(By Art Vuolo, Jr.) There are few people who love radio more than I do. I love it with a deep passion. Perhaps that’s why, in the early 1980s, Scott Shannon gave me the moniker “Radio’s Best Friend.” It’s both an honor and a curse, but mostly it’s a good thing. As Radio Ink celebrates 25 years, I was asked “How has radio changed and evolved in the last quarter of a century?” Let me count the ways.
There is great concern about the medium, and often I wonder if radio is more concerned with its stock prices than what actually radiates from the transmitting tower. How often do you hear people say “Radio ain’t the way it used to be”? Sadly, I hear it far too often. Especially in major markets, mom-and-pop stations have become almost as rare as the local video store. Bob Dylan sang about it (on the radio) way back in 1965: “The Times They Are a Changin’.” And they are, just like in a lot of industries.
Every year I attend several radio conferences and hear the same rhetoric about how 93 percent of people listen to the radio every single day. I question that. Currently the most talked-about demographic is the millennials, who are primarily 18- to 35-year-olds. The majority of these people don’t listen to radio in the same fashion as upper demos some 25 or more years ago.
Worse yet, most of them don’t even own an actual radio! They may have one in their vehicle, but research shows much of this group employs Bluetooth or the auxiliary jack to select their own favorite music from devices such as iPods and smartphones. We live in an on-demand world and technology has changed everything, and now it’s changing radio. Oh, yeah, did I bring up the name Alexa? In San Francisco, she didn’t recognize “K-Fog,” but did understand “K-F-O-G” — whoa!
I remember a Breakfast with the Bosses at the NAB Radio Show in Chicago in 2012, where I asked six of the most powerful CEOs in the business this question: “In eight years, commercial radio in this country will be 100 years old. What will we find on the AM dial at that time other than religion, foreign-language, or brokered programming?” Unfortunately, not one good answer came forth. AM radio is seemingly on life support, and I love AM radio. Strangely, the way we are trying to help underperforming AM stations is by giving them LPFM translators. Huh? Those same low-power signals are infringing on many full-power FM stations, limiting their service areas.
Within the last 25 years, two satellite radio companieemerged, and between them Sirius and XM caused a great deal of panic among terrestrial broadcasters. Yet about seven years into their existence, the two satcasters folded into one. Then, because of heavy consolidation in the radio industry, we watched many formats fade or completely disappear from traditional radio. I recall how the major consolidators said that by having additional stations, they would be able to launch even more unique programming. Yet Oldies, Classic Country, Beautiful Music, and Classical are just a few of the genres absent from “regular” AM or FM stations. The reason given is that these music formats have “aged out.”
As long as advertisers all continue to seek the same coveted 25-to-54 demo, not much is going to change. The audience represents a full pie, but every station is after that one single slice of the population. In a 1999 profile piece by the first lady of radio, Erica Farber, I commented that nothing will change until radio operators stop letting Madison Avenue program us and Wall Street manage us. Still true, 18 years later.
Let’s bring back programming with a higher degree of creativity to both the AM and FM bands. Let’s practice what we preach about content being king and local always winning. Let’s be original and not copy what every other station is doing. Let’s be diverse so we stop sending listeners in droves to satellite radio, Internet stations, and music apps to be satisfied. Finally, and most important, let’s reinstate the real missing ingredient: entertainment. When radio is fun to listen to, it’s the most refreshing thing in or on the air!
Art Vuolo, Jr., “Radio’s Best Friend,” can be reached at 248.926.1234 or [email protected]