit, since even music radio stations retained regular newscasts in this period. (Editor’s note: NBC’s weekend Monitor program is, to put it mildly, an anomaly from this era that’s worth exploring in another post.)

To understand how radio became so marginalized, it’s also worth examining the rise and fall of network TV. Not surprisingly, it’s also about the money (public interest, convenience and necessity aside, broadcasting in the US is a business, after all, and there’s no sense pretending otherwise). Network television’s decline can be traced to the late 1970s and early 1980s when VCRs and cable channels gave viewers other options besides their local ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS affiliates, and rating points and those critical advertising dollars began to slip.

But, this wasn’t just the beginning of the end of 30+ years of network television dominance—it was the beginning of the end of a half-century of network broadcasting dominance. This is because the network TV broadcasting model predates television and actually emerged during the early network radio era of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Back then, NBC was comprised of two separate networks: the premium Red Network and the more public affairs-focused Blue Network. Found in violation of anti-trust laws, NBC was forced by court order to sell the Blue Network in 1943, and the Blue Network then became ABC.

NBC Red, NBC Blue and CBS built nationwide systems of local radio stations (the affiliates) beginning in the late 1920s to enable simultaneous national broadcasting of network programming—giving national advertisers the ability to reach a national audience via sponsorship of radio programs. The television networks of NBC, CBS and ABC employed the same strategy beginning in the late 1940s (in the case of NBC and CBS) and early 1950s (ABC).

Nowadays, among the original three combined radio & TV networks, just ABC and CBS have dedicated radio-only staff reporting radio news, and both leverage TV news staff and content to support their radio news operations and coverage of special events. While relative newcomer FOX Radio also has dedicated radio staff, NBC uses TV reporters and anchors from NBC and MSNBC for their radio newscasts.

National radio news networks are still a part of the radio industry and still are there on the dial of your terrestrial radio, HD radio, satellite radio and even your web browser (which I suppose doesn’t really have a dial). As far as I can tell, the following six news organizations continue to produce at least hourly radio newscasts, and have the ability (the infrastructure and the personnel) to provide their affiliates with live coverage of unscheduled special events when the need arises: ABC Radio News (via Citadel Media Networks); AP Radio News; CBS Radio News (via Westwood One); CNN Radio Network (via Westwood One); FOX NEWS Radio (via Premiere Radio); and NBC Radio News (via Westwood One).

Maybe their continued existence in the marketplace is proof enough that the national radio news networks do matter. But I still wonder if anybody is really listening.

FOOTNOTE: It’s worth mentioning NPR here, but I’ve found their ability to cover unscheduled special events highly variable depending on time of day and day of the week that the news breaks. In a future posting, I’ll document differences in how NPR and CBS covered the space shuttle Columbia disaster on Saturday, February 1, 2003 (short version: Scott Simon saved the day for NPR). In my experience, NPR seems best suited for post-event analysis and for coverage of scheduled special events, such as presidential debates and congressional hearings.

Suggested Further Reading

Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting by Laurence Bergreen

Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922-1952 by Michele Hilmes

Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio by Jim Cox

1 comment:

  1. Really good article and great blog you've got going here. Thanks for the insight.