Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Old Time Radio

A few weeks ago, I was talking to someone from the Buffalo Broadcasters Association about a story. The group tries to preserve the area's broadcast history; it has a Hall of Fame induction dinner every year, and is currently trying to save some television news film from the Sixties and Seventies.

He made a remark that has stuck with me a bit. He said that no one wants to be in radio anymore.

And that's something of a shame.

Ever get an old-timer going on the magic of the radio? The role of imagination for the listener? The thrill of hearing a great song on the air for the first time?

Radio has gone through a few phases over the years. When it first became a commercial product in 1920 (many of our readers no doubt stayed up late to hear the Harding-Cox election returns on KDKA in Pittsburgh that year), it quickly became an important part of daily life. I guess it resembled network television in its mixture of entertainment and news.

When television came along for good in the Fifties, radio had to adapt. And it did so brilliantly, catching the wave of the music revolution that was just coming in. The disk jockeys seemed hip, and the music they played seemed to explode out of the speakers of your car radio or of that "tiny" transistor radio you carried everywhere.

But Top Forty radio essentially blew up in the early 1980's. The idea of everyone listening to the same music -- more or less -- became antiquated, and the audience fractured into several pieces.

The landscape today isn't so pretty. AM radio is mostly news/talk, with callers and hosts providing more heat than light (in Bob Costas' phrase). The news aspect of the business is disappearing quickly, except in cities big enough to support an all-news operation. Over on FM, music is still played, but most people can only stand the format of a station or two. And overshadowing it all is the relentless cost-cutting of station ownership, which has brought satellite programming to many stations and thus eliminating any local flavor entirely.

Someone once told me in the mid-1980's that anyone who could get out of radio did so by the time they were 30. There are a few mature voices still on the air, thankfully, but they are difficult to find.

I still listen to the radio in the car. A local alt-rock station keeps me a little bit current on music, and a baseball game at night still sounds good while driving. But I do wonder if radio will have a third act of relevance in the near future.

1 comment:

Elmer Ploetz ... aka Mister E said...

I've got students who are in love with radio. I hope they can find the jobs ... one did a great internship with WNED-AM this summer.

I would make the argument that public radio, college radio and community radio are the only places where radio lives. Commercial radio circled the wagons and (for the most part) pulled its own plug a decade or two ago. Now they're just "trying to anesthesize the way that we feel)," or something like that.