This morning as I sat in my canoe while fishing a nearby lake I placed headphones in my ears and listened to radio stations in Los Angeles, Tampa, Detroit, and Chicago on my Samsung Galaxy Tab with Android operating system. It caused me to think of the industry in which I’ve worked continuously since 1985. It caused me to think of radio’s failures.
For more than sixty years pundits have been predicting the death of radio as an information and entertainment medium. They began with the popularity of television. Predictions that radio was on its way out continued with every new audio technology that was introduced since that time. Time and again the pundits have been wrong. Radio has not only survived but thrived through all technology updates, twists and turns. Radio has also pressed on in spite of a constantly changing and finicky population that in the past sixty years grew increasingly young and now grows increasingly old.
Prior to televisions dominance radio was the medium for entertainment, news, and sports for Americans for more than 30 years. Westinghouse’s KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania began successful commercial radio broadcasting in November 1920. And while television had many fathers, and many starts dating back to a time around 1908 the start of coast-to-coast network television in the United States didn’t begin until 1951. As late as 1947 there were 40 million radios in the U.S. and only 44,000 televisions (30k in the greater New York area). While only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television set in 1946, 55.7% had one in 1954, and 90% by 1962. And the death of radio was first predicted.
Try as it might though, television couldn’t compete with radio in two critical areas; immediacy and local community service and/or interest. A radio station could adequately serve the needs of small towns with as few as 2-3000 people. Many still do today. And radio could report the news immediately from almost any location in the world, or right down the street. As early as the 1940s all you needed was a telephone line ultimately connecting you to the radio station or radio network in order to transmit your story. The reports from England by
Edward R. Murrow back to the United States via radio broadcasts during the World War II Battle of Britain were so dramatic Murrow became a star and a hero. Television couldn’t duplicate such transmission capabilities until almost 10 years later when the same Edward R. Murrow in his show See it Now became the first to show a simultaneous broadcast from Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.
Radio became a staple in the assembly of automobiles beginning in 1922. According to the book “Chronicle of the American Automobile over 100 Years of Auto History,” it was possible to buy a 1922 Chevrolet with a Westinghouse radio installed. But by the 60s 8-tracks and then by the 70s cassette tape players were introduced and radio’s death knell was sounded again. The tape players were small and convenient enough to fit into cars. So, of course, why would people listen to radio when they could listen to their own selection of audio tapes. Only…they did.
Portable listening devices, like the
Sony Walkman in the 1980s and the Apple iPod in 2001 were also supposed to provide enough listening choices to the average person that radio would not possibly survive. Only…it did. In fact, in a study published on our company website, Total Broadcasting Service, an October 2011 Arbitron survey indicates that radio is still the dominant device listened to in cars over CD players or any other device.
Sadly though, radio and the Federal Government began the slow burial of my beloved industry in the mid-1980s. Automated equipment made it easy and cheap to run a radio station. So station owners began sacrificing the live real human being radio personalities in favor of pre-recorded, pre-planned formated music stations. I worked for one myself in 1986-1988. I was News Director at KBSN AM/KDRM FM Moses Lake. KBSN was a live, local, full-service radio station with personalities, music, news and sports and it was very successful. KDRM played soft-rock, adult-contemporary music off of huge reel-to-reel tape machines all day and night. The only time the music was interrupted was when pre-recorded commercials played 4 times per hour for 3 minute breaks. Or when my own voice was inserted into one of the commercial breaks with a prerecorded newscast. KDRM was boring to the listener. But because it was so cheap to operate more and more radio station owners put-out a boring product.
By the 90s satellite technology had grown to such a level that radio networks began airing national radio programs at all hours of the day and night all over the country further eroding radio’s other advantage over all other mediums, local-community service and/or representation. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the door for corporate raiders to sweep up radio stations in small towns and large cities. Since 1934 no single entity could own more than one AM radio station, FM station, television station and newspaper in a single media market. After ’96 they could own as many as their bankrolls could allow. While such deregulation was a boon to capitalism and in line with the principle of free-markets, it was a horrible blow to democracy. It eliminated the voice of thousands of small business owners in communities all over our great country and left us with a few selection of flavors for radio listening, and news chosen for us by corporate big wigs thousands of miles away from the listeners they were supposed to be serving.
Not surprisingly the continuing elimination of people from broadcasting erodes the talent pool from which real live honest to goodness radio personalities are selected and groomed. Remember when all radio voices had a vocal quality that was special? Remember the classic full sounding, warm radio voice? Today I hear narrow high treble, low bass voices with little poetic quality. I am horrified to hear a reporter on Seattle’s KOMO AM 1000 with a lisp, a clearly audible lisp. Before the days of political correctness we called it a speak impediment.
Even with the advent of mobile internet technology terrestrial radio (that’s a modern term referring to old-fashioned radio) still possesses the same advantages over television and even the internet that kept it alive through the past sixty years of frontal assault from technology and government. It can still be more immediate and local than any other medium. These are valuable and marketable attributes, but they’re attributes corporate owners no longer recognize and government officials no longer seem to value. Until they do I’m doomed to spend my life growing old listening to audio over the mobile internet from cities far far away on devices that cost me hundreds of dollars, rather than good quality local radio announcers bringing news and sports from my own town on radios, small convenient, quality, inexpensive radios. Radio is free and can be listened to free on comparatively inexpensive devices. Let’s hope as Americans we won’t learn to take it for granted be you a radio station owner or a radio listener.
Thanks for visiting. Comments are welcome.
- Ken Foote’s Radio/TV Files: The Miracle Of AM Radio (dfw.cbslocal.com)