Monday, October 13, 2008

Radio Nowhere?

Over the summer, I had the privilege of interning at SportsRadio 610, an all sports station in Houston. During my nearly four months there, I was amazed at how much the station was trying to direct listeners to its website. Interviews with athletes and coaches were promptly uploaded as podcasts, polls were set up online to gauge the reaction of listeners on certain topics, and news links for stories being mentioned on air were always placed on

All of this made me realized that, like the newspaper industry, the radio industry was being forced to evolved in this internet-driven age.

When Robin Lubbock, the director of new media at WBUR, came to speak to my reinventing the news class last week, I definitely understood where he was coming from as he spoke to the class about the changing landscape of the radio industry.

First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. He showed the class many of the features offered on WBUR (we'll get to those in a second), in addition to explaining how the radio industry was changing. I really liked his view on the fact that the internet has taken a local station in Boston, which only has to compete against a couple of similar stations over the air, and forced it to try to attract the attention and ears of people all over the world. This is because the internet has made it to where broadcasts stream online, and anyone from Dorchester to Dubai can listen to WBUR.

Lubbock showed the class how WBUR has integrated things like multimedia slideshows, content submitted by listeners, podcasts, facebook and myspace accounts and twitter feeds into the station's news delivery method. For those who aren't familiar with Tweeter, it's a site that describes it's services as "...a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?"

In other words, WBUR can place a question on it's Twitter feed, and listeners can instantly react to it.

These are just a few of the tools radio stations are using to try to protect themselves in the future.

One thing I found interesting was a Washington Post article on the future of radio by Marc Fisher. This article pointed to user customized radio stations, such as Pandora, as the future of radio. Sites like these create playlists for listeners based on their music preference. For example, if I typed Bob Dylan into Pandora as my favorite artist, the station would pick songs similar to Bob Dylan songs for me, and I could decide whether or not I liked them.

The article also included an interesting point made by Jerry Del Colliano, a music industry professor at USC:

"Del Colliano and other observers increasingly believe the radio of the future will not be a 24/7 music source, but rather a provider of short programs, such as podcasts, that appeal to an ever-shrinking attention span and work seamlessly with social networks, cellphones and laptops. "

This points in the direction that WBUR is going with all of it's interactive features that integrate listeners. Seth Godin, an author interviewed on Hear 2.0, also feels that while these features are important, the most important thing the radio industry can do during these times is think small:

"The smart media companies, the ones who are thinking small, say “we have this really powerful asset, we need to use it to migrate the attention to smaller and smaller buckets of identifiable people who want to hear from us.”
So if I ran a media company today, I'd say, "How can I turn this group of 100,000 listeners into 1,000 groups of 100 people who wanna subscribe to a podcast? How can I deliver exactly what they want, anticipate it, offer them personal and relevant information that they need when they need it."

As the industry evolves and things such as satellite radio continue to stream NPR programming, it's difficult to predict how stations like WBUR will ultimately fare, even with these fancy technologies. I understand that the most popular programming on stations such as this one is the national NPR programming, but I think there will always be a demand for local news. Whenever a local story breaks, national stations won't be on top of it like stations within the city. Whenever Houston added three sports stations in addition to the one I interned at, 610's motto instantly became "live and local." Many of these new stations relied heavily on national programming from outlets like ESPN, and 610 wanted listeners to know that it was their station where they could get the news most important to them- Houston sports news.

I feel like that's the only thing radio stations can do to survive in the future-place a heavy emphasis on local news. Some of the features WBUR and other sites are using can be very helpful and interactive, but I don't think that's nearly enough to save the industry. I consider myself a big time listener of radio, and internet features rarely intrigue me to the point of actually visiting the site. If I don't care to visit the site, why would people who are only casual listeners visit the stations website?

That being said, if national programming drives ratings, these local stations are seemingly going to have to downsize in the future. That happens in many industries, and soon enough, sadly, it may be radio's turn. I already saw this happening this summer when Houston's largest news radio station, 740 KTRH, downsized and began replacing more local newscasts with syndicated ones from Fox News.

Radio is doing fine right now, and I think it's wonderful how they're being proactive while the industry is still in relatively good shape. The future of the industry will certainly be interesting. Radio is desperately trying to provide listeners with on demand content through a variety of mediums, and only time will tell if it can keep the radio business afloat. One thing is for sure, and Lubbock mentioned it multiple times during the presentation. The internet has forced those wanting to enter the radio field to learn how to do more than talk into a microphone, as shooting videos and pictures and writing stories are all now part of a radio station's daily operations.
Photo (cc) by Stefan Kuhn and republished here under the GNU Free Documentation License. Some rights reserved.

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