Terrestrial Radio and the Death of Innovation

I have been interested in radio and music in general for many years. I wrote about the “squeezebox” internet radio here which I highly recommend.

In the September 18, 2011 Chicago Tribune they had an article titled “No way to tune out internet” with the tagline “digital competition causing static even as broadcasters try to dismiss its impact”.

The article covers a radio broadcaster convention that met in Chicago and the comments of the radio executives on the state of their industry.

Radio Advertising Bureau President and CEO Jeff Haley told broadcasters that the fight against Internet and satellite radio must be joined, particularly in the car, where most listening takes place… lagging in online and digital efforts, the radio industry finds itself swimming upstream, chasing competitors all but dismissed a decade ago. Pandora has more than 100 million registered users, while once-teetering Sirius XM is in the black, with more than 21 million satellite subscribers.

In addition to being challenged in aggregate by online radio and satellite radio, over-the-air radio is also losing amongst the young.

A recent analysis… showed Pandora’s listenership topping all terrestrial radio stations among 18-34 year-olds in the top 5 markets.

The article discussed generally how HD radio had failed to catch on and was mostly a novelty. I wrote about HD radio here when I purchased one back in 2009 and I thought it might be a chance for radio to step up and compete with commercial-free channels full of interesting music and a much better sound. Unfortunately the second free HD stations weren’t that compelling and after a while I just gave up on HD radio altogether and gave away my radio for a friend to use as an iPod charger and / or player (the speaker sounded good, so it was a shame to throw it out).

Amongst all the competition radio touted their “scale”.

In his opening address Haley seemed to dismiss digital competition, citing the scale provided by nearly 11,000 commercial radio stations reaching more than 242 million weekly listeners.

And some of the smaller radio owners touted their ties to their local cities.

We’re connected to our local community, and a box just isn’t, regardless of what you can Pandora or a satellite. Radio is a lot more than music.

Absolutely true. Radio is a lot about sports, especially football and baseball. Which is why you can listen to those games on XM / Sirius (and the score shows up, which is pretty cool) as well as through the online stations, too. Dan and I caught the Illini game up in Madison on satellite radio, when you probably couldn’t have gotten it from a terrestrial station up there.

In Chicago, the terrestrial situation for radio is pretty dire. Until I got a car with satellite radio built in (and an iPod jack), I had to listen to “regular” radio when I was in the car and all Chicago has to offer is WXRT, a progressive rock station which is pretty ancient nowadays, the Loop which is more classic rock, and Q101 the Alternative rock station which has been sliding downhill and recently went off the air entirely, replaced by a talk radio format. There is literally no good music radio station in Chicago which is astonishing, but drive on through and you will come to the same conclusion. If you like talk radio I used to listen to Howard St*rn (don’t want the traffic) before he went to satellite, and then there was Steve Dahl, who is now an innovator and has a “paid podcast” with no commercials. Everyone is gone from Chicago radio now.

Not mentioned in the article is what really put a spike in over-the-air radio… the fact that all the content became sanitized and the same from city to city. Little new music is breaking over the radio, and you get the same formats where ever you go. While this brought economies of scale to the companies that “rolled up” the stations in each town, it also killed any innovation or risk-taking. Their focus on their own profits didn’t allow them to sign people like St*rn, and young people are voting with their ears and just tuning out entirely. Do you ever hear about anyone talking about something on the radio, or what some DJ or commenter said? Now that action is on the internet or on TV.

Satellite radio and Pandora also offer far more choices than any over-the-air station; there are dozens of niche channels on XM – for rock there are even lots of gradations of “metal” from new metal (liquid metal) to hair bands to “the boneyard” which I get a laugh out of, especially their tagline “for road-trippin’ and binge drinkin'”. Interestingly enough, while Lithium is a “static” view of 90’s grunge “the boneyard” brings in “new” bands like Chickenfoot or anything a classic metal band does today.

As far as commercials, they drive everyone I know crazy. You can’t escape them in baseball or football, when there is no action, but other than that, once you have commercial free radio or an iPod you just can’t go back for an extended period. That’s just my experience, but I’d guess it is relatively universal, despite what any surveys say.

The funny thing is that nothing is stopping radio from risk-taking and putting on new music and artists except that they are all already in cookie-cutter formats that are locked-in. This is the least risky path in the short term, but in the end it is a road to nowhere. Try Pandora and start letting it “follow” your choices by putting in your favorite songs and artists and then by giving songs a “thumbs up” or down which allows them to narrow the casting even further. It is very difficult to go back to the same old crap on terrestrial radio after hearing the variety available on the satellite or pandora alternatives.

Maybe in other cities there is more competition but if you are trapped listening to terrestrial radio in Chicago it is a miserable experience. Nothing but sports for me if I am on the way or coming back from a game. Else it is brutal.

Cross posted at LITGM

8 thoughts on “Terrestrial Radio and the Death of Innovation”

  1. I have among my bookmarked a London radio station – Radio Jackie. To tell you the truth like their programming style. On the weekends they would have a trivia contest – I email in the answer from 6-7,000 miles away – a few minutes later they are reading my name over the air in the UK.

    It is a different world out there.

  2. Even though I’m a big fan of FM radio, I have to agree. Young folks don’t have much interest in it anymore. My 14 y/o listens in the car with me but even she remarks that she can hear the same song on three stations four times in one car ride.

    Where the alternatives to well-done FM come up short is in sound quality. People vary in their expectations and sensitivities to sound quality, certainly. For myself, a good FM station sounds so much better than any of the available digital sources – SiriusXM, internet, HD Radio, MP3. The latter suffer from “digititus” – a lack of human warmth that just sucks the life out of music. Even CDs are marginal to my ear.

    Here in Silicon Valley, we’re blessed with a radio club that owns a channel (91.5) and has amateur programmers and a HUGE mix of content. Their signal is as good as it gets too, sound-wise. We also have a public jazz station and a very unusual commercial station south of Santa Cruz (KPIG) that specializes in “hippy country” music.

    Unfortunately, there is little market for quality signals or programming on FM. When people do listen, it is in their cars, not in their homes on a decent stereo.

  3. Whitehall – compounding the problem is that there are fewer and fewer individually owned stations who really know their market – many are 1 of many corporate owned and broadcast the same stuff.

    …and for us boomers whatever happened to rock and roll? I remember – in the Bay Area – there was KFRC (AM) – really played the format in the 50s and 60s – of course for sound quality music has left the AM band where it is a talk format – and – love him or hate him Rush Limbaugh re energized the band in the later 80s – “experts” had been predicting its demise – they all thought you couldn’t have a syndicated program on AM during the daytime – (sort of going counter to my points about FM; I know)

    Growing up in LA I remember the powerhouse KFWB – a powerhouse since the 20s I think – and what is that flagship station in Chicago? WLS I think….

  4. Whitehall,

    For myself, a good FM station sounds so much better than any of the available digital sources – SiriusXM, internet, HD Radio, MP3. The latter suffer from “digititus” – a lack of human warmth that just sucks the life out of music. Even CDs are marginal to my ear.

    Uh, where exactly do you think that FM stations get the music that they broadcast, if not from CD’s and other digital sources? Unless you’re listening to stations that play nothing but vinyl and live in-studio bands, you’re listening to digital sources.

    I’m sure you’re not alone in subjectively preferring the sound of an FM broadcast, but the difference comes from a reduction in audio fidelity due to the fact that the signal is transmitted across a limited bandwidth analog channel after the the initial digital-to-analog conversion. Many FM station also play with the equalization to make their signal sound better in noisy environments or less-than-ideal audio equipment. The human warmth you hear is actually signal degradation and distortion.

  5. As a child my family would take road trips all throughout the western US. The radio was always on and the trips would be accented by the regionalized sounds depending upon what city or radio market we happened to be in at the time. A station in Albuquerque sounded nothing like a station in Portland and neither sounded like anything in my native Los Angeles. Upon reflection, this decentralized configuration allowed for experimentation at the local level and a more dynamic offering from what are now call terrestrial stations. All radio stations now sound the same and they all follow a certain prototype.

    I feel much if not all of this changed with the Telecom Act of 1996 when ownership restrictions were greatly relaxed. At one point ownership was capped at 24 stations with a limit of 12 FM and 12 AM and one entity could not own more than a single FM and Am station in the same market. There were trickles of deregulation of this rule post Reagan. But all that changed almost immediately when the Clinton era telco bill passed in conjunction with surging capital markets allowing for swift ownership consolidation.

    Today two firms, Clear Channel Communications & Cumulus Media, own a combined 1,420 radio stations. There are other big players and they all consolidated operations and reduced decision makers. This has lead to a homogenized sound that is simply boring and uncompelling. Carl, trust me when I tell you that in LA the radio offerings are also “pretty dire”. Here both the AM news stations are owned by CBS. The Bill Brandt mentioned KFWB and its “competitor” KNX. The only difference between stations that I can tell is what time they air their traffic reports.

    A shame really, cause radio still has the potential to be the premiere and most intimate electronic medium. I was reminded of this the other night while listening to Dan Schulman using his descriptive powers to paint a picture of the Texas Rangers vs the Detroit Tigers. As for intimacy, in LA, many people consider Vin Scully a member of their family. Just as I suspect many people in the Midwest considered Harry Carey. Although I don’t agree with their editorial slant, I very much enjoy the depth that both NPR and the BBC Worldservice provide. Of course neither of those are commercial outlets.

    The good side of that consolidation is the resulting blandness only accelerated the advent of alternatives. The proximity of the 1996 Telecom Act with the invention and maturation of satellite, internet and Pandora radio is no coincidence. You can only shove Eminem, Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga down our throats only so much before we reach our puke point.



  6. My car radio broke several years ago and I didn’t bother to get it fixed…stations were too repetitive, too many ads, just generally too irritating. But in a rental car with a working radio, I encountered a bluegrass/traditional-music station with multiple program hosts playing their own quirky selections, and with my new car and functioning radio I listen to it a lot.

    Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch is about the impact of regulation and regulatory maneuvering on communication technologies, including radio, movies, and telephone, and is pretty interesting. Apparently a lot of spectrum was grabbed from local radio stations and handed over to those that were network-affiliated and/or high-power clear-channel.

  7. Setbit,

    There’s a flaw in your logic – “after the the initial digital-to-analog conversion” – ain’t necessarily so.

    I was a guest DJ on my amateur station, the one with the best possible FM signal quality. I brought in a high resolution SACD player and connected it through the board. I also brought some new audiophile-quality vinyl. I asked the listeners to call in with any comments on sound quality.

    I got several calls praising the sounds from songs via SACD, HDCD, and vinyl. Other DJs at the station will sometimes just play MP3s off an iPod and it sounds detectably mediocre to me. So your assertion is correct in that case.

    Yes, the FM chain has its limitations but there is a qualitative difference in human perception and reactions. With a good quality source, the FM process has a euphonic quality to it that is very attractive to me – your reactions will probably vary.

    Far too many commercial stations will broadcast compressed signals based on low bandwidth digital sources. I refuse to listen to them, besides the annoyance of commercials.

    “The human warmth you hear is actually signal degradation and distortion.”

    All media degrade and distort – it is a matter of name your poison. I prefer a well-aged Port over Jagermeister.

    BTW, I like tubes too! My favorite tuner is a McIntosh MR71 tube tuner from the late 60’s. When I listen to a sultry female vocalist from a vinyl source through my tube tuner, it comes the closest to hearing her on the next pillow.

  8. The conglomeration of radio ownership is a sign of a declining industry. Conglomeration always occurs when an industry goes into terminal decline because the margins in a declining industry are razor thin and the only way to make money on thin margins is to have economy of scale. In radio, that means cookie cutter stations from town to town.

    Broadcast radio is going the way of broadcast TV and “broadcast” newspapers and periodicals. Media business models that rely on being the only one with a microphone are doomed.

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