Commentary: Radio’s Premature Obituary
Some months ago I came across this story about YouTube in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. No question YouTube is a phenomenon and democratized media. On average I probably watch YouTube a dozen times a day. I’ve also been hearing for the last few years the video service and its larger parent, the Internet, are going to be my demise. I’ve been a broadcaster for roughly 3 decades and have meandered from spinning the hits on an all request show to covering house fires for radio and TV and for much of the last dozen years have performed for better or worse as a talk show host.
Almost ten years ago I was reading in the same Wall Street Journal about a man who believed he was on the cusp of providing Internet radio for the car. The problem was as you whip along the highway at speeds between 50 and 80 miles-per-hour the Internet connection tends to drop out on a regular basis. I guess you could pump it through a transmitter and tower but we’ve already been doing the same thing for a century. He proposed backfill with satellite radio technology. Ah, yes. It was also going to put me out of business. I was at a Honda dealership with a friend a dozen years ago and a salesman was singing the praises of satellite radio. For only 9 dollars a month he explained we would never lose a signal. I suppose the majority of Americans still have a commute of a half-hour or less. In my case it might be 5 minutes if I hit a red light at Second Street. Since my preference is talk radio I’m reminded of a story a truck driver told me in the early 1990s. He drove a bread truck on a route between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and St. Catherines, Ontario. Some days he went to Pennsylvania and other days across the border into Canada. He liked listening to Rush Limbaugh. If at any point Rush began to fade Pat would hit the search button and most likely the EIB Network would pop up at the very next station on the dial. No need for satellite technology and free!
I was reading a column a few days ago written by radio consultant Holland Cooke. You can find it here. Cooke makes it clear the obituaries for broadcasting are again premature. Radio remains the best alternative for getting a sales message to the public. In fact I think the argument is radio remains a powerful tool for spreading any message. The man has some solid facts to back up his point. Otherwise Cooke isn’t a fan of conservative talk radio. One of my former employers was a close friend of Cooke and explained the consultant was predicting the demise of Limbaugh on a yearly basis for well over twenty years. Truth be told I’ve seen Limbaugh written off as often as radio and then the host rebounds. Political talk hosts are following the direction of audiences and channeling a changing cultural landscape. Americans aren’t looking for solutions from Republicans or Democrats. Instead they’re looking for populists and the public has a much more libertarian streak than it did in 1995. Listen closely to the more well-known political talk shows and you can hear the shift. Glenn Beck was the first to really capitalize on the changing public attitude and he’s possibly the only guy to make the ‘Net work for him but still maintains a footprint on hundreds of radio stations.
At a workplace Christmas party 5 years ago my radio station’s General Manager and I were talking about the future. I predicted in 5 years we’d no longer have much of a use for transmitters and towers. He gave it all of 24 months. We were both wrong on that count. I also believe a great many people are wrong about talk radio’s demise. It’s quite possible to tap into a younger demographic if you recognize the populist path. I can’t any longer see much of a difference between the major political parties. An aging Republican Senator from Utah (he’s a broadcaster too) wrote last week in the Washington Times he and his colleagues have to put aside partisan differences for the good of the country. Then why bother with labels at all? They wrongly conflate their own interests with public desires.
Over the last few months some of the younger people I encounter tell me they’re listening. And this is happening while I’m on the supposedly dead AM dial. Having spent the previous 7 years on-air in the high rent district known as FM I’m pleasantly surprised. I grant most of my followers are men. The doomsayers like to point out the younger women are absent. I dunno. Have men stopped buying pickup trucks and big screen TV sets and cold beverages? Even if the AM audience does skew older it still has most of the expendable income.
Speaking of broadcast consultants Walter Sabo wrote a couple of months ago AM will survive if owners are brave enough to unleash some creative young people into programming the dial. I may no longer be a youthful broadcaster but I agree. The mornings I wander from the political rants and tell stories about dogs, holiday memories and old girlfriends (and I probably shouldn’t place dogs and old flames in the same sentence) I seem to get the most unique responses. No one ever walks up to me 6 months later and says I had a fine commentary about the city council. They do remember long down the road the story about the family car breaking down at Christmas 1,000 miles from home. Suppose I were building a new model for AM radio I’d be looking for all the future Gene Shepherds-in-waiting. Oh, and I guess I’d have to pay them a living wage.