The broadcast communications industry is constantly evolving. From year to year, the industry is revolutionized with the advent of new technologies, and the ever-shifting market for new forms of news and entertainment help fuel this fast-paced environment. Some technologies are steadfast while others fall by the wayside. Television has remained one of the strongest and most reliable technologies, while things such as cassette tapes and telegraph machines are nothing more than a novelty today. There’s a good chance that terrestrial radio is going the way of the 8-track. The pace at which society moves and the rate of growth spurned by modern science leads to innovations in the field of broadcasting that leaves many formats in the dust. In such a fast-paced environment, it's evolve or die.
The format of modern broadcast radio is simple. One person playing music, one person talking about a narrow range of issues, one person reading the news, one person interviewing another... all familiar formats. When you get down to the essence of radio, it’s nothing more than auditory media with no visual counterpart. Unfortunately, the infinite variety that this sort of media permits has been whittled down to a very narrow scope of approved formats. I feel that it is the strict guidelines imposed on radio by advertisers, producers, station managers, and The Federal Communications Commission, telling the broadcasters what is and what is not to be done on the public airwaves, that is causing radio to fall out of favor with the general public, rather than the obsolescence of radio itself.
Today, radio is a “niche” market, left for the few who, given the choice, enjoy listening to the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh take an idea and thrash it around until it’s reduced to splintered fragments of logic, while Air America hosts try to pick up all the pieces and fritter away their time attempting to put them back in order. Since this sort of thing really only appeals to the most fringe elements in society, the industry is becoming increasingly less and less relevant and innovations in the format itself have stagnated.
This isn’t to say that the format itself will no longer have a place in today’s world. There are people who are taking the new mediums that are available thanks to advanced technology and having their way with them. Without program directors or the FCC controlling content or telling them what they should talk about to keep in lock-step with the station’s agenda, people are free to experiment with creative new ways to work within the format. Sometimes these experiments are wildly successful, other times they’re hilarious failures. There was a man I knew who had his own internet radio show. He decided to do a program in which anyone would be allowed to participate. He set up a conference call and broadcast it live, in essence. I called in, along with about eight other people, and tried to make it work. After about five minutes of scatterbrained discourse, someone decided to hold down one of the buttons on their phone for about a half hour or so, washing out the whole thing with a horrible bleeping tone. Regardless of their caliber, the new mediums are a step away from the old school of radio broadcasting, and a step towards a more individual and free way to talk to the world.
There are still radio stations out there that operate in their own independent way, and they are often very successful. For example, NPR has been broadcasting since 1970, and in that time is has become the most trusted news source in America.
College and community-based radio stations that carry locally tailored and unique programming are usually quite popular wherever they happen to be. If you’re looking to get your foot in the door, a local college or community radio station would be a good place to start, since they are often times actively taking volunteers. Volunteering at a local radio station can give you the experience necessary to land a job that can lead you to becoming an on-air personality, be it with the local station with which you’re volunteering or a different station. Aside from the resume padding it provides, it’s a good place to learn the ins and outs of the world of broadcast media. If you plan on being a broadcaster in a more modern medium, you can draw on your experiences from terrestrial radio.
In the world of audio broadcasting, there are many conventional disciplines you can follow. You can play music (the Disc Jockey), discuss issues (talk show host), or relay information (newscaster). In the world of terrestrial radio, these positions are often filled by different individuals who each have their own specific job to do. With independent media, it’s common to have one or two people fill these positions. Often you will see hybrid shows, such as a half talk show/half music show. Mixing and creating new show formats is one of the advantages of new independent media.
Innovation is the key to keeping radio alive, be it broadcast over the internet or from an AM tower in the mountains. There is infinite number of ways you can take broadcast audio and transform it into something completely new and original. Broadcasters should never run out of ideas. Take, for instance, Phil Hendrie. Phil Hendrie was a radio talk show] host (for lack of a better term) who took the field of talk radio to a whole new level. Phil Hendrie would have guests on his program to talk about a certain (often controversial) issue, and he would give out a telephone number so that the public could call in and speak with Phil’s guest. There was a twist, though... Phil’s “guest” was, in reality, Phil himself. He would “do the voice” of a fake guest, and propose some outlandish and despicable point of view
that was intended to enrage Middle America. Not being one to disappoint, Middle America would call Phil’s show and give the “guest” a piece of their mind. The callers would be screened, and only the angriest and most hilarious would be allowed on the air. The show was a tremendous success, and it was unbelievably funny to those who understood. Unfortunately, programming directors were not always savvy to what the show was all about. Phil retired from the radio industry, citing his increasing frustration over the restrictions imposed upon terrestrial radio by ignorant station managers and the FCC. His show aired for over sixteen years.
Phil Hendrie is an example of the bittersweet success that can be achieved through innovation. If the industry of public audio broadcasting is to survive, it will have to evolve. Modern public radio can’t compete with the likes of the iPod and the television. In order to maintain relevance, major changes in the industry will have to take place. If the industry can’t keep up with the public interest, it will slowly fizzle out, which is exactly what it has been slowly doing since the late 1930's. Since the new millennium, radio has drastically decreased in popularity. To the world of radio broadcasting: adapt or die.