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EDITORIAL COMMENT
December 2000
Look back at the 2000

Time to take stock of 2000

The past year
Time, we felt, this month to take a look back at the past year and how far some of our hopes expressed in November and December 1999 have been fulfilled and how radio has moved over the year.
Broadly speaking, we think the most sensible division is a technological one. We'd go for four main areas, traditional radio by which we mean AM and FM, digital, and satellite radio, and Internet audio.
So how have these fared?.

Traditional radio.

Here there have been no startling developments but the pressures of the bean-counters have told heavily. They could have yet more influence if spectrum ever comes to be seen by governments as presenting the same kind of financial opportunities as mobile communications spectrum has during the year, even though the money has now started to pull back in this area.
In some radio cases, as with pretty well all state broadcasters, it's been a question of more and more squeeze on budgets although in many cases the lower costs of radio compared to TV have acted as some protection.
It's also been a year of expansion in such areas as India, which have introduced commercial radio for the first time and also in other countries where new community and commercial licences have been issued.
Unfortunately to us, the introduction of new Low Power FM in the US is still stalled and may yet be killed by the US commercial radio lobby.
And of course, it's also been a year of yet more consolidation as de-regulation permits the building up of major groups, which would have been held at one time to have too much influence.
The apotheosis of this was in the US, where Clear Channel, already a giant, took over AMFM to form a behemoth with more than a thousand stations.
And it still hasn't stopped. More and more of the "momma and poppa" stations which once proliferated in the US have gradually gone into small then medium size groups and are now prey for the big boys. Here we have to mention last month's deal by Bill and Sonia Florian to sell off leading Chicago classical station WNIB and its sister station WNIZ-FM to Bonneville International Corporation.
It's difficult to see how they could justify turning down the $165 million on offer -and they are putting the money into a foundation - but it looks most likely that the format will change and Chicago may well be the poorer.
So may many other communities as the big groups clamp down on community and charitable involvement and cut costs by centralising production, advertising sales and prize contests; even if Clear Channel is felt by some to be making them appear to be local (RNW Oct 21) its national prize contests are centralised.
"Economies of scale" like this help the bottom line as the figures show but they don't do much for radio as a creative medium however much investors may like them and advertisers find them convenient in booking campaigns.

Digital and satellite radio.
Too soon to judge, but digital may significantly change the radio scene over the next few years and digital combined with satellite may yet be a technology to do more to change the existing US radio scene than all the efforts of the Internet combined.
The idea of 200 mostly commercial-free channels available throughout the US, offering a wide choice of both US and international output in a whole variety of formats and good technical quality is most appealing to us.
We can't see both surviving as we suspect that, although many people may be prepared to pay $9.95 a month for the services of a satellite channel, not many will pay double that for two.
However we can hope that the commercial-free model gains a major audience. If it does, then the idea of any programme having nearly twenty minutes of adverts and promotions in one run (RNW Oct 14) may yet be numbered.
If not there are even more numbskulls in the US than we thought.
And if it does deliver the range and quality that is possible by trawling the world for talent, satellite radio could put significant pressures for change on radio all over the place.
It can't substitute for the genuinely local but combined with the latter, whether from community radio or individual stations could certainly do a pretty good job in competing for audience with the current networked stations.
Which we think can only be to the good; it's competition for audience not advertisers that we think is most valuable for radio!
.

The Internet.

Which brings us to the Internet. This certainly hasn't fulfilled many promises to us in terms of delivering that much in the way of innovation to our ears although with all the pressures for advert insertion and targeting of individuals it is trying to innovate fairly hard for our cash.
We welcome the availability of distant and different stations and really welcome on-demand audio, inadequate though provision of the latter seems to be.
However it seem to us that in this area the bean-counters are already doing much of the calling. Even though the number of advertisers online has been growing at around 14% per month, all kinds of dot coms are having a hard time. In addition, almost every time we look nowadays another audio service is going under or being amalgamated with or taken over by a competitor. In the wings as we write, is the threat of copyright charges from the music recording industry, for which the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is lobbying hard.
If it wins all it wants, the RIAA will certainly curb much Internet audio development, as current economics aren't exactly showing how to make profit by streaming audio without any extra charges. Even giant Clear Channel, now making moves by setting up an Internet Division, might find the attractions reduced if charges are too high.
Add a NASDAQ down to half its peak value, many a dot com less than a tenth even if still in business, and, even without a general economic slowdown, we are concerned that internet audio is going to be constrained fairly severely.
Which means to us that those of you who want to have the choice need to make some effort to support the Internet stations you think worthwhile by spreading the word as well as listening yourself.
There's no way you or I or anyone outside Chicago can really affect the future of WNIB as a classical station, but if you find a strong station on the Internet make sure others learn about it.
It won't stop the big boys taking it over but if you then don't like the changes, any one of you could set up an alternative fairly cheaply and if enough people spread the word it may work.
That way competition for audience will continue to matter.


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