Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Radio stupidity

Has anyone noticed the increasing irrelevance of radio as a medium? I have, and I believe it's due to a lot of reasons. Notably, programming wizards (word used with tongue firmly implanted in cheek) seem to think all of their listeners have devolved into complete airheads.

Disclosure: I once served as associate producer of a news and public affairs program for a major FM radio station in Montreal. I'm clearly biased when it comes to this topic, but I'll let you draw your own conclusions. Onward...

Example: a radio station from my childhood once ran a contest where you had to listen carefully for the sound of a jet. When you heard it, you'd call in to register to win a trip to some exotic locale. The sound would be mixed in any time, with no additional voiceover, and you had to really listen hard to pick it out of the soundscape. It was lots of fun, like a needle in a haystack. It actually demanded your attention.

These days, the milquetoast FM snooze station in my burg does something similar, with a few key differences: the sound of the jet is incredibly loud; it is played all by itself; and if that isn't enough for the brain-dead listener, a voiceover follows that explains that this was the sound of the jet.

The process means only the most brain-damaged listeners will not be able to follow through on registering for the contest. Like most of the pseudo-assembled musical sounds that pollute the airwaves day in, day out, it's a pathetic attempt to...well, I'm not sure what it's trying to accomplish beyond convincing us that we're wasting our time and electricity by continuing to tune in.

If this represents the best that broadcasting is capable of, we have a problem that extends well beyond Houston.

How can radio be fixed? Does it even deserve to be?


markisdead said...

I physically can't listen to commercial radio or stations which are targeted at 'the youth' market. I think it's an allergy. The symptoms are increased blood pressure, grinding of teeth and the urge to punch the radio.

Thankfully, there is a cure: BBC radio! Radio 2 for contemporary music, radio 3 for classical music/jazz/etc, radio 4 for the most intelligent chat and funniest comedy anywhere, and the Internet only radio 7 for drama and comedy.

All available to listen to live or on demand here!

Wheelson said...

Language is what defines us as a species and radio, like the written word and the delivery of words via a more visual medium (pictures, movies, theater, etc) will never die.

However, the delivery system is bound to evolve and change. I think the problem you have identified is a problem with popular commercially run radio. Of course the control of the medium on which radio programs are delivered increasingly shoves aside the small, niche radio stations and instead favors the aptly described "milquetoast FM snooze station".

Is radio dead? If by radio you mean FM stations, then yea it's dying as it is strangling itself and drowning in its own filth. If by radio you mean voices broadcast without pictures to a wide audience (live or semi-live), then no, in fact a revolution is taking place thanks to the now dominate broadcast medium, the Internets.

Podcasting is very primitive at the moment, but this is going to explode as I estimate. If you have a MP3 player, such as an iPod, you basically have a Tivo equivalent for radio. The same thing is bound to happen with TV like broadcasts as well. The allure of Podcasting is that it allows one to focus on a niche audience with little capitol investment (so small it is of no consequence).

Another example is found by looking at KEXP, an FM station in Seattle. This station is publicly funded via pledge drives. The quality of this station is top shelf however. How do they achieve such high quality with public funding? The Internet. They won a Webby 2004 award for Best Internet Radio station. In 2003 they did not win but were nominated. So, they are not only broadcast around the Puget Sound region (as the areas surrounding Seattle are called) but they have millions of listeners around the planet.

And finally Satellite. As repulsive as the Howard Stern show is, I must say if you have a dull job driving around or working on an assembly line, his show does do it's job of entertaining you. His switch to Satellite is another nail in FM's coffin and another seed planted in the fertile ground of alternative radio broadcast mediums.

Radio is not dead. It, along with Rock and Roll will never die.

Willow said...

Carmi, I'm willing to bet that jet sound contest has changed more because people have too much going on in their brains, rather than the brain-dead thing. It's not that attention spans are shorter or less existent, but that with a dozen things going on in our heads to begin with, radio's treated more as a background element to our lives. Of course the (standard pop-type stations) would have to be obvious to get the same attention from listeners...

Mark, you're hysterical! Punching the machine... haha!! (you haven't, have you?) ;)

Wheelson, I've heard of this Podcasting stuff and yes, I think it's going to take off any time now. Great addition - I learned stuff, thanks! :)

Mellie Helen said...

I don't know that it's radio itself, or rather the entire phenomenon of "commercially" available media, be it TV or radio, or even films. It appears that audiences are getting more sophisticated and are leaving TV for satellite or even TV on demand; they are leaving radio for podcasts and selective stations on the net (e.g.,; and they are leaving major releases for indie films and even quality films available only online, made for pennies when compared with multi-million dollar offerings of schlopp from the big studios. Perhaps the commercial broadcasters are seeing their audiences flitting away, and misinterpret that as meaning that their offerings are too highfalutin' for their listeners/viewers, when the exact opposite is the case, as you have so clearly demonstrated.

But this is the glory of the free market: given the opportunity, someone will create a better mousetrap, and those who recognize quality will flock to it. The counterpoint to that? John Ruskin's famous quote: "There is nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and he who considers price only is that man's lawful prey."

Canuckeh said...

I'm not sure that it's fair to single out radio as a medium that is becoming irrelevant. The symptoms of the "dumbing down of American" that you provide in your example are seen in mainstream television as well. The problem is that everything is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.

Unfortunately, we actually contribute to this. For example, when composing a test for 12th grade students, we teach that text should be at a 7th or 8th grade reading level. I'm sure that the newspaper business does the same thing. Why else would there be so many single sentence paragraphs? (I'm sure that you can provide a good answer for this!)

It's to a point that I very rarely watch mainstream television. Most of my time is spent on news programming (although all the talking-heads have diluted this as well) and the internet. Neither are perfect but they are better than mainstream radio or television.

Joan said...

I used to keep my radio tuned into a "Classic Rock" station. I like "Classic Rock" because it's what I grew up with. Recently, my "Classic Rock" station turned into "Rock without Rules" and they blend Rock music from the late 60's all the way to the present.


As a result, I like listening to the radio again. I can hear The Moody Blues "Don't fear the Reaper," followed by Maroon 5's "She will be loved!" I think it's definitely aimed at my age group (I'm 37) and I'm not insulted by any of the DJ's and the contest are for "Grown folk."

So, although I understand EXACTLY of what you speak - that radio has been so "dumbed down" - I think there is some hope on the horizon. At least here in Atlanta!


markisdead said...

Veda, BBC Radio 1, the black sheep of the BBC family, is full of D.J.'s who think they are comedians but are actually just offensive. The only time I have complained via email (about anything) was while listening to Chris Moyles. Truly awful! If my radio wasn't also my pc, I would have punched it!

Jef said...

Radio seemed good while I was in high school because I didn't know any better. I had no idea that there were bands and singers out there that I was missing out on. I realized that I didn't want to hear the same songs over and over and over and over and over again until I hated them.

When I installed my first cassette player in my car, I controlled the horizontal and the vertical. I could listen to whatever I wanted to at anytime. My CD player followed and then my MP3 player. I see more people switching to sattlelite radio in the future.

When I turn on the radio, they talk too much. I usually arrive at my destination before music is ever played. I was excited about the 80's station a year or so ago, but soon they were playing the same songs over and over again. I don't particularly want to hear Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight" every hour on the hour.

I think we're moving more toward niche stations. The Internet is leading the way. However, I still enjoy listening to the jazz show on the local Public radio station on Saturday nights. The DJ is like and old friend and I don't have a connection with any DJ's on the other stations. Perhaps it's all about human contact and developing rapport after all.

suileabháin said...

A friend just wrote a commentary on this very phenomenon. The Wages of Sucking Are Death is how she put it, and it seemed to resonate with alot of readers. She's still fielding email.

Red said...

And right along with that is when the radio has a "contest" and you have to call in after you hear the question, project, next thing to do... the MINUTE they HINT they are going to do it the phone lines light up ...BEFORE anyone knows what is coming.. I think they should clear the lines... THEN ask the question or tell the task taht has to be done...
But hey,

Thats just me..

(S)wine said...

RE: The Radio...can you say satellite radio?
RE: Newspapers...two words: USA Today.

L said...

I rarely listen to radio anymore... chucked the television also...

Joan said...

Wow, L! It must me awfully quiet at your house!


Gonzo said...

I have to second Wheelson's recommendation of Best streaming radio that I've come across - with the caveat that I happen to like the different genres of music they play. I like classical music also, you won't find it at KEXP.

The key for me is that it is listener supported and driven by a goal of promoting new music. "Where the music matters" is their tagline. For me, streaming radio has been a revelation. My job keeps me at a computer most of the day listening to music while I work. Having access to broadcasts all over the world continue to make radio relevent in my eyes. The more selection I have, the less I need to complain about obnoxious commercial radio.

Also, here's an interesting beta site that is going after a new idea:

It's buggy right now, but an interesting concept that I'm monitoring and fooling around with. I think it's somewhat related to the podcasting idea that Wheelson mentioned.