The Weeknd’s latest album, Dawn FM, has brought listeners an auditory experience that many thought to be lost to time: radio. In a media landscape dominated by streaming, it’s easy to feel that AM and FM radio are hopelessly outdated. Radio popularity and listenership are trending downward and have been for some time now. Despite this, it continues to populate the airwaves. What, then, lies ahead for terrestrial broadcasting?
A Malleable History
As far back as the 1920s, when “talking pictures” came along, and again in the 1950s, when most American homes got television, critics were predicting that soon, nobody would care about radio. Fast forward to the early 2010s, and broadcasters began to feel the rising effects of social media–which, too, was supposed to bring about the death of radio.
Radio has always been a medium in transition. Time and time again, it has adapted to stay relevant. It’s not the first medium to face this struggle. Newspapers, for instance, digitized, maintaining relevance as a news source and perhaps even increasing their reach. But is radio still really relevant, and can it continue to adapt?
What is Radio’s State of the Union?
Despite the looming threat of streaming giants such as Spotify and Apple Music, radio waves are more packed than they have ever been: according to a Pew Research study, the number of FM radio stations on the air is at an all-time high, with more than 10,000 across the United States. Despite this record, since 2009, radio has seen a dip in listeners from 96% to 83% of Americans 12 years and older. This trend has been exaggerated by the rise of music streaming platforms and the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides colleges, universities, and local governments, radio is quickly becoming commercially unviable. It already is in most places, aside from urban centers. On top of the fact that its target demographic, mostly baby boomers and millennials, are an aging population, key industry figures are doing little to attract a new audience of listeners.
In Canada, Bell Media is acquiring and collectivizing terrestrial stations, promoting them all as extensions of their iHeart Radio app. In the process, Bell has removed stations’ identities and has even taken away their web domains, now hosting them on iheartradio.ca. To top things off, Bell also disables the FM receiver function on many smartphones they sell, forcing consumers to pay to reclaim access to local content. This effectively paywalls what was once a public and accessible source of media. The loss of locally sourced programming in key music cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Houston means an increasingly uniform sound and voice is informing the day-to-day listening habits of metropolitan areas across the country.
Starting around 2010, many colleges and universities began selling their FM broadcast licenses to larger conglomerates. Running a terrestrial radio station, commercial or noncommercial, is expensive. Paying for a broadcast tower, equipment repair, and other fees adds up over time. Former assistant professor of Contemporary Media and Journalism at the University of South Dakota Candace Walton offers insight into why school stations get sold:
From an administrator’s perspective, if they’re forced to decide between firing a couple dozen of faculty members or selling the college radio station, I know which one I’d choose. The problem is that once you sell [your license, it’s] gone. And you can never replace [it].
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit college radio hard. For instance, college radio relies on a lineage of students to pass down information and procedures to continue operation. It’s a trade that dies without constant nurturing. At the time of writing, only the current senior class at colleges has experienced an entire year’s worth of radio programming, creating a gap in experience between new and returning DJs. This data void makes it hard for students to argue for retaining a station successfully. Bates College in Maine, for example, recently just narrowly won the battle to secure a newly renovated broadcasting tower. The college’s administration was initially unwilling to pay to repair the aging tower, but students argued the value of retaining FM broadcast capability.
The fact that it’s still on FM radio gives me more reason to want to do my show rather than just relying on Bates students or people who I tell from home to listen in.
Finally, radio has lost its authority and relevance in bringing new sounds to listeners’ ears on a cultural level. Historically, the role of radio broadcasters involved taking bets on upcoming or new and emerging artists to give them a platform to have their songs heard by the masses. Additionally, since many record labels prioritized printing dependable and sellable artists, aspiring musicians had few avenues in which they could share their music. Radio today, however, is irrelevant in independent music distribution; listeners today find new music online with no problem, thanks to services and features like Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” algorithm and the prevalence of sound-based short-form video platforms such as TikTok.
Why Does Radio Still Exist?
Although radio’s present outlook is grim, there are still many things going for it. Radio is making a resurgence institutionally–Slippery Rock University is offering its first modern course in radio production in over 30 years. During the COVID pandemic, radio served as a means to bring communities together. Across the US, many listeners are in news deserts. With no local newspapers, stations like KSUT (Southern Ute Tribal Radio) have stepped in to fill the void for local news coverage.
Radio fills a gap that other innovations in technology have missed. Live, local, interactive talk radio has a pretty sweet niche that podcasts haven’t been able to replicate completely:
Live, free-form radio brings with it an energy, a spontaneity and artistic/intellectual play that is, for the most part, absent from commercial and most pre-recorded media.
Broadcasts can also be recorded synchronously for distribution as a podcast. For example, Bowdoin College’s Green Tea Podcast is recorded and also broadcast live on the air at the campus radio station, WBOR.
There is magic to radio. I can turn my dial and be immersed in a completely different community or drop into any part of the world in the case of online radio. Radio Garden is an app that does just this: it lets users listen to over 8,000 radio stations worldwide by dragging and dropping a pointer over a 3D Google Earth interface:
Flicking around the Radio Garden world is like getting into cabs at the airports of your choice, and in each one, the driver has the local station on. It’s that initial moment of cultural discovery, one of the first when you leave the airport, that helps you begin to understand where you are.
Non-commercial radio in colleges and universities injects the medium with a youthful spirit. It reflects an essential experience, something that replicates itself decade after decade: the autonomy, the freedom of speech, the experimental drive. It is also one of the last bastions within the world of radio that invites randomness and risk-taking. Perhaps former President of the United States Barack Obama expressed the value of school radio best when he wrote:
By empowering students to add their voices and opinions to the airwaves and connecting listeners to new ideas and artists, college radio fosters creativity, promotes emerging musicians, and serves as a platform for students to engage with one another.
Non-commercial radio reflects what local broadcasting should strive for: freeform programming that’s community-organized and unentangled in advertiser obligation.
In a world saturated with music outlets, non-commercial radio retains unique characteristics that help artists and fans cut through the noise. Characterizing DJs as ‘the human algorithm,’ longtime WRUV DJ Melo Grant recounted that high-school students described her as ‘better than Spotify!’
When you eliminate the need for profit, a station’s priorities switch from being personal with advertisers to being intimate with listeners, a practice that adequately fulfills the scope of a station’s FCC granted license to “serve the public interest.”
Internet vs. Terrestrial?
Internet radio shares many of terrestrial radio’s benefits. So why hold on to the old format?
The pro of online formatting is that you don’t have the expense of operation … but, the con of going online is that some people feel traditional radio is essential to the community and the university because it’s been around for decades.
For many school radio stations, the ability to broadcast on FM airwaves determines whether or not they are seen as a radio station or just another club. This accreditation impacts the internal workings of stations too. In a survey I conducted of 62 DJs from coast to coast, including schools with significant stations such as NYU, USC, MIT, and Harvard, all but just a tenth of respondents stated that they consider their ability to be on FM and AM airwaves a crucial element of their respective station. “The authorship you get at a college radio station is impossible to replicate anywhere else,” Secretly Group’s Hannah Carlen says.
You just don’t get anything like it at an internship, where you’re putting little droplets into a much bigger bucket. At your radio station, you’re doing the whole thing.
Many schools that sold their radio licenses were forced to move their stations online, such as Vanderbilt’s WRVU and Rice’s KTRU. These same schools recently, realizing the value of an FM or AM signal, have fought to get back on the air via the acquisition of low power licenses, which have a radius of about 3.5 miles.
Radio has power: in a consumer survey, the Strategy Analytics research firm found that radio remains vital for activities such as work commutes. “It’s convenient: no need for a separate device [or] cord to connect a device; […] to spend time to actively choose a specific song or artist; […] to think about whether the commute would be long enough to hear all the content (e.g., an entire podcast),” Many times, people don’t want to think long or hard about what they want to hear. Much like how apps like TikTok can feed a user an endless stream of tailored content, radio provides ever-changing, human-curated, new content. Still, disruptions caused by the pandemic could see another shift in the future as music streaming continues to increase its share of the digital space and more people continue to work from home, reducing the impact of the traditional commute broadcast.
The bulk of radio receivers still in production are installed in automobiles: “2020 is the year that the in-car AM/FM radio has hit the proverbial iceberg,” Derek Viita, who authored a survey of thousands of car owners across the globe, wrote. “While radio still has unique advantages, the pandemic has only worked to increase the adoption of other media sources.” This is exacerbated by no area better than the advent of online streaming and online radio, formats that alleviate many of terrestrial radio’s shortcomings. For instance, listeners are no longer bound by their geographical location. If I want to indulge in a Moroccan funk station, I can. Furthermore, online radio tends to deliver higher audio quality. FM radio bandwidth is around 15,000 Hz, whereas online streaming tends to be at least 44,100 Hz. So, even if FM antennas aren’t delivering broadcasts, the internet contributes to the continued listenership of FM stations. Provided that the streaming apps being built into cars today allow quick and easy login, direct access to streamed content without having to deal with Bluetooth or device cables will result in further adoption and consumption of (internet) radio. This evolution has taken time, but with the popularity of smart speakers, digital broadcasts of radio over the internet have kept radio relevant in the streaming age.
Radio, as listeners know it in 2022, isn’t how future generations will know radio, and that’s perfectly fine. While it’s hard to say what form radio will evolve into, there are a few underlying themes that we can expect to see with reasonable certainty: (1) Radio is a format constantly in flux. (2) Radio, as it’s known today, can only continue to exist without commercial incentives. (3) Radio will still make profound differences in communities, whether those communities are bounded geographically or online.
Of the DJs I surveyed, similar sentiments were shared. While they acknowledge that the future is uncertain, they think radio will continue to find its place. Car manufacturers, currently one of the largest manufacturers of radios, will likely push to cut them from future iterations of vehicles to match demand and cut costs. This will make terrestrial radio mainly inaccessible to the general public, leading to radio being pushed online. As a result, FM and AM listenership will be reduced to enthusiasts, similar to present-day audiophiles or vinyl enjoyers. Despite this, radios will likely never be replaceable by algorithms. People will continue to communicate their opinions one way or another, and that’s beautiful.
Written for The Bowdoin Review – Originally posted on LinkedIn