Albert Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
I have noticed that when I publish a new article about radio, people seem to fall into a couple of different camps. There are those who say radio’s days are numbered, or over. There are those who think going back to the way it was will solve everything. And there are those who believe “radio” is a concept and not a specific transmission platform, such as the AM or FM bands.
WABC Becomes Talk Radio
In May of 1982 Music Radio 77 – WABC in New York City became a talk radio station. Music sounded better on FM and in stereo than on static filled, mono AM radio. This happened 37-years ago and yet many of us tune in to Rewound Radio every Memorial Day Weekend to listen to WABC, the way it was when we were growing up in the 60s & 70s.
WPLJ is Sold
WABC-FM became WPLJ on February 14, 1971 and by September of that same year it would become one of America’s first AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio stations.
“Watching All the President’s Men on TCM…thought it might be timely. Loved the reference when Bernstein asked Woodward “if you’re listening to the radio and you don’t hear any commercials for 10 minutes, is it AM or FM?” Kinda sums up the demise of music radio on AM back in the 70s and strongly underlines what’s happening to FM now compared to satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify, etc.”
Now WPLJ has been sold and like a divorce, WABC and WPLJ will no longer be together. Frank D’Elia writes a wonderful personal history of WPLJ on his blog which you can read HERE.
Sadly, he ends his blog article with the following: “I loved the radio business, and it was my home for over 44 years, but today, radio sucks!”
The World Wide Web Turned 30 This Past Week
While it was 37 years ago that the music died on WABC, it was 30 years ago this past Wednesday, that Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed a global linked information management system that included hypertext. Even more interesting is the fact that Sir Berners-Lee feels a little bit like Frank D’Elia and the current state of his creation. In an article published on the World Economic Forum website titled “The web is 30 years old. What better time to fight for its future?” Sir Tim shares his frustrations and recommendations for fixing things. He writes: “To tackle any problem, we must clearly outline and understand it. I broadly see three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:
Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.”
Lots of Change
When I think back to those days when AM radio rocked my world, to today where Alexa serves up whatever my mood desires, things have changed a lot.
Berners-Lee also notes how much the web has changed in the past 30 years and that it would be “defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web, as we know it, can’t be changed for the better in the next 30.”
Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads, wrote recently that “The key to failure is to hang on to the belief that things have to be ‘the way they ought to be.’ The key to success is to be able to deal with things as they really are.”
Which brings me back to the title of this week’s blog article, are we the solution or the problem when it comes to the future of radio?
What are Radio’s Big 3 Areas of Dysfunction?
I’m sure you have your own thoughts on this, but the sense I have from reading articles about today’s radio industry from all over the world, along with reader comments, are that these three things are very important to the future of radio:
Commercials. Radio’s commercial spot loads are too big. The 60 and 30-second ad lengths are over. Radio needs to re-think the way it monetizes itself OTA (over the air) and the creation of radio ads needs to be a specialty in every radio station. Jerry Lee understands this better than anyone in our industry.
Companionship. Alexa is convenient and we even chat with one another, but I don’t consider “her” a companion. Radio needs to fulfill that social need for the listener. I believe NPR has done a spectacular job of fulfilling this companionship role through its variety of informational programs. Companionship is built by live personalities that broadcast from the area being served or focused on like-interests of the target audience.
Quality vs. Quantity. The radio industry is focused on putting more signals on the air, and controlling more existing radio signals by fewer entities, than it is on the content that should be sent over those signals. The original benchmarks or staples of radio are often much more efficiently handled by other platforms. Radio needs to re-think what it can do that others can’t, and then do it. Radio needs to compliment today’s other communications media, as it no longer is the sole source of information for things like weather, traffic, school closings etc.
I would love to hear your thoughts, but even more important, I would love to hear the thoughts of people who don’t listen to radio and what would entice them to return.
The future of radio will be based on attracting the next generations.
We won’t know what they want if we don’t ask them.
“Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit
is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety.”
19 responses to “Are We the Solution or the Problem?”
Truly those last words of the WPLJ story are very sad. We always used to say,”if you’re winning in the halls, you’ll win on the air.” The halls are empty. The crazy creative frat house feel of the best radio stations of the past can not be assembled by voice tracking and syndication. The truly awesome radio stations not only had the on air lunatics, but there were others, from engineering, sales, etc that would add to the fun, family feeling of a great station. People are the secret sauce to success; young creative people. Thanks for sharing the WPLJ story. It really defines the evolution of radio. There are solutions to the current struggles with radio. You can see the solutions everywhere on the internet, but nobody has taken the time to assemble them into one location, stick a “Brand”on it and let the fun begin.
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Thank You Gregg for stopping by and adding your thoughts.
That Blog is called “It’s better than working for a living” because for 44 years, it was. Back when I started in radio in 1972 it was already changing, but there was still a future. While there were a lot of folks still around from the “Golden Age of Radio”, I was by no means the only 20 something starting out. It was still a healthy, viable business, populated by ABC, NBC, CBS, and many other great radio companies. That’s to me what sucks today. The future I had is gone for my younger friends. The smart, visionary management folks are no longer there. The ship has no Captain, and it shows.
PS….thanks for the mention!!
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Frank, I share that sense of loss you mention that younger people will never get to experience. I often wonder if people in Vaudeville lamented something similar as radio came into existence and upended the world of entertainment as they knew it.
And I hope once people get to your blog site, that they will go back and read the many wonderful articles you wrote about your WABC days.
Your stories and pictures are GOLDEN.
Thanks Dick. When I started at WABC, one of the NABET Enginers I worked with was Harry Lang. Harry had worked there so long that he’d originally been hired by NBC, and when the FCC made NBC split up the Red and Blue Network, he ended up with what became ABC. He spoke often about the Golden Age of Radio, and about how “lame” WABC was at that point. Remember, this was the mid 70s when WABC was the most listen to station in the nation, but it was not the radio that a young Harry Lang started in! It’s all about perspective!
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Frank, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve been chatting with readers about today. You nailed it with your story and the fact that it’s all about “perspective.”
Thank You for adding those thoughts to this discussion.
Waiting to hear others input……. Cheers Jay
Me too Jay. -DT
1. A real signal is a terrible thing to waste. 2. Ascertainment, creativity, connection and presentation are essential. 3. Stand up, innovate, change with the times, use all channels and broadcast what we really have to offer. 4. The audience and advertisers will be there, embrace it and it doesn’t cost anything more to do. 5. Radio & Audio Delivery is content, information and entertainment, as it’s been for 100 years and hundreds more.
Hi Clark, thanks for your wisdom.
Yesterday I drove from Virginia to Maryland and back. All along the way I had to keep hitting SEEK/SCAN on my radio due to not one radio signal staying in range, or not being interfered with, on my drive. So to your first point, I think “a real signal” would be good to have.
Happily on my drives into a major metro area, like Washington, DC, I can lock in a solid signal on a WAMU, WETA or WTOP and it sounds great.
One of the first things radio COULD do, is get rid of the 2 stop set clocks. Go to three and cut the number of units per set. Works harder on the creative in the spots. GOOD commercials never drive away audience, only the bad ones do. No one seems to complain when Bud Light’s “Real Men of Genius” comes on. And more stations would benefit from having a professional copywriter on the staff. They would more than pay for themselves.
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Commercials don’t have to be a tune out. In fact, when my kids visited me when I was managing radio stations in Iowa, before boarding the plane, I remember them asking me if I could make copies of the commercials they heard on my stations. They enjoyed them that much!
And when a new radio station signed on in Cape May, NJ back in the 80s, they invested in a great creative team and would NOT accept continuity from other local stations. They preferred to work directly with the advertiser and create ads that fit their format and got results. And they did. I remember being at a house party and everyone got quiet so they could listen to the commercial breaks. Imagine that!
Good thoughts Kevin. Thank you for sharing them.
Everything in advertising, marketing and content is changing so rapidly it would make one’s head explode. There are literally millions of people who are all but unreachable by advertising. (Read Mark Schaefer’s new book, “Marketing Rebellion”). This is where authentic personalities could come in. This doesn’t mean transplanting a 1960s radio show into 2019.
I agree the proliferation of translators and weak signals aren’t doing radio listenership any favors (with some exceptions). We also aren’t going to have 40 stations in a market with 24/7 live and local staffs, and wouldn’t even have even if consolidation never happened. Having said all that, I live in a market where I can hear 3 local talk shows daily, several local sports talk shows, and other personalities. It really isn’t all an automated juke box.
Old radio guy Facebook groups tend to be populated by old white guys who remember radio a certain way. It’s going to be younger people, people of color, etc who are going to have to be the people who will figure out radio–and audio content in general’s—future.
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Excellent comments Brad. Thank You for that book tip, “Marketing Rebellion.” Sounds like something anyone in communication and advertising would benefit from reading.
It’s easy to blame voicetracking, long ad breaks, and lack of “air personalities” when the real problem is right in front of you. On the morning of March 15, Rush Limbaugh went on the air to blame leftists for the massacre at the New Zealand mosque. If radio companies had any conscience, they would have denounced Limbaugh and put his show in time-out. Instead he stays on the air because iHeartMedia, Entercom, Cumulus Media, etc., etc. support his neofascist worldview. Anyone under 30 sees Limbaugh as the aural equivalent of a propaganda minister in a fascist country.
On a separate note, WABC moved away from “Musicradio” in 1981 and had been Adult Contemporary day/Talk night before going Talk full-time in 1982.
Charles, the style of radio done by Rush & others like him is not new to radio. It’s been around almost since the beginning of radio broadcasting.
Father Charles Edward Coughlin, the crusading radio commentator of the 1930s, was the forerunner of Rush Limbaugh and other modern talk radio hosts. The controversial Catholic priest burned up the airwaves from 1926 until he was forced off the air in 1939.
By the mid-1930s, radio broadcasting had matured into a mainstream commercial industry, and its gentrification had eliminated most of the outliers from the airwaves. With the exception of Father Coughlin and a few others, the radio medium had been tamed, with stations and networks alike voluntarily avoiding controversy.
In its 1941 Mayflower decision, the FCC declared that radio stations needed to remain neutral in matters of news and politics, and prohibited them from supporting any particular position or candidate.
In 1949, the commission upped the ante with its implementation of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to give equal time to contrasting views on controversial issues. This effectively drove most political debate off the air, except for a few carefully crafted “management editorials.”
The Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, a victim of the new broadcast deregulatory environment. This opened the floodgates and controversy again began to flourish on the country’s airwaves, particularly on today’s popular “hot talk” AM stations. (These five paragraphs from an article in Radio World. You can read the full article at https://www.radioworld.com/columns-and-views/the-rabble-rousers-of-early-radio-broadcasting ).
I covered this part of radio broadcasting history in my college course on the History of Broadcasting in America.
Thank you for the additional information on the transition of WABC from music radio to talk radio. I had forgotten that.
Even if Rush has a 10 share in your market, 90% of the radio audience didn’t hear a word he said (let alone those not listening to radio at all in that time slot). Does anyone really know what Mary Berner’s politics are? How can we say “iHeart, Cumulus, Entercom, etc” all unanimously support Rush’s world view? Hard to do when hundreds of people work for those companies and in the case of publicly traded companies, hundreds of stockholders (many who don’t even know they own stock through retirement plans).
Radio has already ceded “companionship” to podcasters. We had the opportunity to re-invigorate it in the early 90s, but since de-reg, “companionship” has been gradually removed from the formula for a successful radio station. After 10AM, my companion has been replaced by produced sweepers by Mr. Big Voice insisting that they really are playing my favorite songs. Or Mr. Gritty Rock sweeper guy, just full of that rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
Meanwhile, I listen to about four interest-focused podcasts regularly. The hosts are friendly, articulate and enthusiastic. There’s no hype. They’re not radio professionals, but they sound great and most significantly, sound authentic. These people, without trying, have become my companions. I look forward to their company with each new podcast. They largely fill a role that used to be filled by the air personalities I loved. Radio has ceded to non-professionals, this important advantage.
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Thank You Nick for sharing your experience with both today’s radio and the growing podcasting movement.