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What is the Future of Broadcast Radio?

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Listening to Old Time RadioI'm a lot like the many of the electronic generation today -- load up the MP3 player, CD Changer, and the Media Server and let MY music play MY way -- without any commercials and annoying talk. I also use the streaming services that abound everywhere like Pandora, Spotify Google's and Apple's editions and more. I also just tune into Internet sites that have what I enjoy. Lots of options to choose from.

I just don't know what the future of radio is. From my point of view (very limited and myopic!) it doesn't look too good for the future of radio. From having been in broadcast radio in the '70s and watching it through the years, I seriously doubt that audience numbers are anywhere close to what they have been in the past. Studies show radio is holding firm but I suspect that the listening isn't like what it used to be in the 80s. The progressive stations that would air all day commercial free are a thing of the past. We saw AM radio become an unnecessary commodity when FM and FM-Stereo came along. While studies and reports continue to show a healthy number of people who listen to radio, the reports remain scarce in the "how" department. Is it just the alarm clock in the morning and then for traffic reports during the commute times? They don't say.

Radio is listened to by at least 2/3s of America. That is substantial. This, of course, includes AM, FM, and Satellite formats combined. But, it is a healthy number -- today anyway. The question is, can it hold on to that top spot in light of Internet streaming's significant rise in listenership. Listeners will always listen to their music but, the means used shifts in this very fluid and dynammic world we live in. There are a lot of different formats, options and media today and things change quickly.

If we filter out the 5 minute alarm clock wake up, the talk radio listeners and the drive time communte listeners, then how many people remain in that massive listenership? Probably not that many. Today's car stereos have MP3 player plugins and some even play MP3 CDs. Those features wouldn't be there unless a lot of people request them. Those people listening to their own music, are not listening to the radio.

I believe we're seeing FM also going the way of the dinosaur as digital music takes hold on very small, high-capacity, ligh-weight portable devices that consumers program with their own music tastes and can change as those tastes change. Here is my 20:20 hindsight and my prediction of the future of radio.', 'In the '50s -'60s, everybody listened to the radio day and night. TV, Ed Sullivan, Malt Shops, and good rock and roll! American Graffiti for real! As for bluegrass, the '60s were Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs and many more. Radio was extremely important and the music DID generate sales. Most of the other options for a broad variety of music just didn't exist then. It was radio and only radio that could provide the listener what they wanted to hear. Set this point in history as my 100 baseline.

In the '70s, Sears Silvertone record changers and radios were the rage. TV Music Shows were a big hit by now. More great music everywhere! I began a seven year career as a radio broadcaster and received my degree in Mass Communications. Popular radio transitioned from AM to a free-form FM progressive (no commercials) format and some outstanding new music was available to everybody. That's when I heard "Red White & Blue(Grass)" that hooked me on the bluegrass sound. I also heard some great European bands that I also enjoyed and still do today! Music was in transition and radio was the essential tool driving the new popularity.

A lot of the programming you would hear on FM wasn't available for sale unless you lived in a major population area with the huge super sized record stores like Peaches and Sam Goody's and others. You couldn't find albums by Hawkwind, Triumpherant, Klaatu, JANE, etc. but they were on the radio. AM still carried the good old stuff and the traditional country and of course, the Top-40 hits. Set radio's importance at 90-95% to the consumer. AM Top-40 drove sales and FM was making headway but needed to be monetized.

In the '80s, fancy, almost exotic stereos were the rage, Pioneer, Kenwood, Sansui, SAE, Phase Linear, Klipsch, Harmon Kardon, Dyna Kits, Technics SL-15 MK IV turntables, Shure V-15 Type IV carts, TEAC, Revox and AKAI Open Reel Decks..., the availability of esoteric gear for the common homeowner seemed unlimited. Hearing music as close to real was in. Making your own recordings was also very in. Music was a serious endeavor and people wanted to listen and capture it all. It wasn't just something in the background. People got involved in it deeply.

Radio was loud -- your neighbors listened to it whether they wanted to or not. Garage bands and studios were everywhere. FM Stereo had classic programs that included everything from Dr. Demento to some underground stuff to the original Americana/Roots sounds found on stations like KFAT (now KPIG) and their folk/bluegrass/acoustic music. Whatever you wanted was there. Cassette copying was in. I knew one man that had over 100 different Grateful Dead tapes! Radio wasn't as important as the LP or tapes but was still strong -- still in the 90% range. Fancy car stereos were a hit that included "SuperTuners" and excellent FM reception.

In the 90s, Radio started to lose its luster and never really recovered. Consolidation began and there was a LOT more talk and commercials, less music and less variety. Clear Channel all sounded the same. Radio was becoming boring. Religious, foreign language and Talk Radio had a firm foothold by now in the AM bands. Recognition of PBS type stations began and these stations became popular. Much of what people were listening to was talk, not music. The advent of non-skipping automobile CD changers, home CD changers, MP3 files, WAV files and such cut into radio badly. I would say the drop was to about 50%. Music on the Internet had already become popular as it began a decade earlier.

In the 2000s, Radio lost a lot of luster when all the stations started to sound alike. Morning drive for some but, basically, nobody "listened" to the radio anymore. They may wake up to it and have it in the car to capture the traffic reports but, they weren't "listening" to the music. I'd say the consumer value is around 10% if that. Portable music is in. CDs are still wanted by the older audiences but downloads, digital files and disposable music are what iPhones, iPods, MP3 players, etc are all about. I don't know a single person who critically listens to radio music. Many listen to talk radio and specialty programs but the music listening audience for radio isn't what it was. There are just too many alternatives taking the place of radio today.

Stores, restaurants and malls play radio but more and more are going to their own canned programming. The music in Safeway or Kroger supermarkets sounds like radio but, it isn't. The sound you hear only has their ads in it and is usually satellite fed to the chain's markets nationwide. Its the same music week after week. A Safeway store in LA may be playing the exact same thing in NYC. It is not radio but rather, produced by companies that sell atmospheric music to grocery and others designed to drive their own sales.

Maybe some people listen to radio as their alarm clock in the morning and during the morning drive but, the attention sure isn't like it was in the '50s through the '80s. The Hi-Fi boom of the 80s was significant as high-powered musical equipment was being enjoyed in homes around the world. Many returned from VietNam with some of the finest audio gear manufactured in Japan. They didn't buy this to listen to the radio. They listened to tapes and albums mostly. Sure, many had tuners in them but I can tell from my years in restoration of this old gear that tuners were rarely used. While the Phono and Tape lights are burned out on most 50 year old gear, the AM, FM and Stereo lamps usually are still working.

XM/Sirius satellite radio is both in deep financial trouble and their future isn't bright. They are just barely hanging on. With the current economy causing many people to scale back on "entertainment income" many are not renewing their satellite radio subscriptions. While still a popular format for the automobile, satellite radio has yet to become its dream and produce a large profit. Home recievers haven't really taken off like they expected.

HD Radio is here but, again, I don't know anybody who has a receiver for it beyond the alarm clock or the car. Some use their Smartphones or tablets to access the I Heart Radio and other HD radio providing services but, more likely, they're listing to a non-radio streaming service or their local MP3s. Even in my realm of music people, you never hear anybody say, "Hey, did you hear...on HD?" It doesn't happen.

With the advent of the iPhone, Smartphone, tablet devices came the evolution of Internet media sources like Pandora and Spotify. Internet webcasters like World Wide Bluegrass and others provide the listener of a preferred genre the ability to hear their favorite style of music on the go. Many provide the service without talk and advertising if you pay a small monthly fee. These allow the listener to actually tailor the music to their current taste and mood. This is a dimension that terrestrial radio can never provide.

Then, there are those like myself who just load up the iPod and use it. It is my music, the way I want it and a substantial part of my music collection is there. In the home, I listen to my media server on any stereo system, PC, tablet or Smartphone. I haven't turned on an actual radio to listen to music on for years.

Anyway, I think radio is feeling the same economic pain as the music labels. Now, my crystal ball isn't any clearer than yours but, the future of broadcast radio doesn't look that healthy. XM/Sirius and HD Radio numbers seem to confirm that. While today 244 million of us (aged 12+) listen to radio each week; that’s nearly 92 percent of the U.S. population, how much and how they listen isn't disclosed. Other formats are definitely on the horizon ready to take radio's place. Streaming is rising very quickly and those listeners aren't listening to the radio when they're on an Internet streaming service.

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