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The Evolving Definition of Radio

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As in every city, Chicago has experienced great changes in radio. First, longtime oldies station WJMK-FM (featuring legendary DJ Dick Biondi) was unceremoniously forced off the air, relegated to online streaming. The latest fad, JACK-FM, replaced the station with great fanfare, with the Powers That Be (PTB) declaring the jukebox format as the next big thing in radio.

Next to fall prey to trends was WCKG, the leader in the 80s' “classic rock” genre. Having changed its format several times (the last being largely talk with shock jocks like Steve Dahl and pre-Sirius Howard Stern), the station's latest incarnation is adult contemporary, although television ads stress that the music selection is neither “old” nor full of “kid stuff.” As part of the TV ad campaign, a “cool” soccer mom clad in jeans talks about how she wants to hear Rob Thomas and the Goo Goo Dolls, not Debbie Boone or hip hop. You may be getting older, FRESH-FM wants you to know, but you can still rock!

The most current controversy involves WXRT-FM, a largely independent station that appeals to diverse music fans. They became famous for playing artists no other station would touch, both so-called “classic rock” artists and newcomers who don't fit into a particular format. However, in 1995, Westinghouse purchased the station, causing longtime listeners great distress. Could WXRT remain true to its independent, indie roots? Now owned by CBS Radio, the station recently announced that they were moving from their hip Lincoln Park studios into the decidedly corporate NBC Tower in downtown Chicago. In the local media, station personnel expressed great dismay at the change, wondering if this was CBS' way of enforcing other format changes.

Some argue that radio has undergone transformations for decades. While this may be true, these recent changes in Chicago alone demonstrate a general disconnect between media conglomerates and radio listeners. Due to popular demand, oldies returned to radio in the form of WZZN-FM (formerly hard rock, then adult alternative). Obviously, these radio controversies extend beyond Chicago. For instance, JACK-FM has not become the smash success the PTB predicted — in fact, New York's WCBS-FM recently ditched the format to “New York's Greatest Hits.” According to a recent Associated Press article, the ratings then skyrocketed back to number three.

These events beg the question: what is the relevance of current radio? After all, its condition seems dire; less people listen to “terrestrial” radio, instead turning to satellite and internet radio as well as MP3 players. Car manufacturers now include connections for iPods, a telling sign of radio's diminishing role. Surely these developments show that radio is flatlining.

I'd offer another perspective: radio is more vital than ever. What has changed is the definition of radio.

What Is Radio?

In the not so distant past, if you wanted to become a DJ, you had to pass a test, train, perhaps earn an internship, and maybe, if you were lucky, gain a few minutes' airtime. Getting your own show was a far-off dream that only a select few would achieve. For the audience, radio was a passive experience; an individual had little impact on the music being played. Sure, the listener could call in to request a song or participate in a contest, but the odds that he/she could give input as to the station's playlist were slim. Listeners could choose from a limited number of radio formats, and if none appealed to them… well, there were always personal music collections, or they could compile mix tapes for friends.

Today's radio, however, blurs the line between DJ and listener; they have become one and the same. Due to modern technology, the public has gained some control over traditional media by creating their own shows. Podcasting perhaps best exemplifies this phenomenon; with just a microphone and audio editing software, anyone can broadcast a show on virtually any topic to a wide audience. Control over distribution and content remains largely in the hands of the show's creator. Don't have time to write and create a show? Simply create your own radio station at Live 365, where you can play music that interests you, or post a playlist (which turns into a virtual jukebox) at such sites as Last FM. These stations give artists much-needed exposure, which can lead to increased CD and MP3 sales. Like never before, listeners have the power to make or break an emerging artist.

Radio has transformed into a communal experience where fans can directly communicate with music programmers. If listeners are dissatisfied with terrestrial radio, they have online alternatives, or they can simply create their own shows. Radio is no longer passive, but an active experience.

So, is radio irrelevant? Perhaps the traditional definition of radio has become obsolete, but its role has not. The need for expression and mass communication will never die, but the specific formats, technology, and boundaries between DJs and listeners continue to evolve. In other words, radio has undergone a paradigm shift that will greatly lessen the disconnect between programmers and audiences. By reconsidering radio from this more fluid perspective, the medium will continue to influence culture for years to come. We have the unique opportunity to witness — and take part in — this radio revolution.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Meth Sason

    I like your glass-half-full perspective on the role of radio in the new techno era. If only the bosses believed it.

    XRT has never been in hip Lincoln Park (and there are those who would argue LP has never been hip). It is in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood on the great Northwest Side of Chicago, where Trixies fear to tread.

  • Karen Stoessel

    Way to go Kit. From one who only listens to the radio in the AM only because I’d rather hear a voice than an alarm to wake up…I’m finding more and more that I don’t really need it. I can find out the weather by looking out my window and if I need to know who won the hockey game I’ll look at the newspaper headlines that the guy driving right next to me is reading while he waits at the red light. It seems that radio is playing what they want and not what I want to hear. I’m a pretty loyal WDRV listener but I had to move the dial because of their constant playing of Jethro Tull’s Locomotive. I stopped over at 100.3 and now disco through breakfast. I may not enjoy it…but I’m losing a few calories doing the hustle! I’m on my way to the Apple store to get the stuff I need to hook up my iPod in the car. Radio? What’s that? It’s going to be just like…oh Paul McCartney? He was in a group before Wings. I think the Beatles.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i used to get sort of misty-eyed at what became of radio…satellite has changed that somewhat, though it’s not nearly as free-form as original fm radio, but still a great alternative.

    radio started to die when the consultants took over, and finally keeled over when markets were allowed to be dominated by a single owner. drive around the country and switch on the radio. what do you hear? the same handful of formats.

  • http://www.raginggail.wordpress.com Jim Ryan

    I think to some extent, what happened to radio can be said to have happened to all other traditional media as well. The newspaper has given way to the blogosphere, television has surrendered to YouTube and its competitors, and even books have gone all 2.0 on us. This seems indicative of a greater shift in who holds the gates and which direction things go through them, which raises a few bigger questions over whether media as we know it is still in our lives…

  • http://asuss49.livejournal.com/ Al Sussman

    Because of its intimacy and immediacy, terrestrial radio will never completely die but, except for specialty programming, I rarely ever listen to music on terrestrial FM radio anymore. Thanks to over-reliance on consultants and market research, most commercial formats have become irrelevant. If one is looking for new music, that person can go to satellite or MySpace or Internet radio. If one wants to listen to one’s favorite music, there are iPods.
    And, if one just wants musical wallpaper that doesn’t even require listening, there’s terrestrial radio.

  • http://asuss49.livejournal.com/ Al Sussman

    Because of its intimacy and immediacy, terrestrial radio will never completely die but, except for specialty programming, I rarely ever listen to music on terrestrial FM radio anymore. Thanks to over-reliance on consultants and market research, most commercial formats have become irrelevant. If one is looking for new music, that person can go to satellite or MySpace or Internet radio. If one wants to listen to one’s favorite music, there are iPods.
    And, if one just wants musical wallpaper that doesn’t even require listening, there’s terrestrial radio.

  • Tracey Stuckey

    I agree with Jim Ryan, the traditional media world is changing–and I believe the Internet and other technologies are a big part of the change. As folks become more tech-savvy, they will continue to influence mass media–whether by contributing to it or using their power or choice to let the big-wigs know what they will or won’t have. I like the changes, but I still like “terrestrial” radio very much. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next…

    Way to go, Kit!!!