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Radio – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Most media analysis tends to focus on seismic shifts. Plummeting viewership. Skyrocketing profit margins. Grand scandals. Declining public trust.

Radio is interesting in part because it tends to defy such characterizations. Its struggles and transformations usually occur just below the surface. Change is based on gradual progression, and, if we were to watch only the numbers, 2004 would be viewed as a year of seeming, even dull, stability.

Take the most straightforward of statistics, the number of radio stations.

Number of Licensed Broadcast Radio Stations
1990 to 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: FCC quarterly reports

FCC figures indicate an increase of only 26 licensed broadcast radio stations in the past year. Contrast this to 154 stations that gained licenses the year before, 284 between 2001 and 2002 and nearly 300 between 2000 and 2001. Even the media giant Clear Channel, the industry behemoth, made virtually no gains on the radio dial this year.

The numbers for audience and even revenue and profit in 2004 reveal similarly incremental though not inconsequential moves. Historically, that has been why radio has tended to fall to the background of most discussions about the media. One of radio’s most dramatic shifts of recent times, the massive acquisition of stations by Clear Channel in early 2000, went relatively unnoticed by the general public as it was happening. The average citizen’s daily interactions with the medium experienced no real change except, perhaps, a format change on a once favorite alternative or oldies station.

So much for what is seen on the surface. In reality, 2004 may well turn out to be one of modern radio’s most transformational years. And this time the evidence suggests the public can’t help but have noticed.

Until this year, most of the attention in radio has focused on consolidation. In 2004 the list of worries and points of interest suddenly expanded. There was the revival of the government’s concern with indecency. There was a change of voices, with the movement of one of news radio’s best-known anchors and three of radio’s most popular shock jocks into satellite radio, the launch of a liberal talk network and the well-publicized movement of one of radio’s biggest players into Spanish-language programming. What’s more, 2005 began with two of the top companies writing-down the value of their stations.

It was also a year in which satellite radio began demanding some attention of its own. Since the first rumors of the new medium in the early 1990s, “terrestrial” broadcasters, as the traditional field has come to be known, have been casting a dismissive gaze toward radio’s newest evolution. Now, with its popularity growing, that look would seem to be giving way to a certain degree of worry, if not panic.

So while radio might continue to project the image of media’s most stable player in most statistical senses, great changes are taking place up and down the dial.

At the same time, when it comes to radio as a medium for news, some who know the most have begun to have their doubts.1 As we noted last year, the medium that was once fundamentally local in nature has become fundamentally national. While research shows that people don’t change the channel when the news comes on their music station (see 2004 Report, Radio: Audience) getting snippets of incidental news is different from seeking out the world. How many people really rely on radio for news? That is harder to pin down. But it is hard not to think that the decline of radio news is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since there is so little radio news today– especially local news– and what is there is so abbreviated, how could Americans rely on it? National Public Radio and Minnesota Public Radio may be the exception, but how much meaningful local news are their affiliates able to produce?

Footnotes

1. This point was raised explicitly by Robert Papper, Professor of Telecommunications for Ball State University during his review of this chapter of The State of the News Media 2005 report.