Why I Still Believe in Radio: 2021

“The author is in complete denial about the radio business.”

That was a Twitter response to my column about whether jocks were doing enough when they opened the microphone to sell the radio experience. Were radio hosts being perfunctory? Were they providing companionship and reminding people what they liked about radio? I still heard things I liked. But I understood that not everybody would agree.

“Sure, there may be a few jocks doing sort of creative things, but this will be their last job,” wrote Mara Davis. “The business will never evolve [because] humans cost money. The good content is in podcasts,” an area to which Davis, a former radio person, had segued, along with a successful transition to a new career in talent booking.

A week earlier, a related column about whether radio should offer a jockless version of its own music had prompted an e-mail from a former PD who wanted to let me know that he was done reading all the radio trade publications. “I’m deeply hurt by the fact that someone who worked 12+ hours a day … is moved on from an industry he loves,” he wrote.

In the Ross On Radio audience, there are veteran broadcasters who are long and happily retired from the business, using the newsletter to keep up with the business they love. There are, gratifyingly, still new broadcasters, teaching themselves radio the same way I did with Radio & Records decades ago. Many readers are people who know the power of radio’s shared experience. There are a few for whom joining the business now is an act of rugged individualism, because their peers are not. 

There are people who see any optimism about radio as boosterism or naïve — “he still loves radio, bless his heart.” I try to be clear-eyed about radio and provide a way forward for the business. For that reason, there are also ROR readers who undoubtedly regard the column as too critical of radio’s efforts. This is how I feel about radio in 2021.

If you have moved on from radio, I completely understand. Whether people still find the things they like about radio in the column often depends on whether they truly retired or were “retired” by euphemism. If you loved the radio industry and it did not love you back, I hear you. Radio could be unkind to its people even when it was not consolidating, and it has been constricting for 25 years. Those lucky enough to still be in radio often disrespect their former co-workers by trying to position the personnel cuts they cannot avoid as an improvement; it is the worst thing the business does.

I remain confident in the demand for “radio.” I am more confident after the last 16 months that listeners will continue to want some sort of shared experience and companionship as part of their audio entertainment. What I’m not sure about is whether broadcasters — the people who own AM/FM radio stations now — will be the ones providing it.

Broadcasters still know how to do “radio” better, but it’s changing. A decade ago, broadcast radio’s competitors were superior mostly on one front, “continuous music.” The music itself seemed random. Now, I’m as excited about seeing what Spotify adds to Today’s Top Hits on Friday morning as I was about what CKLW Detroit or WPGC Washington added on the Tuesdays of my adolescence. But I don’t yet get the radio experience I’m looking for, even as Spotify begins to experiment with adding jock content. When I do, I won’t be shy about embracing it. 

The chief exception has been Sirius XM. In the early 2000s, satellite radio mocked and promised relief from traditional broadcasting. Now, it’s where you go to hear the hosts on the Triple-A channel, The Spectrum; advocate for new music; or to hear a shotgun jingle on 70s on 7. Like the USPs, it has addressed the spotload issue in a way that broadcast has not. And people pay for it.

I still see a way forward. There was a lot of positive response to May 2020’s column “Six Things I Need To Tell You.” I still hold to that roadmap for broadcast radio. Local stations that are truly local, even on Sunday afternoon. National stations that take advantage of being national, rather than trying to hide it, becoming generic in the process. Broadcasters offering one-stop shopping for all your audio needs — something I hear emphasized more than ever in the on-air promos for Audacy and iHeart Radio.

I still hear things I enjoy on the radio. An infinite radio dial of more than 100,000 worldwide station choices has made that one relatively easy. To be fair, I’m starting with simple needs. I want to hear a new song I might like. I want to hear an old song for the first time in a while. I want to hear some creativity in the imaging that precedes these songs. I’d like to be amused by the backsell. I appreciate learning something about your market in the process. Those things are still out there, and I know how to find them. I also tape stations, so I don’t have to listen to seven minutes of car insurance ads at a pop. No, I do not expect non-industry listeners to do any of that.

I think broadcasters understand their issues. If anything makes me truly despair for radio, it is that I am still writing about spotload and particularly the streaming stopset experience after 15 years. I do hear glimmers of responsiveness among broadcasters these days — the creation of new local personality shows, the changes to the Top 40 format and some promising early results, the enterprise that went into Audacy’s expansion of its side channels, the TikTok and SoundCloud collaborations. I am careful not to make too much of that, because that would indeed be boosterism. Also, because nothing really gets better until we address spotload and the streaming experience.

Your mileage may vary. Ross On Radio readers have been in the business for a year or for 40 years. They are in every format and every aspect of a radio station. Over the last year, our look at “The Lost Factor” of various hit songs has expanded the non-industry audience looking to discuss music or understand radio. A lot of those readers are the ones who were never entirely happy with what a radio dial of 12 local stations had to offer in their childhood. I’m glad if I can connect them with their wider variety of current choices. 

Everybody has a different relationship with radio, and I’m happy if I write something that resonates with yours every week or two. I understand that there are both non-industry listeners and broadcasters who no longer engage with radio. I am encouraged by how many still do. 

This story first appeared on radioinsight.com