“On the Radio” by Donna Summer is a song that will always echo in my head. And I remember the first time I heard Janis Joplin sing “Me And Bobby McGee.” Every morning when I was in high school, I would wake up to the sounds of morning DJs Lohman and Barkley. These and other memories link me inexorably to the radio. But for the millennial generation, turning on the radio is often not a thought that crosses their minds.
That and many other concerns for the future of the radio industry were aired at The Radio Show, a professional gathering sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB). The event took place in Austin, Texas, September 5-8, and focused on challenges, new technology, and building a new generation of radio professionals.
Although I have attended several NAB shows, which focus on a wider spectrum of broadcast activities, this was my first Radio Show and it made light bulbs go on above my head. I had taken radio for granted, but my old friend was having some issues.
People don’t listen to radio in their homes anymore. I had never thought about this, but I realized when I heard a speaker make this observation that I, too, was guilty of abandoning my friend. Whenever I’ve wanted to listen to music in the last few years, I’ve turned to Pandora or YouTube, accessed through my TiVo. The rise of services like Spotify and Amazon Music have taken a bite out of the audience. Cell phones with headphones are everywhere.
The only time I still listen to radio is in the garage, to a local country music station. Why? Because I want to hear about local venues and events. That local connection, several speakers emphasized, is one of radio’s enduring strengths.
So where do people listen to the radio? In their cars.
Yet, here, too, the ubiquitous smartphone provides a challenge. Although people depend on the radio for “news, sports, weather and traffic,” many radios now offer simple ways to plug your phone into a dashboard connection and bring up apps on a screen. Also, many cars come equipped with satellite radios, allowing you to listen to the same station from one end of the country to the other.
The radio industry is responding with its own technology counterattack. Radio station apps are working their way on to cellphones. Radio personalities are adding blogging to their repertoire and posting excerpts from shows, or entire shows, online. Radio station websites have become portals for local merchants, contests, and sites for discovering new music. All of this is aimed at enticing people back to local radio. But who will they listen to?
On the first day of the event I sat in on a session titled “Radio Show Student Scholars Orientation.” Three years ago, The Radio Show began its Scholars program, finding college students interested in radio careers and supporting their participation in the event. They also provided a focused track of sessions for them.
During the initial session, industry leaders coached students from all over the country on how to get the most from the event and how to network. They also shared success stories of former student attendees who were now working in the industry.
I didn’t remember a major in radio being available at my alma mater, so I found a group of scholars (easy to do because they wore distinctive ribbons on their badges) to interrogate. “Are you a radio major?” I asked. Student one was specializing in communication and marketing. The next two in sociology and theater arts. Finally, the fourth musketeer was a radio major.
What attracted them? Student one explained that 96% of Americans listened to the radio, albeit in their cars and often only in times of emergency like the current hurricane season. Another liked the local orientation – the sense of community possible only though local stations. Another had wanted to be an actress, but decided Hollywood was too much of a long shot and radio offered opportunities everywhere.
The last musketeer said, “I like to talk.” I think she has a future, and so does radio.
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted