In a time when the future of radio is uncertain, everyone seems to have an opinion regarding what the industry needs to do to survive. But few have the expertise of Donna Halper, a respected radio historian and author who has spent over 40 years working in broadcasting. She believes that radio must make changes if it hopes to endure in the 21st century.

“If radio is going to survive, which I believe it will and I believe it can, it’s got to get back to being live, local and getting involved in the community…Radio works best when it talks to me like it is my friend.”

Halper is certainly a voice that commands respect. She has spent most of her adult life involved in radio, spending time as an on-air DJ and music director in Cleveland, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston. While working in Cleveland, she discovered the rock band Rush, who in turn dedicated their first two albums to her. She currently teaches at Lesley University in the communication department and has recently published a book on the history of Boston radio.

While Halper is confident that radio has a future, she believes the industry may be heading in the wrong direction. She says that when large media conglomerates such as Clear Channel began purchasing smaller, local radio stations, a very important quality of radio disappeared. She explains:

I don’t think it is good for broadcasting that you can syndicate one person over thousands and thousands of stations, because it gets rid of the incentive for developing new talent.  And it leads to stagnation. We have a universe where corporations have made a ton of money but they haven’t developed any new local talent. They just keep re-syndicating, re-voicetracking and the whole live and local quality that made radio what it is in a lot of markets is gone.

The Telecommunication Act of 1996 allowed this to take place, according to Halper. Back in the ’70s, there were caps to how many radio stations one company could own. By removing these limits, corporations such as Clear Channel and Citadel have been able to buy hundreds of stations which have taken away from live and local programming.

But there are still some local stations doing great work. Look at WERS 88.9 FM. The station, owned and run by Emerson College, is an example of a live and local station that still holds a strong connection to the community. Just this month it held a fundraiser that brought $100,000 into the radio station from local listeners. WERS is commercial-free.

“We raised the money in just two weeks,” said Stefanie Guarino, a reporter for WERS News. “Our base really seems to appreciate us and like us. It may just be that they know we are struggling students.  But our programming, especially the news department, does a good job of broadcasting stories about the area that people may not be getting anywhere else.”

The news program at WERS runs from 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays, with live updates every half hour. There is an emphasis on local coverage but national news is reported as well. News reports vary in length and much of the content is “live-to-tape.”  WERS News received seven AP awards in 2010 for a variety of different stories. According to Guarino, this diversity attracts a wide listener base.

“Our audience ranges from college students, to working individuals to families. And our programming reflects that,” she says. “On Saturday mornings we have a kids program where we just play family-friendly music. And our news program is on during drive-time, which caters to people that commute home from work.”

But radio these days is not just in your car. More than ever before, radio is available everywhere, whether it be on your cell phone or online. Radio stations are adapting to the times by renovating their facilities and providing much of their content through different mediums.

WGBH is a great example of this. The media company moved from its former home on Western Avenue to a new building on Guest Street in Boston in 2007. According to Frannie Carr, producer of “The Emily Rooney Show”, “live and local was the hallmark of the relaunch.”

Click on image for more photos of WGBH's renovated facilities in Boston

As a local public broadcaster, WGBH runs two public television channels and three public radio stations. Over the last few years, it has made a conscience effort to bring new media to their content, with live online streams and podcasts just a few of the things they are doing now to broaden their listener base.

WGBH 89.7 is a member station of NPR and PRI and one of their main areas of focus is local news broadcasting. “The Emily Rooney Show”,for example, is a one-hour local public affairs talk radio show that discusses issues and news relating to the Greater Boston region.

Journalist Emily Rooney invites guests on the air that she knows will interest locals. Just last week she spent an hour discussing the Red Sox, inviting Fenway Park PA announcer Carl Beane into the studio. “The local news aspect of radio seems to be diminishing and I think it is important for public radio stations to still be in existence,” says Carr.

WGBH- FM 89.7 FM underwent a major format change in January 2010, replacing their music programming with a schedule of mostly news and talk shows.

While another option for quality public radio in Boston sounds like a positive situation, one entity is none too pleased. WBUR-FM 90.9 has long been the king of local public radio, with a schedule of news and talk that has dominated that market in Boston for many years. Since WGBH changed its format, thousands of listeners have seemingly left WBUR in favor of the new station. While WBUR still has the larger audience, it remains to be seen whether the city is big enough for two large public radio stations broadcasting similar content.

So if they key to successful radio is live and local content, why do large corporations continue to buy radio stations? Because it makes money. Just last week BIA/Kelsey reported that radio industry revenues rose 5.4 percent to $14.1 billion in 2010. But according to Donna Halper, despite the financial benefits, corporate radio is driving people away. What radio needs is a return to what made the medium successful in the first place. She says:

 As a news medium, NPR does news the way it used to be done. They give you long, in-depth pieces. They give you excellent reporting. As a listener, give me something interesting, give me something compelling, tell me a story. Radio is a great storytelling medium, that’s one of its strengths. NPR goes in depth better than just about anybody. This is what makes radio what it is.

Does radio have a future in today’s society? Halper says yes and she doesn’t seem worried. “Radio has reinvented itself before and it will do it again,” she says. “It certainly has a future.”


I wouldn’t consider the Christian Science Monitor to be an average daily newspaper. But it may just be the future of the daily newspaper.

On a visit to the Monitor’s headquarters, located a short walk from Northeastern’s campus on Massachusetts Ave, our Reinventing the News class was able to get a sense of what it may be like to be a journalist in the current media landscape. It was fascinating to sit in on the budget meeting and listen to the editors discuss the day’s news.

As I sat and watched these experienced, professional journalists, I could not help but be amazed at the way they have had to “reinvent” themselves over the last few years. Here you had seasoned journalists talking about whether there is a “clickability” factor to a story and discussing the benefits of SEO (search engine optimization). When these editors began their careers, these words may not have even been invented. But I would surmise that they are now experts in this field, a real testament to their abilities.

Since moving to a daily online format, the paper has seen its online hit numbers rise dramatically. In May 2010, 15.7 million page views were recorded on the website compared to almost 30 million page views in April 2011. While, they still publish a weekly edition of the publication, the vast majority of their readers are online.

John Yemma, editor of the paper, spoke about the Monitor’s overall goal to explain the news in a fair and reasonable manner. He said the creation of the paper was to combat some of the “yellow journalism” that was taking place during the early 1900s. Looking deeper into issues and answering the questions that readers may not be getting elsewhere.

There is also a strong international focus at the paper. In a time when major news organizations are shutting down their foreign bureaus and taking their reporters out of Washington, I think it is important for the Monitor to continue having people on the ground in the places they are covering.

You may be wondering how the publication makes any money. The Christian Science church does indeed subsidize some of the cost. That, in addition to money they make off their print subscribers and online advertising, keeps the Monitor up and running.

Think the radio industry is in bad shape? According to a report from BIA/Kelsey, it may be doing better than you think.

U.S. radio broadcast revenues rose 5.4% in 2010 to $14.1 billion, according to the report. The mid-term political elections and more activity by national advertisers contributed to the increase, according to BIA/Kelsey vice president Mark Fratrik.

The higher than expected radio revenues in 2010 reflected the return of national advertisers to the airwaves and some political battles that made an impact in certain markets.

Along with this comes the news that an average of 241.6 million people ages 12 and older listened to terrestrial radio stations each week last year, an increase of 2.1 million over 2009 and up 4.9% versus 2005, according to an annual study by Arbitron.

Radio is much stronger than the general perception of it has been,” says Carol Hanley, Arbitron’s executive VP of sales and marketing.

BIA/Kelsey also reported that online and digital revenues at traditional radio stations will see a substantial annual growth rate over the next five years, rising from $405 million in 2010 to $494 million in 2011, and $783 million by 2015.

Also, with the 2012 election year looming, radio revenues will increase by 4.5%.

What does it all mean?  Well these numbers are certainly an indication that radio is still extremely relevant and isn’t going anywhere. But with satellite and internet radio still on the rise, it remains to be seen how well traditional radio can continue to do in the increasingly crowded landscape.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As a student consumed by my own work, I sometimes forget that professors are extremely active outside of the classroom. In fact, many of them are involved in impressive projects that reach far beyond the confines of Boston.

Professors from the newly formed College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University gathered in the Curry Ballroom on April 5 to share their work with a crowd of colleagues and students.

As a journalism student, I was most interested in and felt the closest connection with Dan Kennedy’s work with the New Haven Independent and Walter Robinson’s presentation about the work his advanced reporting class is doing with The Boston Globe.

But this was work I knew was taking place. I had no idea what some other professors were up to and I was definitely inspired.

Justin Townsend, Department of Music

Justin Townsend, lighting and scenic design professor in the Theater Department, gave an enthusiastic presentation about his work. His talents have appeared on Broadway in the production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as well as Shakespeare performances on the Boston Common.

He put a specific emphasis on light.

In my productions, light becomes the architecture. I am able to change the performance space using light

I am interested in checking out his work in the productions Northeastern’s theater department puts on, as he is obviously a master in the field.

Other professors from the Department of Music also spoke about topics that intrigued me. Richard Strasser spoke of the issues the industry is facing in terms of making money. He put forth different strategies that he feels may work to change the decline of sales in the music industry. Hilary Poriss is an expert in the history of Italian opera and an author of three books on the topic.

Fan-favorite Murray Forman brought to light the concept of longevity in the hip-hop industry. It is something I’ve never heard being discussed, but he made sense and I definitely plan on reading further into the topic.

While there are plenty of notable professors in the College of Arts, Media and Design, this presentation made me curious about the faculty in other colleges. I’m sure they are doing important work, as well. More events like these would be beneficial.

I was inspired by this work and these instructors are certainly giving Northeastern University a good name around the world.

What if there was a news website that featured only the “highest quality” journalism available online? The common news consumer could arrive at the website and be sure that the news they saw on the front page was important, credible and impartial.

This may be unrealistic, but NewsTrust attempts to do just that.

This news aggregation website invites users to rate articles based on different criteria and those with the most favorable reviews would be prominently featured on the main page.

Casual news readers may not be aware that sometimes they are reading poor quality journalism, whether it be biased reporting or simple fact-checking errors. By allowing the mass media to critique and provide feedback on various news articles, it allows them to separate the “good news sources” from the bad. It also allows exceptional news reporting to be elevated above the mediocre stories and given a special placement.

The biggest problem with any website like this is the lack of participation from the general audience. There just does not seem to be enough traffic on a daily basis to make this a truly useful tool at this point in time.

This hypothetical scenario is what would make NewsTrust a fantastic website:

Glenn Beck announces he is ending his television show on Fox News. This news gets widespread media coverage. The story in covered in several different publications and some of them are submitted to NewsTrust. Dozens of people rate each story, allowing the person visiting the website to compare and contrast how each news source covered this particular story.

Mike LaBonte touched on this idea when he spoke to our Reinventing the News class about the website.

While currently web traffic is not where it needs to be, I would not give up on this site just yet. The interface is easy to use and the system they have in place would be effective if they had more people logging on.

Look at how Wikipedia started. That site is as comprehensive and large as it is because of an expansive group of volunteers that put their time and effort into it. Even a small fraction of that help would elevate NewsTrust to the next level.

I spent a good deal of time on the website reviewing existing stories and also adding a few of my own. It is a great model and as readership grows, so will its relevance in today’s news landscape.

Nirvana in 1992

Kurt Cobain was found dead on this day 17 years ago in his Seattle home, causing grief and sadness to Nirvana fans around the world. But like so many other bands before them, without a local DJ deciding to play some unknown tracks from their album, the world may have never gotten to hear his music.

Nirvana was signed to DGC Records in 1991 and was preparing to release their major label debut, Nervermind, later that year. They issued their lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on August 27, 1991 to radio stations across the country but it found little success and did not chart.

A few weeks later, however, college radio and modern rock radio stations heard the track and placed it on heavy rotation.

By the end of the year, the song, the video and the album had all become hits. The single reached number six on the Billboard charts the same week that Nevermind reached number one on the album charts.

Both the song and Nevermind became a rare cross-format phenomenon, reaching all the major rock radio formats including modern rock, hard rock, album rock, and college radio.

Danny Goldberg of Nirvana’s management firm Gold Mountain admitted they were surprised by what happened with the song.

None of us heard it as a crossover song, but the public heard it and it was instantaneous. They heard it on alternative radio, and then they rushed out like lemmings to buy it.

With syndicated programming taking over the radio industry, stories like this are difficult to come by. Many stations are mandated to play Top 40 or popular songs, eliminating any chance of discovering new talent.

Donna Halper spoke to me about this last week for a future feature story on the blog. She, of course, discovered the legendary rock band Rush in the mid 1970s working as a DJ and music director at WMMS, a radio station in Cleveland, Ohio.

But times have changed. Look for my feature story about the future of the radio industry in the coming weeks.

Kurt Cobain would have been 44 years old.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Citizen journalism is always in the discussion when talking about the future of the news industry and the topic reappeared on Tuesday morning when Firuzeh Shokooh Valle, editor at Global Voices and current graduate student at Northeastern University, spoke to our Reinventing the News class.

Global Voices is an online community of approximately 300 bloggers from nearly 60 countries around the world. Valle deals specifically with news coverage in Puerto Rico. The website provides quality journalism from reporters on the ground in the countries they are covering. She spoke about the vast “blogosphere” in Puerto Rico, especially those dealing with arts and entertainment.

Comparing American and Puerto Rican bloggers, she said Americans are focused mostly on politics, while Puerto Ricans seem to be more interested in the arts. She says one of the most difficult aspects of her job is following news that is happening on the ground while she is hours away in Boston.

But she is able to report on what is happening in Puerto Rico because of bloggers, Twitter and various social media sources. She admits that Global Voices is not yet a news source in Puerto Rico large enough to compete with the major daily newspapers, but pointed to her blog’s inclusion on the countries topics page on the Times website as a step in the right direction.

Valle took the Reinventing the News class with Dan Kennedy a few years ago before continuing her graduate school studies at Northeastern. Prior to arriving in Boston, she began her journalism career as a newspaper reporter in Puerto Rico. She covered local stories, primarily dealing with human rights issues. She spoke of the impact that Kennedy’s class had on her knowledge of “new media”, which is the focus of her graduate studies.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons