I often think about how much radio has changed since I began my career as a professional broadcaster in February 1968, 54 years ago. Local radio at that time told us who was born, who died, whether school was open or closed, what happened at the city council or school board meetings, what was going on in the world, our nation and our community. We depended on our hometown radio station for weather, sports and entertainment.
In 1968 local radio was the way we often learned about events first; it was “magical.”
Radio’s Prime Purpose
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia 6th ed. in 2012 defined radio’s purpose this way:
The prime purpose of radio is to convey information
from one place to another through the intervening media
(i.e., air, space, nonconducting materials)
Isn’t that the same thing my iPhone does? It conveys information to me through the same intervening media without wires.
In fact, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued my broadcast license back in ’68, it was called it a “Radio Telephone Third Class Operator Permit (Restricted Radiotelephone Certificate).” This always made me wonder why it was called that, as I studied to earn this permit for the sole purpose of being able to operate a broadcast radio station, not work for a telephone company.
A radiotelephone, it turns out, is a phone that uses radio transmission. Wikipedia defines it this way:
A radiotelephone (or radiophone), abbreviated RT, is a radio communication system for transmission of speech over radio. Radiotelephony means transmission of sound (audio) by radio, in contrast to radiotelegraphy, which is transmission of telegraph signals, or television, transmission of moving pictures and sound. The term may include radio broadcasting systems, which transmit audio one way to listeners, but usually refers to two-way radio systems for bidirectional person-to-person voice communication between separated users, such as CB radio or marine radio. In spite of the name, radiotelephony systems are not necessarily connected to or have anything to do with the telephone network, and in some radio services, including GMRS, interconnection is prohibited.
Today’s smartphones are both radios and televisions – and a whole lot more.
First Source for Breaking News
In 2011, a rare earthquake shook our nation’s capital and then Hurricane Irene added to the area’s misery as she swept up the coast causing fatalities and billions of dollars of destruction. Both of these events disrupted lines of communication for millions of residents in the Washington, DC area.
Larry Thomas, a former Shift Commander for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services who lives in Annapolis, wrote in the Association of Public-Safety Communications newsletter, about the important role radio played in both of these natural disasters. Thomas wrote:
“Public safety authorities know that radio is the single most reliable outlet for information, which is why a battery-operated radio is so important and always part of any preparedness kit recommended by every organization from local agencies to FEMA and the Red Cross.”
Yet, stranded motorists on I-95 during a recent winter storm found their car radios providing none of the needed information they sought.
Those within range of a news station like WTOP, were kept informed, but sadly, those types of radio stations prove to be the exception rather than the rule.
Has Radio’s Purpose Been Appropriated?
When I think of all the things that made radio important in people’s lives, I can’t help but notice that these very attributes are now fulfilled by other sources, and often done better than broadcast radio. Here’s a partial list of what I’m talking about:
- Weather: The Weather Channel, Accuweather etc.
- News: NY Times, Washington Post, TV News Apps, other News Apps etc.
- School Closings: Schools notify students, faculty & staff via text messages, websites etc.
- Births/Deaths: social media etc.
- City Council/School Board meetings: watch them online live
- Road closures or other important information: text messages, websites, emails
- Sports: the schools broadcast games online
- Or to put it more simply, everything radio was famous for, today is easily accessible via the internet on a smartphone
I’m not saying these things to be hurtful to the radio industry, but to ask the fundamental question about its future.
What is Radio’s WHY?
Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” is a deep dive into why “some people and organizations are more innovative, more influential and more profitable than others.”
Sinek says what all the successful individuals and companies have in common is their starting point. They first clearly must define their WHY.
What I’m not reading in any of the radio trades, in any of the materials from the Radio Advertising Bureau or the National Association of Broadcasters is what is radio’s WHY in the 21st Century. Instead I’m reading about how radio is developing podcasts, streaming, centralizing their news operations around regional hubs, consolidating their radio dayparts around national hosts…and on…and on…and on.
As Sinek says:
“Any organization can explain what it does; some can explain how they do it; but very few can clearly articulate why. WHY is not money or profit – those are always results. WHY does your organization exist? WHY does it do the things it does? “
What does your radio station do, that provides your advertisers and listeners, with a unique experience that has them coming back day after day?
“How do you get there if you don’t know where you are going?”
The WHY for commercial radio to survive and thrive in a 21st Century world is not the same as when it was born over a hundred years ago, because both radio and the world were different then.
Without a clearly defined and articulated WHY, I fear that radio will continue to be tossed like a rowboat in the stormy sea of mediated communications.