Column 15 — The Death and Rebirth of Radio?

Category: Blog — @ 1:12 pm March 3, 2005

This week’s column is based on this month’s Wired cover on the end of radio as we know it, i.e., the advent of new broadcast technology. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not enamored with the concept of satellite radio. Sure, it’s a cool idea — 130+ channels available anywhere coast-to-coast, with so much variety that there has to be something worth listening to. Then again, I’ve got more channels on my Cox Cable and I rarely find anything worth watching. The downfall of satellite is that there are two different and completely separate services — XM and Sirius — each offering a different line-up of content for $12.95 a month. There’s no way I’m making the plunge until these two companies are forced to merge, which won’t be anytime soon. Podcasting essentially is recording internet radio or similar web-based audio programs direct to your i-Pod for playback later, sort of like an audio version of TiVo. Adam Curry’s The Daily Source Code program was the first podcast and remains one of the most popular, downloaded nearly 500,000 times since it was launched sometime after 2001. Great idea, but will downloading and listening to radio shows on an i-Pod really catch on? I doubt it. I think the only hope lies in Hi-Res radio, as described below. It’s going to take a leap of technology to get radio out of its current staid, boring state, and once they figure it out you’re going to see repercussions all through the music industry…

Column 15 — Dawn of the Dead Air
As you’re browsing through the newsstands at your local Borders, Barnes & Noble or Hy-Vee, prepare to be startled by the cover of the March issue of Wired magazine. The dark, glossy image shows a smoking bullet exploding through the front of a red transistor radio — a take on the famous Doc Edgerton bullet-through-the apple photo.

To the left, in big, bold letters: THE END OF RADIO.

The headline, I suppose, was intended to shock. The end of radio! My God! What will we do now!

Here’s a news tip for the folks at Wired: Radio’s been dead for a long, long time. At least for me, and for a lot of other people who grew up listening to the FM. Back in the day, the radio was the only outlet to really hear new music besides the record store. I still remember hearing a cool new song and waiting with baited breath for the DJ — then the ad hoc program director — to tell me what they just played so I could run down to Homer’s or Peaches or Pickles to pick up a copy to throw on my own turntable.

Those days are long gone. Tuning through the FM now is like walking through a pasture and deciding which pile of cow flop to tip your toe into. You’ve got a ripe choice between today’s retro, today’s hip-hop, today’s kuntry klassics and today’s goon rock — all with a solid rotation of about 12 stale songs. The only other choice is between the talking drones on NPR or the talking jack-asses on the AM.

Radio’s downward spiral began after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gave a handful of faceless suits the ability to gobble up every station in every market. Once in, the suits fired the programmers and sanitized the play lists by passing them through a dumbing-down process consisting of focus groups, consultants and Billboard charts. Forget the deep cuts. Forget the obscure, cool artists. The word of the day was homogeneity, and radio’s new catch phrase was “Love it or leave it.”

Well, it looks like people are leaving it. In droves. According to Wired, despite the fact that every week 200 million people still tune into Big Radio (their euphemism for Clear Channel and the other evil congloms), the number of daily listeners has slipped to 1994 levels, with the coveted 18- to 24-year-old demo falling nearly 22 percent since 1999.

Sounds gloomy. But if you just glanced at that Wired cover, you might have missed the real story written in parentheses below THE END OF RADIO, where it says, “(As we know it)”.

The magazine’s special section breaks down like this: A feature on Howard Stern going to satellite, a piece on Adam Curry’s (yes, the guy from MTV) pioneering efforts in podcasting, and a story titled “The Resurrection of Indie Radio” that features a show hosted by Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones — Jonesy’s Jukebox — on Indie 103, a Clear Channel-backed station in Los Angeles. What? Clear Channel you say?

Of the technologies discussed, it’s the one featured in the Jones story that’s the real hope for the future. They call it High Definition radio — digital radio broadcast over the same wavelength as conventional analog radio, but with near-CD quality sound. That by itself is innovative, but the best part is that digital stations will be able to broadcast as many as six different shows simultaneously on the same channel. Stations like Indie 103 could have an “A channel” with regular programming, and a “B channel” that reruns Jonesy’s Jukebox or any of their other specialty shows. Or to put a local spin on it, imagine listening to 89.7 The River and being able to hear the indie program New Day Rising whenever you wanted instead of just at 11 p.m. on Sunday night.

This is where Clear Channel comes in. They bought all the advertising time on Indie 103 and are reselling it, essentially ensuring the tiny station stays afloat. Clear Channel knows that High Def radio, which is now only in its infancy, is the only way it’s going to compete with technology like mp3 players, satellite radio or podcasting. It’s the only way to provide the sort of variety that listeners thirst for now more than ever. The future of radio, it seems, is in niche programming. And that future can’t come fast enough.

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