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Is Broadcast Radio Fading Away -- Again?

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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 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. We saw AM radio become an unnecessary commodity when FM and FM-Stereo came along. Now, 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 through the '60s, everybody listened to the radio day and night. TV, Ed Sullivan, Malt Shops, and good rock and roll! American Graffiti was 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. Set this point in history as my 100 baseline.

In the '70s, Sears Silvertone record changers and radios were the rage. Color TV! More great music everywhere! I began a 7 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 so was radio.

A lot of the stuff you would hear on FM wasn't available for sale unless you lived in NYC or LA. 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 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 as many stations still did not carry commercial advertising.

In the '80s, fancy, almost exotic stereos were the rage, 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..., etc. Hearing music as close to real was in. Making your own recordings was also very in.

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 stuff. Whatever you wanted was there. Cassette copying was in. I knew one guy 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 in 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. 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. 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%.

In the 2000s, Radio is toast. Morning drive for some but, basically, nobody listens to the radio anymore. 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 listens to radio except to hear NPR's All Things Considered and programs of a similar programming.

Stores, restaurants and malls play radio but more and more are going to their own canned programming. The music in Safeway or Kroger supermarkets only has their ads in it. It isn't really radio at all and is usually satellite fed to the chain's markets nationwide. Its the same music week after week.

Maybe some people listen to radio as their alarm clock in the morning but it sure isn't like it was in the '50s-'70s. The days of those audience numbers are history unless something very new and exciting comes along.

Sirius/XM satellite radio is deep in financial trouble and their future isn't bright. 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 never turned a profit and is hemoraging cash badly. It still has not been accepted as a home entertainment media.

HD and I-Heart-Radio are here but, again, I don't know a soul who has a receiver for it. Even in my realm of music people, you never hear anybody say, "Hey, did you hear...on HD?" It doesn't happen.

Anyway, my 2 cents worth. I think radio is feeling the same economic pain as the music labels. Now, my crystal ball isn't any better than yours but, the future of broadcast radio doesn't look that healthy. XM/Sirius and HD Radio numbers seem to confirm that. One million listeners in a country of 310 million people is not a good percentage. More and more stations are converting to talk-radio, and fewer maintain the music -- except all those Clear Channel clones that all sound alike.

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