Radio broadcast programming has changed throughout the decades of its existence, a reflection of the society in that moment of time. Soon after the invention of radio, which began only carrying the dots and dashes of wireless telegraphy, the transmission of voice ushered in a new era of conveying information and eventually entertainment. As a form of entertainment in the U.S., serialized adventure, romance, drama and comedy found its way into living rooms. Music exposed people to a variety outside of their immediate community and social group. It introduced new ideas and the start of a journey into removing some ethnic barriers.
Fast forward a few decades into the 1950’s, radio was a fully established outlet for music and the personalities which presented the sounds of that era. Commercialization was in full effect and business with their products used it to their advantage. This was also a changing era for radio. Television broadcast towers sprang up in every city of reasonable size. The economy was robust and people were buying their small black & white TV’s in waves. Having caught the attention of the marketing gurus, they soon started buying commercial air time on television stations. This altered the types of radio programs. All of the traditional comedy, serialized drama and western adventures, abandoned radio for the enhanced sensation of visual & audio on TV.
Radio broadcasting continued along as it had before with enhanced scheduled sports and talk formats and targeting audiences with specific genre music. The most significant change for entertainment began with Rock & Roll and the follow on ‘British Invasion’. Young people were targeted as the prime demographic and soon, groups such as The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Animals, and The Who, all filtered their way into youthful listening. Technology improvements in the size of sound reproduction equipment as well as cost helped propel radio broadcasting through this change.
Technology is a two-edged sword. What was a boon to radio would soon render pink slips to many broadcast personalities. Some of them were able to transition, but most would have to leave radio or never be in front of the mic again. Digital met analog in a big way beginning in the 1980’s. Portability, distribution and pre-recorded formats altered the landscape once again. The CD era may have been the warning bell of this change but the advent of a new communication media spread this well beyond what most anticipated. The Internet with its limitless boundaries and variety meant that most broadcast formats were no longer attracting a sizable audience. Many individual radio stations recognized local programming wasn’t working and many were bought by larger companies with aggregate (national) programming format. The entire AM radio band was the first to make this change to syndicated talk formats. It’s interesting to note the conservative talk show dominates the AM airwaves as well as many FM stations. The progression of technology has obsoleted most of the traditional radio leaving it to listeners of those most resistant to change.
There are some broadcasters seeing a new wave coming. This radio format isn’t seen as an overwhelming commercial renewal as many once experienced decades earlier, but the way forward may be viable through this option. Local radio once was an important component of successful broadcasting, it gave way to national entertainment programs. Television became the attraction for these early entertainers and programs such as Bob Hope, Burns & Allen, Ozzie & Harriet, the Lone Ranger, Superman, Gunsmoke, and many others. Just as this evolution forced radio out of these entertainment formats, so too is the Internet for music and talk.
What once was old may be new. Local broadcasting can be attractive to a wider audience by using the Internet. Recent format changes of a local University Public Broadcasting station to the traditional PB talk / news format has actually alienated many within the community. The digital broadcast over the Internet has fueled added interest in the web based very popular student run station. WRAS 88.5 FM in Atlanta Georgia had the rug pulled out from under the students who were in charge of format and presentation. The University leadership in its finite wisdom, decided to sell all daytime broadcast time to Public Broadcasting, leaving the students with later evening and wee hour time through FM radio. Having gained a strong following as well as a national reputation of helping to launch local musicians, the student body have continued through the Internet HD ‘cast. Undeterred, the students are still making things happen in a former traditional market.
So how does this point to a viable future in the radio broadcast industry? By accepting the realities of the digital era, local radio can leverage the Internet through simulcast when and where possible. Bringing local entertainers to the national stage with solid community relations and open formats to the more experimental gives an opportunity for new creativity as we once saw in the 1950’s and 60’s. This dissemination to anyone who can access the Internet opens the local to the world. Placing these venues in live local performance and allowing the entertainers to hone their skills with broadcast over the Internet may be one of several steps to revamping radio. Even as I write this I’m listening to BBC Radio 2 live in Hyde Park. Proof that local is of interest to a far wider audience.