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.”
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.”