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Roundtable

Roundtable

The year began on a sobering note for the terrestrial radio industry. With increasing competition from satellite, online and now portable devices such as MP3 players, radio advertising revenues in the first five months of 2006 dipped one percent from the same time period a year ago.

In addition, CBS radio recently announced plans to sell off some of its stations in smaller markets and eliminate 115 jobs.

Where does radio lie on the fragmenting old media vs. new media spectrum? A medium with a long, rich history, can it survive and evolve to fit a changing information universe or is it an endangered species?

Experts in the industry answer these and other questions in the second of our series of roundtable discussions about the future of journalism.

The experts expressed confidence that broadcast radio news will remain relevant even with the advent of satellite radio and the growth of multimedia platforms (such as the internet).They believe that ‘listening’ to radio still offers a niche that no other medium can appropriate.

For more on the Project’s new research effort, and to see our previous roundtables, click here.

The panelists for this roundtable are:

Bill Buzenberg, Senior Vice President, News – Minnesota Public Radio

Tim Curran, News Director, Sirius OutQ

Adam Powell, Director, Integrated Media Systems Center, USC and Author of ‘Reinventing Local News’ (2004)

Dale Willman, Executive Editor, Field Notes Productions and Freelance Correspondent, NPR

1. With the increasing focus and surgical nature of format programming, have we lost a local public audio square that has cultural and political consequences? Or have we gained something, when smaller communities of interest, liberals who might listen to Air America, or gays and lesbians who can go to Sirius OutQ?

Bill Buzenberg: I think this specialization is not something to be lamented but accepted. A listener, like a reader, can get the information and format that they like best. I also think radio listening begets radio listening, and will increase all listening to the specialized programs, as well as the major newsmagazines.

Dale Willman: We’ve absolutely lost a great deal. By segmenting the audience, we have lost the commonality that holds us together as a nation. And we’ve lost the ability to hold civil discourse in a public forum. Segmenting can mean that those audiences without a voice can now be heard. But it should not be done by losing that public square.

Tim Curran: Naturally, as Sirius OutQ’s news director, I think it’s a spectacular advance for broadcasting to finally serve ‘communities of interest’ who have been drastically underserved by the mainstream media. I can only hope the trend continues and extends to communities who remain largely untouched by these advances – the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, etc. It’s absurd to wax nostalgic for the good old days when America sat around the box listening to Uncle Walter. Those weren’t such good days for impoverished African-Americans whose dire situation had been so deeply ignored by the U.S. mainstream media that by 1968 their despair boiled over in nationwide riots.

Adam Powell : Mass media may have been an anomaly of the 20th century and in broadcasting its business model was based on pricing power and profits made possible by government regulation and exclusion of competitors.

The mass media “public square” did not exist when U.S. democracy began and flowered. American democracy was founded centuries ago in the golden age of the pamphlet. American democracy will survive the fragmentation of mass media. Fragmentation of radio – and television and print – may in fact now drive the post-mass media landscape to resemble in many ways the days before we became accustomed to mass media.

And that may not be all bad.

2. Taking the question of community one step further, some have suggested that traditional radio has to return to the local to survive and that in the cycle of consolidation the medium has lost track of what it did best. What do you think?

Bill Buzenberg: Yes, local is very important for radio to survive, but it cannot survive on local alone. The best and largest stations, combine excellent international coverage, national coverage and local coverage. With all three of these, stations can thrive and grow their audience. So, yes, local is critical to radio’s future, but it is not sufficient by itself, and it must mix with wider news coverage, and match the best quality of great national and international news coverage.

Dale Willman: I believe the ONLY thing that will allow local radio to survive is a return to local. In my first radio job, I had to read daily the obituaries from the local paper. At 17, I thought this was nuts. It was only later that I realized what a fantastic service it was to the shut-ins who depended on us for their connection to the world around them.

I don’t suggest that we all start reading the death columns. But if we begin to once again serve our listeners with local information they can find nowhere else, they will begin to listen again. It’s the only thing satellite radio cannot do.

Tim Curran: Satellite radio and the Internet make this more vital now than ever. Localization is the one area where satellite providers can’t really compete — and where locally based online audio producers have the opportunity to eat traditional broadcasters’ lunch.

Adam Powell : Localism is the traditional basis of U.S. broadcasting, which is why stations are licensed, not networks.

In most major and large markets, there are credible commercial all-news and news-talk stations. But national programming is often what attracts a mass audience, whether television entertainment or radio news. Public radio audience growth has been propelled by national news programming for NPR, PRI and APM.

But is this really new? In the first half of the last century, radio networks were dominant with national network programming. NPR may be the ghost of the NBC Red network, using network stars to drive local station audiences – and local station revenue, whether from commercials or underwriting.

But even as many decry the loss of localism, local news vacuums attract innovators, in print, on the air and on line. In print, dozens of free newspapers now compete with (and are sometimes owned by) major metropolitan dailies. On the air, new newsrooms [like WTOP discussed above] are springing to life.

The medium hasn’t lost what it does best. It is just reinventing what it does best – nationally, with quality network and international news, and locally, under the radar screen of most media writers.

3. Much of the discussion surrounding the future, of traditional or terrestrial radio has focused on the entertainment. What do you think about the future of news? Does radio (or, more appropriately perhaps, audio) offer the audience something that they can’t get somewhere else?

Dale Willman: Every medium has its strengths. Print is a substantial daily record of life as we know it. Television has images that can quickly and simply convey powerful information and emotion – who can forget the young man at Tiananmen Square staring down a row of tanks? But print is also at times quite unwieldy. TV meanwhile is voyeuristic – no matter how powerful the images, you’re staring through a window as if a peeping Tom snooping.

Audio however has an ability that is unique among the other mediums. Well-produced audio reaches into our heads and our guts, to affect us both intellectually and emotionally. That is a very powerful tool for conveying information. You first reach a person through their emotions, which then opens up their heads for information. If radio news can re-capture this power, and use it to convey information of a local nature than it can survive for a while.

The reality though is that running a transmitter is quite expensive.

As people become more accustomed to obtaining audio from the web, more local podcasts will spring up to fill in the niche once held by local radio news. So long-term, I would suspect radio news, and perhaps radio itself, will be dead.

Tim Curran: News has been and remains one of the most popular formats on traditional/terrestrial radio. It’s free, it’s pervasive, and in markets where it’s well funded, it will continue to dominate. That being said, terrestrial news directors will have to continue tweaking their formats with an ear to what’s being offered by satellite radio and, especially, podcasters. ‘Radio’ will endure in some form or other because it is the perfect medium for absorbing news and information while getting from place to place or undertaking some other mindless physical activity (jogging, cooking, chopping wood…).

Bill Buzenberg: There is a still a huge and important audience for information on terrestrial radio, and will be for a long time to come. There is more growth ahead. Although commercial radio listening has been shrinking, public radio audiences generally have been growing nicely with some flattening taking place in just the last year or so. While some of public radio’s programming (non-entertainment), is available on satellite or by podcast, those are still very small compared to over-the-air terrestrial broadcasting. The growth curve for these other platforms is quite high, but it is important to know that the radio broadcasts are needed to promote these other platforms.

Yes, I believe public radio does provide specialized information programming available no place else.

Adam Powell : The future of news on terrestrial radio is in the hands of terrestrial radio broadcasters.

Some enlightened terrestrial broadcasters are expanding news on radio, including commercial radio. All-news WTOP in Washington has created two entirely new radio broadcast services – WFED Federal News Service, an all-news station aimed at federal employees, and last month WTWP Washington Post Radio, in partnership with the newspaper. So in a few years, all-news programming has tripled on commercial radio in Washington, D.C. WTOP added (and then moved to) the FM band and discovered a new audience of younger listeners who never tune to the AM band.

Terrestrial radio news is alive and well, and it can thrive – unless unimaginative broadcasters allow it to wither.

4. Looking at the amount of cross broadcasting going on (stations simulcasting on the Internet, hosts blogging, shows podcasting) does platform even matter anymore? Does the success of satellite really mean the death of traditional radio? Can we have Internet radio without sacrificing the FM dial?

Tim Curran: As wireless web technology matures, platform will matter less. But for now, you can’t get that live Knicks game on your Ipod, and platform continues to matter a great deal. As much as I might like to say that satellite and the Internet spell the death of terrestrial radio, I don’t think it’s really a zero-sum game.

A lot of people listen to a lot more radio now, because more of it suits their needs and tastes. As long as terrestrial broadcasters keep an eye on what it is their audience is tuning in to satellite and Internet competitors to get (and vice versa), I think there’s room for all to survive.

Dale Willman: It’s no longer about platform, it’s about content.

Bill Buzenberg: Multi-platform is the future, and this does not have to be a threat but an opportunity. All of these platforms still require good content (news gathering, commentary, interviews, etc.). No matter how this information programming is delivered, each of these platforms simply super serves the listener. Some people will want their information mobile via MP3 downloads, others will want it via the web, others via satellite radio, etc. I don’t believe any of this sacrifices the FM dial, but all are complimentary.

Adam Powell : Platform matters because different people listen to different platforms, and general audience journalism has to be everywhere. If you are not on the Internet – or on FM radio – you are deliberately limiting your listenership. People on all platforms will listen to news – but if only radio journalists will make it available to them.

This is not speculation: it is proven fact. Consider the experience of WTOP radio news in Washington, D.C., which step by step expanded its programming to different platforms – and reached new listeners each time.

5. How much confidence do you have that traditional mainstream media organizations will survive and thrive in the transition to the Internet?

Adam Powell:
It is Legacy media that typically have difficulty surviving disruptive change. And to make matters even more difficult for them, traditional mainstream media organizations, to use your phrase, have a central economic problem: their business models have relied on government-granted or -sanctioned monopoly pricing and monopoly profits.

Daily newspapers have their Joint Operating Agreements to guarantee profit margins well above those in most industries. Broadcasting is a government-licensed oligopoly. That’s why television stations have had the highest profit margins of any legal industry in the U.S.

You have posed two very different questions: Will mainstream media survive? And if they survive, will they thrive?

Will traditional news organizations survive on the Internet? Of course, just as AM radio stations still survive – but with a fraction of their audiences of forty years ago. Faced with thousands of new and unregulated competitors, traditional news organizations will survive, but with an ever smaller slice of the audience.

Secondly, will traditional news organizations thrive on the Internet? Here, I’m not at all confident that most news organizations will thrive on line – any more than most organizations of any kind will thrive on line. New media are a new business, not an incremental extension of print or broadcasting. And the cold, hard fact of the business world is, absent government-granted or -sanctioned monopolies, most new businesses fail.

One exception: Government-funded news organizations. The BBC thrives on line, because on line as in broadcasting, it views itself as a public service with no need to make money. It can draw on Britain’s mandatory license fees to aggregate resources to provide some of the best journalism on line.

Coming next: the French, the Chinese, and of course Al Jazeera. All are government-funded news organizations with an increasingly high profile on the air and on line. The question is to what extent these journalists can be independent from the governments that fund them.

Tim Curran: As in any challenging environment, those that adapt will survive and those that can’t will become extinct. Certainly, not every mainstream media organization is a dinosaur. Newspapers who invest heavily in their online presence will make it, as will broadcasters who stream and podcast their programming. But those who cling to old models and fail to keep a close eye on web competition are doomed.

Dale Willman: I think many, but not all, MSM will survive. But I wouldn’t characterize it as a transition to the Internet alone. While things like podcasting use the Internet as a delivery tool, it is wrong to characterize it as Internet news. It is important to remember that the Internet is a transmission medium – it’s not a news source. So to me, the transition is to new delivery mediums.

Anyway, while many people turn to sources on the Internet for news, they still see clear value in the MSM brand and all that this implies – comfort level, acceptance of the vetting role and more. And I would say this is across-the-board when it comes to age groups. My students are required to bring in clippings to class each week. Overwhelmingly, the primary sources they use are NPR, the BBC, CNN and USA Today. So while they are turning to the Internet as a delivery vehicle, they still rely on the established MSM as their primary news sources. And this says to me that those who position themselves well on the internet, and carry across their news image, will find a way to survive.

Bill Buzenberg: I am very confident that good news organizations will survive and thrive in the internet era. Although a winning business model is hugely challenging, major media organizations can adapt and be important information resources online and in old media as well.

6. One broad trend we sense in the media culture is the paradox of more outlets covering fewer stories. As the audiences for particular news outlets shrink, newsroom resources are then reduced, but these outlets still feel compelled to cover the big events of the day. The result is more outlets covering those same “big” events and fewer are covering much beyond that as much as they once did. How do you view this trend?

Tim Curran: This is true to some extent. But some of the new outlets in this proliferation are aimed at covering narrower news segments more deeply. In our own sector, there are now three new broadcast news organizations covering the gay community (CBS News on Logo, QTV, and Sirius OutQ) where just a few years ago there were none. We feel no need to cover ‘the big events of the day’ (unless they are gay-related, of course), but we do cover events of considerable import to GLBT people that would never make it on AP Network News, much less the front section of the New York Times.

Adam Powell : It’s not a paradox – it is a deliberate and planned outcome – and it is not universal.

It has been a planned outcome for almost a decade. If you want to put a date on it, consider August 31, 1997. That’s the day that MSNBC discovered they break out and make money by going with live wall-to-wall continuous coverage of the death of Princess Diana. Today, all of the 24-hour cable news networks know they can get a quite profitable rating point or so by focusing on that big tabloid story, hour after hour, night after night.

But please note this is not universal. The New York Times is still a leader in print and on line with broad, deep coverage. The largest audience television news broadcast is still “60 Minutes,” which covers a variety of serious news stories. And one of the largest online information sites, Yahoo, is differentiating itself with original content, some of it focusing on little-covered but important conflicts in remote corners of the world. Quality journalism about serious subjects will always differentiate and brand an organization.

Bill Buzenberg : Yes, I think this is a trend, where many, many important stories are not covered and certain “must-cover” stories are covered too much. Without adequate reporter resources, this trend will likely continue.

Dale Willman: I would disagree with the assumption that there are more outlets out there. The radio chapter of your report certainly outlines the decline of the radio newsroom in the 80s. Print has seen similar declines. So such a statement would be accurate only on a short timeline.

However, I believe it’s accurate to say those outlets remaining tend to focus on the “big” stories, at the loss of coverage of the smaller yet often more significant news events. However, is this a trend? Certainly on the broadcast side, that focus has always been there – for a commercial newscast of five minutes, after commercials and other non-news information, there is perhaps three minutes remaining for news. For a half-hour newscast on television, that figure is about 18 minutes. There is little time left after the big stories have been reported.

So perhaps it’s a trend in print, but less so in broadcast. I would suspect that rather than say a trend, we are seeing a reality magnified by things like news aggregators.

If you would like to offer your own thoughts on the future of radio news, please email us at mail@journalism.org. We will then compile and post a selection of responses.