October 2006

Who is responsible for the state of radio?

Who is responsible for the state of radio?

It's the audience-stupid! No! It's the broadcasters! NO! It's…

Although our headings indicate the possibilities of simple answers, they're more like many a talk-show host's simplistic approach than a balanced view and, although each is in part true, equally to adopt one answer significantly distorts the picture: Just, one might say, like many of the hosts.
And what of the misogynistic and violence-glorifying material aired on many hip-hop stations|: How far is the success of this a case of the chicken and how far of the egg.

The picture is obviously also affected by the taboos of the moment - we would think it difficult to argue, for example, that racism doesn't make it to air but not in the blatant form it once did - at least not when the race involved has an influential presence.
It is thus easier in the US to get away with anti-Arab and anti-Indian prejudice, for example, than to attack Israel or blacks and thankfully even the most prejudiced host knows that some words are pretty well out of bounds, sometimes even when the context should make it otherwise: We, for example, note that Joseph Conrad's "Nigger of the Narcissus" remains in print - as it should as a work of literature - and that the N-word has a historical existence and context without feeling its use, like that of many other words, justified in terms of everyday language.

So it's obvious that society in general; the particular audience; the broadcaster - both corporate and individual; technology; advertisers and government regulation are all in part responsible for the shape of broadcasting in a country.

The audience.

Let us consider the audience first. In most western countries we would argue that most people are fairly tolerant but equally they tend not to be focussed so their influence is limited unless there is a strong liking for a station or equally a strong reaction against it.

In addition, when it comes to advertising-supported commercial stations, the numbers are weighted in favour of those the advertisers wish to attract thus giving advertisers greater influence than is the case with the subscription-funded satellite radio services and public broadcasters.

So the audience may rule, but they o so only within limits and subject to great constraints.

The owners.

What about the owners then? Well they have the power to change a station's format and programming in the US albeit elsewhere changes are more constrained under the terms of licences. But change as they may, they can't compel people to listen, which means that they have to either attract an audience advertisers want or sufficiently large numbers of subscribers.

They thus again can foul up or succeed but only within constraints set by others.

The hosts and DJs.

Important in attracting the audience but limited in the power or influence they can bring to bear when it conflicts with focus groups and surveys.

This means that there is an ever-present pressure to pull in the right numbers of the wanted demographics, which means that if advertisers want a young demographic and that demographic is poorly educated and primarily in search of ever-changing stimulation, the chances of putting over anything very complex is severely restricted in the commercial radio world.

The advertisers.

They can break a station but they can't make it so the best that can be hoped for - hope against hope - is for a reasonably broad perspective and imaginative choice of who to support rather than just sticking with the currently successful: In other words to be a little pro-active in encouraging change rather than always running behind it.


And what about technology? Well that's quiet important since if there are other ways to listen to what people think they want - and the Internet certainly provides the material nowadays and portable players add the means to carry it with you - it makes it more difficult for radio to hold onto the audience for as long although we suspect that, even if time spent listening to radio goes down as time spent with other media goes up, we don't think the effect on listening numbers to be that large with current technology.

Even if things change and cell phone operators expand offerings of audio services (at a charge of course!) or wireless networks become much more widespread allowing listening on the mover, we thin it will be a long time before any other medium can offer so efficient a delivery system to a mass audience in terms of spectrum used or the cost per listener of the whole chain - from studio to transmitter to receiving set.

So where do we go?

To that, as for so many issues, there's no simple answer. Nor indeed is there any complex answer. Instead there are many combinations of changing answers, some simple and some complex, which makes it all the more remarkable that anyone can stay ahead of the pack for a long time.

It also means that those who want an unchanging world or simplistic answers can become very dangerous people indeed in that they can be swayed into unreasoned and unreasonable action, sometime violent, into defence of their beliefs by those who do promise the simple answer.

It may be much harder work to look outside the cocoon but it's very valuable so if nothing else we'd recommend that those who like classical listen every so often to the "music" - in quotations since they might well argue that is not what it is - they think they most dislike and those who like urban music try classical; that those who are conservatively inclined try a medium with a different perspective and vice versa for those who are more progressively inclined and that both then do a little work on checking some facts; even that those who favour one sport try another - there would be a significant learning experience for example in a cricket fan watching ice hockey and vice versa, one being fast and furious and the other variable over days when it's test match.

At the end however experience would be broadened and knowledge deepened, of itself a benefit to all involved. And it might well lead to some upset apple carts for those providing programming and opportunities for those trying to break in.

Most importantly is should lessen the appeal of those who peddle the facile but attractive sounding yet don't build on factual foundations be they of left or right or sports commentators!

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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