Archive for NPR

Is Your Local Radio Station an Endangered Species?

Posted in Technology with tags , , , , , , on May 12, 2008 by webzealot

I am neither an early adopter of new technology, nor a laggard. I’m probably somewhere in between. I don’t have an iPhone… yet, but probably will buy one when my current cell phone contract runs out. I’m a little bit late and slow with the whole social networking stuff on the web. I’ve had a portable GPS for a number of years, but I don’t have HDTV. So I suppose I am pretty average when adopting these new technologies and ideas.

So if I use myself as a technology barometer for the average American, I need to wonder… Is traditional radio dying?

NPR logoHere’s what makes me wonder. Rewind a couple of years to 2006 or so. I was a fanatical NPR listener. It was the first preset on all my radios. It was on my clock radio that woke me up. I turned it on in my kitchen as I made coffee and ate breakfast. I listened in the car on the way to work. I turned it on at work (or streamed it live, a service offered by my local station). I listened on the way home. All in all, I probably listened to AT LEAST six hours of my local NPR station each and every weekday. And some days, that might climb to eight hours or more.

To say NPR was a regular part of my day was an understatement. I gave money every pledge drive… As much as I listened, how could I not? And for me, the fact that it was NPR is neither here nor there. It could have easily been any of the commercial stations in town. I just preferred NPR. And it was this listening pattern which defined my usage of radio for probably the better part of ten years.

But now it’s 2008, and boy have things changed. My local NPR station is still in my clock radio, and I still wake up with it. But when my clock radio cuts off after ah hour, I’m done. From six plus hours to one or less over the course of two years. So what’s different?

The first thing that changed was in Christmas of 2006. My wife got me Sirius Satellite radio. I had been skeptical of satellite radio. In a day and age when we seem to get nickel and dimed to death, the notion of another monthly fee or service was not terribly appealing. I already pay plenty for cable, cell phone service, Internet access, on and on… But, there I was, radio in hand. So I decided to give it a try.

In just a matter of days, I was hooked. “Subscription fee? Who cares?!?!? This is sooooo worth it!” I said to anyone who would listen. And, even better, I could still get NPR content! What’s not to love!

I got a desk top radio, but it also came with a car adapter. I could listen both at home and when driving… And that’s what I started doing. I loved scrolling through all the channels and seeing what was out there. And there was plenty. All kinds of music, talk, and sports sports sports. In fact, it was the sports programming that really got its hooks in me. We have a nearby station that carries ESPN Radio, but it’s AM which in my book is essentially unlistenable except in extraordinary situations. With Sirius I was able to listen to ESPN Radio with crystal clarity for the first time ever. And listen I did. Pretty much every morning. The watershed moment was when I had to hop in the car and didn’t want to miss anything, so I took it with me using the car adapter. My local NPR station had been formally supplanted.

I still switched back to the local NPR station occasionally, but I found myself seeking out the same programming on the satellite, just because I could. I can’t really explain that part other than to say I was just in love with the technology I guess. So in fairly short order, my local NPR station was getting my ear maybe two and half hours per day. Still a lot, but not nearly the six plus hours I used to listen.

But the switch to satellite radio was only the beginning. In the summer on 2007, I bought my first iPod. Okay, I am a laggard in that category, I admit. I don’t feel the need to listen to my own personal soundtrack wherever I go, so the whole iPod rage hadn’t appealed to me much. But, we bought one and adopted it as part of our modest home entertainment set up. But what I discovered soon afterward was PODCASTING. Oh glory be! I know podcasting is nothing new… But as I looked through the iTunes store at all the free podcasts available, I couldn’t believe it. And I could store an INSANE AMOUNT of content on my 80GB iPod. So I started subscribing to EVERYTHING, even stuff I knew I might not listen to for months.

And there, amongst it all, was the same NPR programming I was getting from the local station. Except now I could time shift… I could listen to “Fresh Air” or “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” or “Car Talk” when it was convenient for me. So in less than a year were two sea changes in how I listened to my local radio station.

I don’t mean to be singling out NPR here. I think the same applies to all radio. For me, local music channels have been essentially unlistenable for year. Here in Charlotte, most of our stations are own and operated by Clear Channel Communications, so they all sound about the same: Ads for car dealerships occasionally broken up by short injections of seemingly generic music.

But for the first time in years I chose not to contribute to my local NPR station. I felt a little bit bad about that, but only a little. When I was listening all day long, my contribution seemed worthwhile. Now it no longer did. Most of what I could hear over the airwaves was now available with no strings attached via podcasts.

I am a sample size of one. But lately I can’t help but wonder how many others are out there like me, and how many others will follow. I suspect I am pretty typical. There will always be some people who will hang onto the old ways as long as they can. There are still people out there using Windows 98 just because it still works for them and why change. My Mom didn’t have cable until just a couple years ago, even though it had been available to her for years. And there will still be people who stick to local radio just because they don’t know any better.

But that pool is likely to shrink, and will that be a pool affluent enough to support local radio? Is that a pool that advertisers will want to reach? I suspect not. Is radio the next thing to join newspapers on the media scrap heap?

And what of HD radio? I wonder if this was the technological advance that is supposed to save radio. But I have yet to hear HD radio, or even see one on a store shelf. Nor do I know anyone who owns one. I’m sure they are fabulous, but unlike HDTVs which seem to be popping up at all my neighbors houses, I don’t see any huge buzz over HD radio. So from what I can tell, it’s dead on arrival. Quick, give me one compelling reason to buy one…

I’m waiting…

Time’s up. I suspect if the government mandated a switch to HD radio, as it has with HDTV, many folks would simply choose to listen to their iPods instead. Just a hunch.

So I wonder, how much longer will our local radio stations be viable? AM has found a niche with talk and sports radio, but is essentially wasted bandwidth as far as I am concerned. The radios in our cars seem to deliver only marginal AM reception, as do most of the radios in our house. FM delivers far superior quality, but commercial radio is programming is as poor as it’s ever been, and with so many other alternatives how will it compete?

So I have to ask… How much longer will radio be around?