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Pump Up the Volume: Avid listeners are still tuning into radio

The first commercial radio broadcast was transmitted over the airways on Nov. 2, 1920. KDKA out of Pittsburgh chose Nov. 2 because it was Election Day in America, a time when people would likely tune into the broadcast—and they did. Radio became enormously popular over the years that followed, quickly growing into a household staple despite the many changes the industry faced.

Fast-forward to today, and it seems obvious to say that the radio industry, like other traditional media forms, might be hurting—but that story isn’t quite true. During a time when traditional media outlets are struggling to retain their audience and turn a profit, radio is holding steady. According to the Pew Research Center “State of the News Media 2016” report, people are still tuning into their favorite radio station either through their traditional radio dial or finding it online. The report says 91 percent of Americans still listen to traditional, or terrestrial, radio. At the same time, online or digital radio distribution is on the rise—Americans who listened to online radio increased from 27 percent in 2010 to 53 percent in 2015 and to 57 percent in 2016. Seventy-four percent of people listened via their smartphones and 61 percent used their desktop or laptop.

Overall revenues are also holding relatively steady. According to the report, spot revenue has seen some decline, but digital revenue is increasing fast. “People still like free, over-the-air or downloadable information, and it’s advertiser supported,” says longtime radio veteran Craig Hanson. “Radio is the champion of local news and weather, of the school lunch menu, of the local chamber of commerce, of the high school games and students in the Sterling Scholar program. It still has an important place.”

Although radio seems to be holding its own when compared to its counterparts in media, the industry has seen its own set of challenges in recent years. Radio companies have had to adapt to the seemingly never-ending tech and media innovations that have challenged the industry in unprecedented ways. But, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. And according to Hanson, that’s exactly what’s happening to radio.

“Radio is not only healthy, it’s thriving,” he says.

Red Rock BroadcastingBroken record?

Hanson’s passion for radio began when he was a young child. “I became fascinated with the communications notion that you could send signals from one place to another. Neighbors and friends of mine put together a broadcast station and would transmit several blocks away.”

His early passion led to a long, storied career in the radio industry. For nearly 40 years, Hanson was president of Simmons Media. Now retired, Hanson owns and operates St. George-based Red Rock Broadcasting. “I have been able to witness some amazing transformations in the radio industry,” he says. “I remember when there were all these prophesies that traditional radio would disappear because of 8-track tapes, compact discs. Radio stations have had to adapt, and they added local entertainment, local news, public service [announcements]—those kinds of things. And they’ve thrived.”

The radio industry has been through change after change over the years, but something is different about what radio, as well as the entire media industry, has experienced during the past 15 years. Technology has disrupted traditional media like never before and it’s transformed the way information is distributed and consumed. Radio hasn’t been immune from those changes.

“It’s not just an evolution, it’s a revolution,” says Hanson. “The emergence of technology has enabled digital platforms and social media to dominate the way people consume media.”

Tanya Vea, vice president and general manager of Bonneville Salt Lake, says social media has transformed traditional media, including radio, in ways no one could have predicted. “Social media has had an incredible impact on newsrooms and media companies. It has so many benefits, like allowing us to have conversations with our viewers and listeners. Sites like Twitter serve as an aggregator of news sources. Facebook gives us better insight into communities that we serve. It offers new ways to engage on a broad scale.”

Though social media has its advantages, it also creates extra competition and new burdens in the newsroom. “It has turned radio reporters into multimedia journalists who gather not just audio as in the pre-digital days, but also still photos to post, video clips when warranted, and tweets and Facebook posts instantly when news is breaking,” says Larry Warren, president and general manager of KPCW-FM Park City. “It puts an additional burden on them to face not one radio deadline, but constant deadlines all day long.”

Digital distribution is also a key driver of change in the industry. From the growing popularity in podcasts to Spotify and Pandora, consumers have a variety of news and entertainment options to choose from, which means traditional radio companies have to work harder to retain listeners.

“We now podcast all of our news and public affairs content for listeners to discover later in the day, week or month,” says Warren. “We stream through our website, through our KPCW app on mobile phones and through Facebook. We push fresh content out whenever we can.”

KSLVea, who oversees KSL NewsRadio, KSFI FM100.3 and KRSP The ARROW, adds that mobile technology is an essential part of the transformation. “Mobile is changing the way people use radio. Instead of waking up to radio, now cell phones are serving as alarm clocks. Cars offer bluetooth streaming or subscription radio services, giving more options for consumers,” she says. “Those changes are pushing us to develop new ways for listeners to consume our product. App development, web streaming are all relatively new areas for radio companies. It’s an exciting time if you are willing to look at the business in new ways.”

Beyond audio

Amidst the plethora of changes and challenges that are revolutionizing radio lies a wealth of opportunity, says Hanson. He describes the tech changes as complementary, not competitive, to traditional radio. “Throughout America, more people are consuming traditional radio over the air and through streaming and podcasts than at any time in history. New technologies have not replaced radio, they have enhanced it,” he says. “Digital technology has replaced putting a stack of records on or playing cassette tapes. It’s quite a revolution, and it’s exciting to see.”

They key to success, Hanson says, is putting the relatively new technology and all of its offerings to use in a way that satisfies consumers, which in turn leads to more advertising revenue.

Warren agrees that putting new media to work is key. He describes a way in which his station was able to do just that: “In a trial involving ownership of Park City Mountain Resort, we sent two reporters, one to gather sound and follow the overall court proceedings, and a second reporter to live tweet the trial as witnesses testified. One consumer said of our tweets, ‘It was almost like being in the courtroom.’ Now we don’t wait for newscasts to break news—we tweet it and push it to other social media platforms quickly.”

Vea says what excites her most is knowing that content her stations produce in Utah can be reached nearly anywhere in the world. “With digital distribution, we no longer have broadcast limitations in reach. KSL can be accessed in Holland as easily now as it’s accessed in Holladay. That said, we see our primary role as a local news, information and entertainment provider. Our media companies are committed to serving the people of Utah.”

Keeping radio local is an essential element to success in the changing industry, says Vea. “I see [radio] as such a critical part of the fabric of our community, [it is] the original social media. Great radio keeps you company in the car, keeps you informed of the world around you, and provides non-stop entertainment. New forms of media are largely additive to that experience, one does not replace the other,” she says.

Providing local content is a staple of nearly all successful radio companies, agrees Warren. “We give pinpoint Wasatch Back weather, ski conditions, avalanche reports, mountain bike trail reports. We cover arcane local government meetings, like planning commissions and the like, and really drill deep into local issues that affect listeners. It all boils down to localism.”

Warren adds that he’s seen stations shutter after losing their community focus. “Those stations that went automated sucked the live spontaneity out of broadcasting. None of them had DJs who could look out the window and comment on the weather, or take a phone call from a motorist stuck in a traffic jam. We do all of that. We even announce lost dogs and cell phones,” he says. “Our listeners are very loyal because they know if anything happens in town, we’ll know about it and talk about it instantly on air.  … There’s still room for stations to grow audiences by remaining relentlessly local in their focus.”

Radio star

From social media to Spotify and Pandora to satellite radio to podcasts, today’s radio companies have a lot of noise to break through. But the competition doesn’t damper the spirits of Hanson, Vea or Warren.

“People still spend two hours a day with traditional radio—it’s still the No. 1 source of audio entertainment. Ninety-three percent of people over the age of 12 consume local radio at least two hours a day,” says Hanson. “It’s all about engaging people. If you create content, you can create change. You can create response. In the marketplace of free ideas, that’s a very exciting thing.”

Warren agrees. “After 100 years, [radio] is the most immediate, most portable medium for instant information. If you’re stuck in your car, where will you go for information?  If the power goes out, where will you turn to find out what’s happening at that instant?”

Vea says what keeps people coming back for more is the unbreakable relationship a smart radio company can create with its listeners. “Radio has always served as a companion to listeners. I don’t see that ever changing. It provides a connection that is different from any other medium.”

 

Public Radio: Overcoming financial hurdles and creating “driveway” moments

Larry Warren, president and general manager of KPCW-FM Park City, a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, says public radio is facing its own set of unique challenges—challenges that primarily center around revenue. “Public radio cannot sell advertisements,” Warren explains. “By FCC rule, they can only sell underwriting announcements, which are shorter announcements without calls to action, price references, jingles and all the superlatives advertisers like to cram into a spot. It makes it a much tougher spot to sell.”

Revenue generation has become increasingly difficult for public radio in recent years, as public funding has faced growing scrutiny. Warren says the problem stems from the perception that public radio has a left-leaning bias. “[It’s] a perception I totally disagree with. I think NPR is the most thorough, objective news sources broadcasting today. It is a voice of rational, calm, objective discourse in a time when opinionated, rude, angry, loud screaming matches seem to be the menu of cable news networks.”

While many agree with Warren, others disagree, and the stakes are high. “For us, [public funding] is about 13 percent of our budget,” he says. “Republicans, out of principle, for decades have attempted to kill public broadcast funding. Now, with control of all branches of government, it is more likely than ever.”

Though generating revenue can be difficult, Warren says it forces public radio to be in tune with its audience, who provide much of public radio’s financial support. “If we are not programming locally, they will not see the value in supporting us through sustaining memberships, individual gifts and pledges during fund drives,” he says. “It is the one over-the-air broadcast media that asks those who listen to contribute money to pay the bills. Listeners need to feel that what we broadcast actually impacts their quality of life.”

Providing content that connects with people doesn’t just keep the lights on, it also creates fiercely loyal listeners. “They demand quality, objectivity, localism and above all, civil and intelligent discourse,” says Warren. “As the only local radio in Summit County, we connect communities, both actual communities and communities of interest. … I think there are more ‘driveway’ moments created by public broadcasters—those moments where even though you’ve reached your destination you can’t leave the car until the story on the radio ends.”