Progressive – and proud of it!
For progressive-minded radio fans who love variety in their music and local personalities on the dial, the Peoria area can be frustrating. It’s worse when stations licensed to certain communities ignore those towns.
So increasingly, listeners seeking voices and tunes they can’t find in central Illinois find them online – made even easier with smartphone technology. People who are tired of Limbaugh or who miss high-power, clear-channel stations of years past (Little Rock’s KAAY-AM 1090 and its late-night “Beaker Street” or WHAM-AM 1180 and Harry Abraham’s even-later “Best of All Possible Worlds” were classics in the ’60s and ‘70s) can find music or opinion they enjoy.
Alas, they give up local news and DJs when they do.
But radio programming today has few local people and little news. Most stations rely on nationally syndicated shows and even on news-talk stations nationwide, 86 percent of news and public-affairs programming isn’t local, according to Steven Waldman’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, “The Information Needs of Communities.”
At its best, radio was always a fundamentally local medium, mixing immediacy with neighborliness, local color and public importance. News was a staple of radio since 1930, when the NBC-Blue network first started airing Lowell Thomas’ 15-minute weekday newscasts. Radio news grew in audience and influence through World War II, after which local news increased (filling the void where war news had been) and the FCC encouraged the trend in its report “Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees.”
In 1981, however, the FCC deregulated its requirement that 8 percent of AM station programming and 6 percent of FM programming be news and public-affairs programming (such as debates, documentaries and discussions of public interest). The FCC concluded, “We are convinced that absent these guidelines, significant amounts of non-entertainment programming of a variety of types will continue on radio.”
Such public-interest content declined.
Instead, stations cut shows, trimmed staff and lost such ties to listeners – and made a lot of money off using “the public’s airwaves.” Radio companies now make higher gross profits than the average S&P 500 firm, the FCC says, and even in the last few years and its Great Recession, radio station profits have remained above 20 percent, Waldman says.
In recent years, the news/talk format grew dramatically, whether Right-wing blowhards, sports or all-talk. But for radio journalism, public radio is the industry’s reporting core, with more than 1,400 reporters, editors and producers in 21 domestic and 17 foreign bureaus – more than any of the broadcast TV networks, according to Waldman.
Former president of CBS Radio’s Station Group, Mel Karmazin – now CEO of Sirius XM – said, “A lot of these larger companies abandoned what had made these radio stations enormously successful, which was local, local, local.”
Several radio stations that identify themselves as Peoria stations are actually licensed to other communities: WXCL, WCIC and WGLO to Pekin, WPIA to Eureka, WFYR to Elmwood, WHPI to Glasford, WDQX to Morton, WWCT to Bartonville, and WZPN to Farmington.
What a joke.
When was the last time WPIA or WFYR covered city council meetings in Eureka and Elmwood? Or WHPI and WDQX featured issues about public safety in Glasford and Morton? Or WWCT and WZPN addressed schools in Bartonville and Farmington?
No, deregulation let commercial radio ignore seeming obligations to serve the towns they were licensed to, plus cut news staffs or eliminate local news and local voices altogether.
Important local stories are not being covered on local radio; local voices – and a market’s variety – are not being heard.
By 2007, 40 percent of the too-few radio stations that still had news were outsourcing it to journalists working in other communities and sending it to the local station, according to Loyola University professor Lee Hood. Another professor, Andrew Jay Schwartzman of Johns Hopkins University, said, “It [local radio] has largely abdicated its responsibility to generate local news coverage to public radio.”
Meanwhile, satellite radio started in 1997 when American Mobile Radio Corporation (the predecessor of XM Radio) paid $89 million, and Satellite CD Radio (the predecessor of Sirius Radio) paid $83 million to win bids to operate a digital audio radio service in the 2320 to 2345 MHz spectrum band on the condition they not use them for locally originated programming or to seek local advertising revenue (reaffirmed in 2008 when Sirius and XM merged).
Sirius XM subscriptions grew 7.5 percent to 20 million and revenues rose 12 percent to $2.8 billion last year. Arbiton says more than 35 million people listen to Sirius XM in cars.
Now, besides using computers, listeners can use smartphones’ online browsers to listen live to any station they want, too.
“The Internet nullifies one of the fundamental characteristics of terrestrial radio – its boundedness to geography,” Waldman reports. “Up until the digital revolution, a radio station’s reach was physically constrained by the power of its transmitter.”
Although only a small number of Americans (17 percent) reported listening to online radio in 2010, the major shift in their listening choices is significant. Forty percent listened to AM or FM stations streaming online, and 55 percent listened to online-only radio (like Pandora or Slacker Radio). The app for Pandora – a sort of D-I-Y format – is one of the top five for all smartphone platforms.
Radio critic Alan Hoffman described Internet radio’s appeal: “Internet radio explodes the boundaries of radio broadcasting, opening up a universe of stations offering far more diversity. Once you start listening to Internet radio, the limits of AM and FM – a limited number of stations, within a limited geographic area – seem like a throwback.”
The media/financial consultant firm SNL Kagan projects that online radio revenue will rise from $552 million last year to $1 billion in 2015.
Local radio could protect its franchises, continue to profit, and serve its communities with local news and local personalities.
Thanks goodness Greg Batton & Dan DiOrio are on WMBD-AM – along with newsman Ed Hammond. The same goes for Randy Rundle and Stacy Campbell on WSWT-FM, John Riley and Nancy Flagg on WPBG-FM, Daryl Scott afternoons on WCBU-FM and Mike Sabol afternoons on WIRL-AM, and Zach Teague’s lively “Solidarity Journal” on WAZU-FM 90.7 at 6:00 a.m. and repeated at 2:00 p.m.
Some air simultaneously, but all are local – and even the most liberal listener would surely prefer hearing Peorians Roger Monroe and Royce Elliott mornings on WOAM-AM than the provocative Stephanie Miller mornings on stephaniemiller.com.
But listeners will be lost if the music is too dull or safe, or if the voices are venomous Sean Hannity types. Audiences will abandon local radio UNLESS stations offer added value and unique content: LOCAL personalities and LOCAL programming listeners cannot get from online sources.
There are smartphone/online alternatives, from Chicago’s WCPT and the fire-breathing progressive Ed Schultz or the erudite intellectual Thom Hartmann, to musician/actor Steve Van Zant’s “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” on Sirius XM (registration required) to more open-source online specialty radio, such as the Grateful Dead on GDRadio.net, Van Morrison on “Van The Man” at Tunein.com, or NRBQ on Grooveshark.com.
Business journalist Peter Goodman said it best, writing, “Radio is under assault – from the sky, from the computer, even from tiny low-powered stations that threaten to sneak in under the radar…. It may still be called radio in ten years, but that familiar world appears to be going through changes that will add up to a revolution in how we get food for our ears.”
Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org