Tuesday, November 07, 2017

RIP Terrestrial Radio

Still being a radio geek at heart (not to be confused with I-Heart Radio), I read a number of online radio trade websites. Yes, I know. This is a cry for help. But invariably these sites will point out how robust terrestrial radio is when the facts would suggest otherwise. They’ll boast that more people listen to radio than make waffles, stuff like that.

And it has seemed to me over the last ten years that terrestrial radio is Nero fiddling while Rome goes up in smoke.

Now a new study has come out, published by the head of New York University’s Steinhart Music Program, that basically says terrestrial radio should look into hospice care. Here are some of its points:

Generation Z (people born after ALMOST PERFECT premiered in 1995) account for 40% of all consumers and they could give a shit about traditional media. They’ve been brought up in a digital world.

The big attraction for young people gravitating to radio was to discover new music. Between 2005-2016 50% of the teen audience has abandoned terrestrial radio. They now find their new tunes on YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora.

Hey, Nero, can you play ‘Love in Bloom’?”

By 2020, 75% of new cars will be connected to digital services. So much for terrestrial radio’s choke hold of the dashboard. It’ll be just as easy to get my podcast as it is to get a major heritage radio station that cost I-Heart or Cumulus $40 million to buy. Probably more people listen to me now than KABC Los Angeles.

“Smart speakers” like Alexa and Amazon Echo don’t have AM/FM antennas. Neither do smart phones.

Record labels prefer to offer their new product to digital services because they pay royalties whereas terrestrial radio doesn’t. At one time record labels needed radio to break hits. Not anymore. So forget the loss of listeners – there goes the payola.

These are just some of the studies salient points. (The whole report is 30 pages.)  I would also add that these mega companies that own the vast majority of the terrestrial radio stations in the United States have mortgaged their future by bombarding the listener with commercials and driven them away due to cost-cutting measures like replacing local programming with syndicated fare.

So what can terrestrial radio do to at least stem the tide? The answer is simple but they won’t do it. Provide better programming. Fill their airwaves with local personalities. If there’s somebody really funny and the only way to hear him is to tune to the FM station he’s on, you will. If the only place you can go to hear a lively discussion on your city’s politics is the local AM station at the top of the dial that’s where you’ll go. Unless, in either case, there are 25 minutes of commercials an hour.

But this takes money. This takes commitment. This takes the genuine desire to serve the public you were entrusted to serve. So it will never happen. What little funds these conglomerates spend will be on bow rosin and the sheet music to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

35 comments :

Darth Weasel said...

first off, thanks for the Jack Benny picture. Still the greatest comedian ever and in his show, he "got it". If the show was good it didn't matter who had the money line. As you have pointed out, something todays stars and entertainment makers ignore.

As for radio, yesterday I used yet another word/phrase I assumed everyone knew (filthy lucre) only to find out not one person in the office had heard of it. Using it in a sentence, I said, "It was a key part of a radio sketch" to which one hip 20-something verging on 30-something only half jokingly quipped, "What is radio?"

this is a person who has the little sound pod blasting music pretty much non-stop and, while anecdotal, is dead on backup of your point. My decade younger than me siblings all listen to music constantly and it is Amazon or Spotify or Pandora or several others I have never heard of. Better music, songs we dislike are not played repetitively 4 times an hour, we don't have 3 minutes of music followed by 7 minutes of commercials then an assault of often errant news, no smarmy DJS (sorry Ken...but the number one reason I don't listen to music on the radio is the djs even more than the ads). Why wade through that when I can pop on my eclectic mix of music I like and let their programs find new stuff for me to sample?

I am fading my 40s and so many people my age and younger last listened to the radio in the Clinton administration...

Doug Thompson said...

I too am a radio geek at hearty (NEVER to be confused with iHeart Radio). Have been since I was 13 years old. Took me 4 years to get my first radio job (as an unpaid intern before that term was ever used) while going to school. My first full time radio job was at my dream station, CHUM in Toronto. I remember going to the annual Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in August when I was 13 or 14. CHUM broadcast from there all day. I was talking to one of the DJ's at their broadcast traitor and said to him, "I"m gonna work at CHUM one day". He smiled, patted me on the head (he being somewhat taller than 13 or 14 year old me) and said "Sure you are kid". Kinda reminded me of W.C. Fields "Get away kid, ya bother me."

Anyway, when I did get there 5 years later, that DJ was still there (CHUM DJ's had longevity). I reminded him of who I was and what he said. Course, he didn't remember, but he did say, "A lot of kids over the years told me they wanted to work at CHUM, Doug. You're the first one who made it."

We both had some great times in radio. I never wanted to be on the air and was a board operator, then a commercial/promo producer, then was hired by CHUM's consultant Ted Randal to work for him in LA in 1970. One of the great bonuses of that was that Ted's office was in the same two story building on Argyle at Selma that the commercial genius (and radio programming guru), Chuck Blore owned and had his offices and studio. So when I wasn't working for Ted, I was in Chuck's studios learning from his master production guy, the legendary Will Scott...and of course, Chuck himself. Watched many a session with top LA VO guys Ernie Anderson, John Irwin, Danny Dark, Jack Riley and so many more.

McAlvie said...

Yes, if something works one time but doesn't work the next, logically you should look at what changed. What changed? How radio was formatted. In my local area, you used to be able to find anything you wanted up and down the dial. So we had jazz and classical, country and hard rock, pop and easy listening. One by one most of the genres were replaced by what suits had decided a certain small demographic wanted. That meant we ended up with ten stations playing grunge or heavy metal or rap, one pop station, one country station and NPR for classical. God bless NPR or we probably would have lost that, too. Although, the one pop station that still plays would not have been a big loss, because, as you pointed out, you don't have local DJs with their ear to the ground, so we still only get what the suits think we should have. It was as if pop music up and died to be replaced by a bunch of skinny blondes with as little talent as they had clothing.

So how is someone raised on terrestrial radio supposed to find good music now? I posed this question to my nephews. Now they were raised with streaming music and don't see the problem; but as I pointed out to them, you have to know what to ask for in order to shape your streaming experience, so with all that might be out there, you are hard pressed to find the good stuff. I've been bugging my oldest nephew to share some of his favorites so that I can 'program' my streaming experience to incorporate something besides 70s rock. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a little variety would be nice.

VP81955 said...

With Los Angeles' status as a global entertainment capital, I'm surprised one of the AM stations in town -- not all-news KNX, but perhaps 640 (KFI), 790 (KABC), 870 or 1150 (the latter two specialize in right-wing talk, with 1150 functioning as a spillover home for KLAC sports programming) -- hasn't gone to an "all-entertainment" format. Not necessarily gossip, mind you, though that likely would be part of the package, but industry news, in-depth reviews of films and TV programming, historical discussions and so on. Given stories such as the possible Fox-Disney agreement, the Disney tiff with the Los Angeles Times and "me too" allegations in the wake of Weinstein, many here would listen to such a station. Would it introduce a new format to the terrestrial radio industry, just as New York's WFAN did with sports talk some three decades ago? Doubtful, as I'm not certain it would translate to other markets...but it would work here.

Carson Clark said...

Smart phones do have FM receivers in them. However, AT&T and Verizon will not allow them to be used. They have this function turned off on all of the phones they sell/provide service to. They want you to use data, not get something for free over the air.

Karan G. said...

Just recently finished watching a local documentary called “Naptown Rock Radio Wars” highlighting the competition between (former) local radio stations WIFE and WNAP. Both were vying for we “teenagers” hearts in the 70’s and late 60’s. Cool tags lines like “The Wrath of the Buzzard…WNAP Indianapolis” and DJ’s named Buster Bodine, taught us which rock groups were cool and warned us about any local speed traps and the like. We dug those guys every time we turned on the car radio….but they are no more.

Mj Richardson said...

WXRT in Chicago, while not as good as it used to be is still pretty special.

Sandy Frank said...

How many times are you're going to write the same crap? Everybody knows terrestrial radio is dead, Copurnicus, and everybody knows why.

Chris Losinger said...

And look, the FCC just did away with the requirement that TV and radio stations maintain a studio in the localities they serve.

https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2017/10/fcc-rule-change-could-help-tv-and-radio-stations-abandon-local-communities/

Good times.

Tom Galloway said...

I'm a little confused by terrestrial radio not paying royalties; I thought there was a whole thing over how low the royalties digital pays vs. terrestrial (because if podunk radio station X plays a song, based on ratings it's assumed, say, 10,000 people listened to it while on digital the song has to be played 10,000 individual times [assuming same royalty rate]).

Also, while Echo/Alexa and Google Home may not have an antenna, they do connect to Tunein.com whose free version has, according to their website, 120,000 radio stations available. I'm enjoying the digital KROQ-2 '80s station (which admittedly is almost all music, no commercials and only the occasional DJ bumper phrase or two) and WXRV out of Boston (commercials) and occasionally catching some other stations.

FInally, my friend Nat Gertler came up with this on news that Disney might be buying Fox's entertainment division and I thought you might get a kick out of it. https://scontent.fsnc1-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/23231108_10156686712262506_274796658380229535_n.jpg?oh=2eba00c4f4cbf17d4c0a5dee1304112d&oe=5AA594DB (let's see if this link works....)

Nat G said...

Oddly enough, most cell phones do have an FM receiver in them, because it's built into the modem chip at the heart of most cell phones. But it needs to be activated by the manufacturer or cell service, and it needs software (like the NextRadio app))... and, of course, it needs an antenna in all but the most trivial of circumstances.

Max said...

Or they could just, you know, let the FCC do what it was doing up till the 80s, which is REGULATE OWNERSHIP AND POLITICAL CONTENT.

Todd Everett said...

You can get terrestrial radio on Amazon Echo via I Heart Radio or TuneIn. Just say "Alexa, play KABC-AM" [or pretty much any other station that can be accessed online] and she'll hook you up. I was just listening to CBC Radio 1.

Terry Benish said...

Ken, sorry about the Dodgers, but the vista from Baseball Death Valley(Safeco Field)is not particularly good. Astros scored 146 more runs than Ms and gave up 72 runs less.

Which sort of brings me to my post. In Seattle AM radio is talk only, Sports and right wing nut-job stations. Shouldn't nut-job be a non-hyphenated word at this point?

And so I just ran out to my car, fat guy shuffling is more accurate and scanned the AM dial and except for about five Hispanic channels which sound wonderful, but had me wondering if they're actually coming from Mexico on the Wolfman's old blowtorch and there no English language AM music channels. Does FM count?

Gary Mack said...

Sad. Good thing I retired.

Matt said...

You can use your smartphone's FM antenna to pickup radio via the NextRadio app. Also, there are external FM antenna options. Just dial up a local station via the app, use a bluetooth speaker and you're in business.

Matt said...

A note about "right wing nut-job" radio: the only reason it succeeds is because it succeeds. It's profitable. Cash on the barrellhead. Owners aren't ideological as much as they are wanting to make money. Trust me, if a liberal radio talkshow caught fire and drew listeners by bleeding heartful, they would be on the air from here to there and back again.

David said...

Here in L.A., we're mourning the imminent demise of classic rocker 100.3 "The Sound," whose parent company sold out to a company that'll replace the local jocks and their fun features ("10 and 10," album sides, "Peace Love and Sunday Mornings," etc.) with satellite-delivered Christian pop music. They're having as much fun as they can with it, running spots announcing "We're not going to be here much longer," and pulling stunts like playing Christmas music for a few hours the other morning ("We beat KOST-FM!"), but it all feels like a wake, albeit a wake with awesome music.

Brian Stanley said...

Mj, I agree (on both points), but I don't think the pending merger with Entercom will ensure things stay that way. The on-air talent has certainly proven their abilities over the years, but most have reached retirement age without any obvious successors.

Andy Rose said...

@Tom Galloway: Digital streamers have to pay royalties to the owner of the song (the publisher) and the artist who performs it. Broadcast radio only has to pay to the publisher. So the band or singer who performs a song gets nothing for a radio play unless they also wrote it and still have a piece of the rights.

The fact is, podcasting IS radio... it's the newest version of a long-running medium that has gone through many iterations. The fact that it is propagated through the Internet instead of a metal pole is irrelevant. I miss the over-the-air radio of my youth, too, but I haven't seen much evidence that returning to it will bring new generations, or even old, back. When this topic has been discussed here before, there are plenty of older folks who say they are glad that they don't have to listen to annoying DJs anymore. Those who do like the DJs often say they are happier now that they have Satellite Radio. That's about as non-local a medium as you can get, so locality ain't the issue.

Radio's biggest problems are that 1) it has traditional advertising at a time when that is a visceral turn-off to younger listeners. I read comments all the time from people who are offended at the very notion that they should have to listen to an ad to get otherwise-free entertainment. And 2) it is a curated, linear medium in an on-demand world. Unless those two problems can be somehow fixed, questions of how many live DJs there are or how tight the playlist is are just throwing bottles of Evian on a house fire.

(Ancillary problems are that the ratings system is broken, and the big radio corporations spent so much money consolidating, they literally can't make money fast enough to pay down their debt.)

CRL said...

I think I have one of those in my car.

jcs said...

I listened to THIS AMERICAN LIFE via internet yesterday while ironing a week's worth of dress shirts. This week's (encore) episode featured a group of car salesmen at a Long Island dealership. You could cut the thick New York accents with a knife. Great storytelling brought to you by Chicago's WBEZ and public radio.

When I worked in the US I used to listen to Boston's NPR station WBUR every day. Public radio often provides great local service and deserves more support.

Anonymous said...

Regulate POLITICAL CONTENT? Seriously? Well who could be trusted to do THAT fairly?

Cowboy Surfer said...

Awesome radio days growing up in Los Angeles during the early 80's with KLOS and KMET.

Maybe it wasn't video that killed the radio star...

Anonymous said...

Good luck, Entercom. At least they don't have a big debt service to worry about. That was a smart move by both CBS and Entercom. But I didn't take their stock offering.

Liggie said...

There are still a number of DJs and hosts with personalities and audiences. Danny Bonaduce moved here to Seattle a few years ago, and his show on classic rock KZOK-FM is quite successful (even though it's 90 percent him and his co-hosts talking and 10 percent "actual" classic rock songs). Regular rock rival KISW-FM has a similarly structured afternoon show called "The Men's Room". Plus, the Top-40 stations still have morning shows with contests and regular features along with their music.

Interestingly, there's competition in our talk stations, even though there's no "liberal" station. Besides the requisite two right-wing talk outlets, newsradio KIRO-FM has a couple of discussion-focused, analytical shifts sandwiching their libertarian voice. And the two sports stations have entertainingly opposite viewpoints and styles, especially in the discussion over the location of a proposed NBA/NHL arena.

Anonymous said...

Facebook, Pandora, YouTube, etc... have ads too.

The quality of streaming at home and in the car is horrible for those that listen to music.
Sirius/XM is unlistenable for music with their low rate transmission.

Broadcast radio could make some good moves to prolong its relevance, but they probably won't.

Ken, you're starting to sound like an oldtimer, longing for 40 year old radio and TV shows.

I'll get off your lawn now.

norm said...

Sadly I have to agree with Ken.
Just had a trip south 800 miles from Indiana to S. Carolina in a motorhome and could not find any decent stations on FM.....don't even ask about AM.

Work Avoidance Log said...

A station did try that--one of my radio alma maters, KFWB All News 98. Right before the end of the 40 year all-news format in 2009, KFWB changed the focus of its coverage to emphasize the business of show. The station's ratings were already in the basement, so it was hard to imagine that they could go lower. Thanks to the Hollywood-focused news coverage, they did. For the better part of four decades, Group W-owned KFWB and CBS O&O KNX fought for the radio news audience in Southern California. But after Westinghouse bought CBS and the two stations became sisters, the 50,000-watt, network-news and -sports fortified KNX quite naturally was the favored child and KFWB was the ugly step sister. 'WB's signal was terrible (compared with KNX's), its news presentation grew tired and dull after years of neglect and cost-cutting by CBS management in New York. In 2009, at the station that for years proclaimed "the newswatch never stops"--the newswatch stopped.

Kaleberg said...

Cell phones have software radio chips that are programmed to operate on selected cell phone data channels. Yes, you could probably program such a chip to receive FM radio, but this would require sacrificing cellular data transmission spped and quality and redesigning the entire, highly optimized dynamic antenna system. Antenna design is still a black art, so it is possible that receiving FM on some systems would preclude using the device as a cell phone. Some hacker might do this as a tour de force, like getting an arcade game to run on a DSLR camera, but you'll read about it on his or her blog.

Even if traditional radio suddenly got amazingly better, with great local coverage, fantastic song selection, incredible news coverage and so on, I can't see it being enough to get people buy radios again. This isn't 1925. If they want to reach people, they'll have to write an app or do a podcast. Just about everyone owns a cell phone, and they aren't going to buy a radio when they already have entertainment options, a camera, a portable telephone, a GPS and two pairs of pants.

P.S. Could those Generation Z people give a shit about radio or not? I'm guessing they couldn't. You may have read the poll results backwards.

Kevin Johnston said...

I'm grateful that we have a few good radio stations in my area of Binghamton, New York. We have a good college station from Binghamton University. We also have a killer oldies station that plays nothing from 1970 forward. Strictly '50s and '60s music, the station is locally owned and operated. They have on-air staff that know and respect the music; one of their jocks is someone who's been on-air locally for 44 years. And whatever they're using for audio processing is good, as I can listen for hours with no "ear fatigue".

Jumpin' Jack said...

All entertainment radio.
Not since XTRA went all classified ad radio in 1961 has such a disaster been conceived.
And that includes KHJ Car Radio in 1991.

Mark said...

My 15-y-o daughter constantly surfs FM when she's in the car, even the one with SiriusXM. Of course she's not going to save terrestrial radio because she moves to the next station at the first sound of a spoken word, be it DJ or commercial. This also enables her to hear the same 4 songs on a loop thanks to the tyranny of the top-40 format (and, I suspect, the alien overlords at ClearChannel).

Gary W said...

Actually - XTRA (News) went all-news in May of 1961. You're thinking of the other Gordon McClendon station in LA - K-ADS (103.5) - all classified ads... all the time. 1966.

Milton the Momzer said...

The only time I listen to radio is, in the car, when I can't be home to watch a ballgame. I last listened to music radio around 1995. After that it was cassettes or CDs or, in recent years, my ipod with 2500 songs I want to hear.