Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is Radio Still Good For Anything?

Radio is in decline at the moment. There’s no use pretending otherwise. As a business, bloated boom year revenues are down because the audience is moving on to other appliances for their audio entertainment and edification, and the advertising isn’t worth what it was even just a few years ago. And there’s not allegedly much hope for the up and coming generation to embrace radio, if this viral phenomenon authored by a 15-year old Morgan Stanley intern is any indication.

But really, radio has been begging for (and ultimately getting) attention from each new generation for the past 60 years or so. Unlike the pre-TV days, families don’t sit down together and listen to the radio, and they never will again. But that’s okay, since radio is the ideal 21st century companion to keep an individual informed and entertained while getting things done, while driving, or for listening unobtrusively in the dark while the rest of the household sleeps. Kids may not get this now, but they will in the future.

That’s why I believe there are several areas where radio remains--and will always remain--the superior means of delivering quality audio content, such as:

Live Coverage of REAL Breaking News. A well-run local news or news and talk station (with network affiliation) can bring listeners a near-perfect balance of The Truly Big National or International Story as well as the distinctive local angle and the shared local experience via intelligent and charismatic on-air talent.

Timely Topical Therapeutic Talk. What I mean by this is a call-in program with a charismatic host who can create conversations that are worth eavesdropping on for their news value and community-building value. One national example: the many hours of late night and overnight talk presented by NPR in the days following 9/11. With Scott Simon as host, a range of callers shared their thoughts, feelings, where-they-were-when stories and other reactions. No conclusions were reached as far as I can remember, but for those of us left sleepless in those dark days and nights, it was comforting to feel a part of the larger community. Locally, news and talk station KOMO switches to something they call “Neighbor to Neighbor/Driver to Driver Coverage” when conditions warrant, with regular radio news anchors fielding listener calls and giving brief news updates. I’ve spent many a snowy or windy night captivated by amateur descriptions of weather-related hassles on the roads or in the neighborhoods of the Pacific Northwest.

Live Coverage of Debates, Speeches, Political Conventions and Hearings. More often than not, visuals presented by TV of these sorts of public affairs events add nothing to the program (and otherwise just distract from the verbal content). Sure, there’s that old saw that, for radio listeners, Nixon beat Kennedy in the first 1960 presidential debate—but I’m willing to take my chances. Now, where’d I put my LazyShave?

Live Baseball. Baseball on TV (and in person, for that matter) is far inferior to baseball on the radio—the visuals are repetitive and add little to the enjoyment, and I don’t want to sit and look at anything for three-plus hours. With a talented aural broadcaster such as Hall of Famer Dave Niehaus, even the dullest game (and I’ve lived through a number of those courtesy of the Seattle Mariners, circa 1977-1994 and of late) comes alive as a shared experience on radio. Especially magical here on the West Coast are when extra innings result in games at SAFECO Field being the last Major League match-up still going, when it’s long after midnight in the east. Extra credit awarded to those dial twisters who can find a minor league contest emanating from the hinterlands.

Classical Music. I don’t own much in the way of classical music recordings, but I often like to have classical playing in the background when I need to focus on a writing project or other intellectual (?) pursuit. I count myself lucky to live in Seattle, home of legendary classical music station KING FM, who are also pioneers of online classical programming via and who have a number of decent commercial-free HD classical channels that I can take advantage of when I don’t want distracting headlines, traffic and weather reports.

Jazz. Again, I don’t own a lot of jazz recording, but I sure love to hear a nice mix of classic and contemporary jazz at least a few times a week. Tacoma NPR affiliate KPLU offers jazz and blues on terrestrial FM, plus the pioneering commercial free Jazz 24 online (as well as via HD here in Western Washington).

Live “Curated” Programs. Sure, I could plug in my 30GB iPod and put together a pretty cool playlist of songs from just about any genre, and I often do. However, the frustrated ethnomusicologist in me also likes to hear the stories behind the songs, quirky anecdotes about the composer/performer, and how particular numbers fit into the larger context of the style, era or genre. Prime examples of Live “Curated” Programs include Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW’s Swing Years and Beyond with Amanda Wilde (Saturdays from 7:00 pm to 12:00 midnight Pacific) and Tacoma NPR affiliate KPLU’s All Blues with John Kessler (Saturdays and Sundays from 6:00 pm to 12:00 midnight Pacific), both available streaming live online.

Live Personalities. Like any medium, local or national radio featuring charismatic, intelligent and engaging on-air talent is hard to beat. However, with the 24/7 news cycle and worldwide events happening in faraway time zones, it is essential that the personalities be live—so that they can report and react as stories (inane and important) are moving on the wires or posting on the web. A good example of this nationally is Phil Hendrie; I’m sure you could name at least a few local examples where you live.

Live Performance. So much performance is sanitized for our protection these days by pre-taping and post-production, it’s easy to forget that a staple of radio’s first few decades was the live “pick-up” or remote broadcast of dance orchestras from hotel ballrooms in every big city in the country. A few brave souls carry on the tradition of regular live broadcasts of performances, notably Prairie Home Companion and the Metropolitan Opera and the wonderful annual New Year’s Eve broadcast of Toast of the Nation.

Can you think of anything else that radio is still good for?

1 comment:

  1. What about music discovery? Even in this Internet age, radio is still thought of as the medium where new music is discovered first more often.

    The flaw in that statement, though, is threefold, because [1] not all new music gets played on radio, [2] most radio stations play old songs, and [3] two or more radio stations in the same large city can play the same song, new or old.