U.S. Radio's Relevance Is Fading Out
I'm a kid who grew up on all kinds of American radio. Certainly television was the bigger portion on my plate, but I've always been entranced by audio-only entertainment. In the 5th grade when I discovered National Public Radio's dramas, jazz music, and also a local Chicago show dedicated to old time radio. I still have hundreds of cassettes from back then filled with Jack Benny and Suspense shows from radio's heyday.
Oddly, it wasn't until the late 80s in high school that I got into pop music. If you weren't on top of the top 40 in my school, you simply weren't part of youth culture. Again I have countless cassettes I taped off of the radio. I can download digital copies of those songs easily enough, but the parts of those tapes I cherish most are the local DJs that made me feel like they were talking right to me. The on-air talent on my favorite stations were from Chicago, they had all the lowdown on what was happening around town and in the world of music... local radio DJs were a crucial part of the snapshot of that time in my life.
Spin the dial to radio today. The recent deaths of Davy Jones and Whitney Houston are so sad for so many of us, but it further underlines the U.S. radio industry's fading relevance. Jones died on a weekday, so DJs were able to inform their listeners live on the air, perhaps even adding a few impromptu words of tribute. Houston died on a weekend. While TV and celebrity websites like the onerous TMZ were able to quickly spread the news, there was a scarcely a murmur on radio.
While in other countries, weekends are where radio goes into high gear (lots of ambitious and experimental shows broadcast in those hours when people can listen longer), in the U.S. the weekend is when many radio stations go into auto-pilot. Talent often pre-records homogeneous copy weeks ahead of time in the odious practice known as "tracking". It's a common radio practice today. Rather than hire local live talent, one voice records bland "evergreen" copy that stations can play back as part of pre-recorded programming anytime. This is also why you'll hear long "dance-party" or "countdown the hits" shows on American radio most weekends. Besides a skeleton crew to keep an eye on the transmitter, many times there are few people in the actual station on a weekend to handle live local broadcasts.
This isn't new. Corporate media owners have been downsizing U.S. radio interests for years, being especially savage in smaller markets. There is no regard for local flavor, nor is there a feeling of duty or service to the community ears they're selling to advertisers. In a bid to make radio cheaper, they've made it feel cheaper too. Yet the reality is that radio can be done on a shoestring. CHIRP Radio is a Chicago volunteer group that's 200 strong. Every day they produce compelling, dynamic, and fun real-live programming that streams on the web (the group is at the forefront of the legal fight for opening up more local over-the-air frequencies). Shawn Campbell, the director of CHIRP, has often said that people didn't leave radio, radio left the people.
It's sad to be reminded that this in many parts of this country, the fantastic world of radio... really relevant local radio... could soon fizz out in a sad burst of static. It seems that the future of radio is in the hands of volunteers and enthusiasts. Perhaps that's for the best. As smartphones become more and more common, streaming your favorite internet station while on the move is a reality. As the corporate types continue to create content with the balance sheet instead of listening with their hearts, more and more disenfranchised listeners will simply create radio of their own. Maybe it's up to more groups like CHIRP to remind us of what has always made radio great... when it's done right, radio is that intimate little voice in your ear speaking only to you.