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This is London (or wherever you are)
Radio's ability to serve everyone in a place instantly remains its most valuable asset
Periodically, the FCC auctions off portions of the radio spectrum for the establishment of local broadcasting outlets. Radio spectrum space is finite, and too many stations too close to one another (on the dial and on the map) contribute to interference that ruins the listening experience. But in the latest FCC auction, many channels went unsold. One sold for just $750.
■ These are not heady days to be in the radio business. The largest radio company in America lost $1.7 billion on operations last year, and that's before it had to pay another $343 million in interest on its $5.3 billion in debt. It's not alone; times are tough for other big ownership groups, too.
■ Yet the people who work in radio soldier on, despite round after round of layoffs and unpaid furloughs in most of America's large and medium markets. Careers of 25, 30, and 35 years can be ended overnight. It can make events like National Radio Day bittersweet for many.
■ Audio choices abound in the Internet age. Podcasts are thoroughly mainstream and growing. Artists release new albums on YouTube. Spotify claims that 13,000 artists earned $50,000 or more in royalties from its service last year (it claims to have paid more than $5 billion in royalties in 2020. It's well worth noting that the company that owned Radio.com says it's "sunsetting" the name. Ominous indeed.
■ The challenge that radio faces as a product is how to approach its customers -- listeners and the advertisers who hope to reach them. Radio's historic advantage has been its relationship to place.
■ Radio is the conversation a place has with itself. Or, at least, that's the way it was and ought to be. The trademark phrase of the BBC World Service is "This is London." Radio's connection with place is a natural consequence of the fact that radio signals travel outward from an antenna location (and degrade the farther away they travel, except when skywave propagation delivers a boost). That's what introduced generations of radio listeners to the concept of DXing -- the hobby of listening for distant radio stations. In America, up until the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ownership was limited to relatively small groups. That act repealed the main limits and led to a rush of consolidation.
■ Those ownership rules complicated radio's relationship with place. No longer tethered by law to geographically-based small groups, the trend moved in the direction of programming less for place than for interest. Network programming had, of course, been around since the 1920s. But the incentive to target people with common interests rather than common geography has played no small part in the increasingly ideological character of much speech-based programming and the nationalization even of morning shows.
■ That turn to interest rather than place is a dangerous game for the radio stations that play it. Podcasts and specialty streams have an intrinsic advantage in that listeners can choose exactly what they want to hear about, from exactly the sources, and at whatever times they might choose. It's tough to beat that kind of specialization with "appointment listening" -- especially when Alexa will play whatever the listener requests with nothing more than a vocal cue.
■ Digital media sources have been slow to pivot, but they're going to learn about place next. And there are a lot of professionals who have been cut loose from the radio industry who have the skills to make viable efforts to serve up place-based programming that is available on-demand. Radio is important and has a vital role to play -- particularly in case of local emergencies, like when a hurricane takes aim at New England or when fires burn in the West.
■ Radio's ability to serve everyone in a place instantly remains its most valuable asset. Those owners and managers who prize that asset can do "live and local" things to survive -- and profit -- for another year. But assets can depreciate if neglected and can decline in value if rivals move in and serve a purpose better. Place and immediacy still matter.