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Sign-Off: The Last Listener Column

Bill Watson might play a four-hour piece by Bach, and then slap it on again, just because he felt like it. Or he might interrupt a Mahler symphony mid-spin, deciding instead to recite poetry or blend news bulletins with reports from his "Roman Empire correspondent," Edward Gibbon.

Long John Nebel, a former carnival barker who once sold lucky numbers on the streets of downtown Washington, filled the night with hours-long interviews with people who had traveled on flying saucers, which might be followed by a visit from Malcolm X, who might join his host in a lengthy discourse on the marvels of Chock Full o' Nuts doughnuts.

And Don Imus, long before he aged into a marble-mouthed crank, dragged himself into the studio each morning to dazzle impressionable teens by spicing up his program of pop hits with skewerings of Richard Nixon, charlatan preachers and all manner of phonies.

Watson's nightly lectures and odd juxtapositions taught me classical music, Nebel's unbounded curiosity about implausible conspiracies and the unfathomables of cosmology introduced me to the suggestive mystery of the night, and Imus's bad-boy prankishness showed me that adults didn't have to lose their adolescent passions. And all this happened on the little radio I kept by my pillow through most of my youth.

This is the last edition of The Listener, a column I have been writing on and off since 1995, and as I look back on some of the characters I have written about here and in "Something in the Air," my book about radio and what happens to old media when new technologies come along, I find a business and an art form in trouble: Just when radio cries out for creative revival, it is instead slipping into a disgruntled decline.

Today, hardly anyone turns on the radio expecting to be lured into intimate obsessions with voices that return each night, baring their souls and insisting on a relationship with the listener. Instead, we seek more voyeuristic entertainment in the far more random worlds of Facebook and MySpace, places where the lines between friend and stranger are fuzzy enough to deliver a bit of a thrill, but where expectations are lower and the talent is mostly anonymous and amateur.

Depressed by the rise of new technologies and their own fading place in the media landscape, neither those who own and run AM and FM radio stations nor even the new (but not new enough) satellite pay radio services are nurturing the kind of eccentric, iconoclastic voices that made radio so alluring from the 1950s into the '80s. Through those decades, when TV dominated American popular culture, radio was at once a mass medium and a clubhouse, a place where listeners could believe themselves to be part of an unseen community of like-minded people. Today, with the Internet having taken over as the primary provider of semi-private meeting spots, radio stations are cutting costs and bleeding talent, ceding the leading edge to the Web's collection of micro-audiences and the iPod's promise of infinite, but closely held, choice.

Writing this column in recent years, I could have easily done nothing but chronicle the departure of radio's most talented voices, as the Greaseman, Don Geronimo, Dennis Owens, Chris Core and Cathy Hughes left their microphones. Or I could have profiled all the stations that once sounded like Leesburg, the Eastern Shore or the District, stations that silenced local programs, choosing instead the cheap route of taking nationally syndicated music and talk shows off the satellite.

Radio's troubles have tracked the broader national decline of locally distinctive popular culture, as big media companies sought to save money by spurning the medium's uniquely local nature and instead serving up whatever programming was least offensive to the largest possible coast-to-coast audience.

But instead of dwelling on the deterioration of radio's quality as an entertainment and news provider, I devoted many columns to sifting through efforts by Internet, satellite and digital radio entrepreneurs to figure out how to make money by introducing listeners to new music.

Yet the more I listened to the likes of Pandora.com, Last.fm, Slacker.com and all manner of music blogs and Web radio, the more I heard the sound of automation -- sleek, efficient recommendation engines scientifically selecting the music I am most likely to like, yet missing out almost on what radio once offered: a glimpse into the hearts and passions of personalities who knew what music was new and cool, voices that offered a guided tour of unknown worlds, and sometimes even a frontal assault of the unexpected.

New media pioneers are working tirelessly to solve this apparently simple puzzle: In a media landscape in which we are each empowered to go our own way, how will we learn what is new and good? And if we do find our way there, how will we become part of a community sharing those riches?

In the easy decades of a tightly constricted mass media, there were three TV networks, monopoly newspapers and a handful of radio stations in each place. That lack of choice meant that much of popular culture was middle-brow in ambition and middling in quality. But the nation was guaranteed a common conversation about music, politics and nearly every other aspect of life.

The challenge for all media now is to find a path back to mass, while retaining as much as possible of the freedom and access that the infinite range of the Internet promises.

The programming on the radio these days does not light a way toward that goal. Music radio seems superfluous -- a selection of tunes nowhere near as varied as what iPod users choose for themselves, and without the added value that knowledgeable and entertaining DJs once provided. With the strong exception of public radio and a handful of all-news local stations such as Washington's WTOP, radio has largely gotten out of the news business -- too expensive. And the local talk programs that once made it easy for a traveler to figure out his location without ever glancing at a road sign have largely given way to Rush Limbaugh and a legion of imitators.

Despite this gloomy picture, radio's first 75 years have made it clear that there is an elemental desire for audio accompaniment, especially in the car, and so there is a future for something that may or may not carry the name "radio." The XM and Sirius pay satellite services won't make a lot of sense once free Internet radio is easily available in cars, but whatever entity XM and Sirius morph into after the government rules on their merger proposal, they will be well positioned as a leading provider of audio programming, whether we listen on a cellphone, PDA or in-car Web receiver.

Similarly, National Public Radio is now engaged in an existential struggle with the local public stations that from its beginning have been its financial foundation and sole means of distributing content. Inevitably, public radio's unique programs will be available by whatever technological means develop to satisfy Americans' desire to listen to music and hear the news.

The old delivery systems will either die off or change functions, just as the arrival of TV changed radio's role from the main stage of popular culture to a utility providing headlines, traffic reports, temperature and the latest pop hits.

The next decade or more will be a transitional time, as radio, like newspapers and television networks, forswears allegiance to any one means of distribution and declares itself platform-agnostic. Those media that, like the record industry, cling to old technology and a collapsed business model will see their futures crumble before their eyes.

Radio, shedding talent as fast as it loses audience, is rapidly becoming irrelevant to the younger generation. Yet most Americans still listen to something for much of the day. Radio could be the way into those ears, but only if it invests in creating compelling reasons to be there, only if it grabs hold of us the way the voices of past decades connected to the loves, pains and dreams of young listeners. As always, the future lies in the past.

By Marc Fisher |  May 31, 2008; 8:59 AM ET
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Comments

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I think the author here is taking the easy way out.

Nothing to write about any more, so I might as well give up.

What kind of way is that for a journalist to behave? One could say the same thing about politics. You can't tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans any more. They're both wastes of time. So we might as well stop covering politicians and their campaigns.

Doctors have a Hippocratic Oath. What is the motivation of a journalist? "I shall only write that which interests me?" What if doctors felt that way and only cured diseases they were interested in. Who would be left for family practice. Hmmm, well never mind.

The fact is that newspapers have also become bland and boring. Now we read how the Post is encouraging its veterans to take a buy-out, so now the paper's most experienced writers will be retiring. Back when there were competing newspapers in DC, the Post wasn't the biggest or the best. But now that its competitors have all gone away, it's the only choice left. No sense writing criticism about the Post, since there is no alternative.

Radio suffers from the opposite problem. Too many choices. In fact, the number of choices is what's killed its creativity. There was a time when there were maybe a dozen stations in DC. Now there are four times that. The number of stations has driven down the ad prices, and made it more difficult for stations to make money. The Congress and the FCC have had a campaign for the last 25 years of adding more licenses, first in the FM band, then in the non-commercial band, and now in LPFM. Their view is that more stations means more diversity. Their theory is wrong. But that hasn't stopped them.

New technologies have made it possible for everyone to have their own radio station. In fact that's diluting the audience base even more. People don't need to listen to their "friends" on the radio, because their actual friends have internet radio stations, blogs, and the like. Texting has become way more interesting and more relevant than radio. And You Tube is way more fun. That's what democracy and doversity hath wrought. Not good for those who seek the high road.

Meanwhile, radio companies have realized that they need original content in order to survive. The final chapter hasn't been written, even though The Post will no longer report it. No big surprise, since a local blog has been scooping the Post on area radio news for the past few years anyway. So the big daily newspaper is no longer relevant, and readers will now turn to the web for their news. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Posted by: countdown | May 31, 2008 10:44 AM

Local NPR here in NYC has produced 'The Takeaway' a godawful mismash of morning zoo and bad TV news ideas from the 1970's.

Radio would sound a lot better if the mega-conglomerates were broken up and ownership limited to 7 or 8 stations.

The airwaves are public property. Once the FCC blew away any local responsibility by owners to be accountable for serving the public, the industry crashed.

Posted by: Steve G | May 31, 2008 11:33 AM

Marc --

Thanks for this column, and the work you did in capturing the (fading) magic of radio.

It was (and is) greatly appreciated.

Posted by: Adams-Morgan | May 31, 2008 11:54 AM

Yeah, one less thing for Marc to screw up!

Posted by: Brian | May 31, 2008 12:16 PM

Marc, in your entire column I wasn't able to find a single clear statement about why you're giving up the column. Is it because, as Countdown alleges, you're too discouraged by the developments in the radio biz? Then I agree with Countdown that you have even more reason to keep the column going. We need someone who's as devoted to the medium as you are to keep the wide Post readership up to speed on radio's sad decline, and on the bright spots that continue to exist.

Is it because you're planning to go into radio yourself? I heard you guest-hosting the Kojo Nnamdi show yesterday -- great job, BTW -- and thought you sounded like a natural. Of course you couldn't report on the radio biz if you were going to be an ongoing part of it.

If you're serious about giving up the column, at least give us an unambiguous explanation of the reason.

Posted by: DMS | May 31, 2008 2:59 PM

Marc,

I remember doing the same thing as you regarding the "transistor radio" under the pillow. I would listen, "late" into the night, to the Senator's away games and the local DJ "teams" spinning records. Later on it was Georgetown U's WGTB and Bethesda's WHFS. WHUR had a good station too. I even liked the cornball Harden & Weaver show. I thought of them as my crazy uncles. One time, we got a Zenith radio that had about none or ten dials and respective bands. It was amazing to listen to stations/individuals transmitting from around the globe.

I loved radio. I even went on to get a degree in EE and concentrated on radio technology, which I still work in today (mostly cellular and/or 3G stuff). My favorite album is Thomas Dolby's "Golden Age of Wireless," if only for its title and cover art.

Yes, the underlying concepts that made radio attractive are now gone. I feel your pain.

Posted by: johng1 | May 31, 2008 5:16 PM

Since 1995? Funny that I have only noticed it in the last year or so. He is basically saying that DCRTV.com has scooped him and the rest of his lazy ass Post reporters on just about every radio story in the last few years and they are tired of being criticized for not crediting Mr. Hughes in their articles.

Posted by: Bye | May 31, 2008 6:45 PM

Marc,
Absolutely bang-on right conclusions about the demise of radio.
Those of us who rode the golden years of radio all the way to a nice retirement are well aware that this medium will never be the same. There really is no reason to listen anymore. There is no one in the studio here in Washington to talk with me, with the notable exception of WTOP's excellent team... somewhat formulaic, but nevertheless, here and not in Dallas.
Tom Gauger
(ex-WMAL)

Posted by: Tom Gauger | May 31, 2008 6:52 PM

"Radio would sound a lot better if the mega-conglomerates were broken up and ownership limited to 7 or 8 stations."

That's one of the great myths of the current situation.

First of all, no one wants to buy radio stations any more. They're not worth owning. You can reach people easier and cheaper using other media. So why go through the expense and trouble of ownership?

Second of all, because there are five times as many radio stations now as there were 25 years ago, there are more stations competing for a smaller piece of the pie. In DC you have 50 or so stations in a town that once had 10. A smaller audience means less money coming in. Plus costs have more than quadrupled. So an owner needs more radio stations just to reach the same number of people.

So if Congress or the FCC were to return ownership to pre-96 levels, about a third of the radio stations would simply go dark. That was the direction the industry was heading in the early 90s.

One lesson we should have learned from the first half of the 20th century is you can't force or require private industry to lose money. And although the airwaves, such as they are, belong the public, the radio stations, their personnel, and their equipment belong to private enterprise. At least for the time being.

Posted by: countdown | May 31, 2008 7:50 PM

Countdown, seriously, you're very wrong but keep writing.

There is no "Smaller piece of the pie" when it comes to advertising. The advertising business doesn't work that way. You will note that when rates go down, the locals may not buy more, but Gold Bond sure does.

Radio is still a license to print money and if you can name one radio station that has sat, unsold, for more than a year I'd really like to find out what market it's in.

There are not 5 times the number of terrestrial radio stations than there were in 1983. In 83 there was maybe, at best, one or two open frequencies in DC, and I'm counting 1150 AM's ownership troubles. I think in DC there are 5% more stations, not 5 times.

No serious person would ever suggest that 1/3 of radio stations would go dark due to ownership reductions. That's laughable. I know two DC area investors who own multiple tiny market stations that they'd sell to some car dealer in a heartbeat to raise money to buy a DC market station. There is simply no evidence whatsoever to support your POV on this issue and I'd be happy to read a reputable story in Broadcasting and Cable or similar.

Posted by: DCer | May 31, 2008 9:50 PM

DMS: I decided to discontinue the Listener column for two primary reasons. One, as I write in this last piece, radio in its AM-FM incarnation seems to have largely defined itself out of creative energy; rather, it has set itself (blaming market and historic forces, but really because of a sorry lack of gumption) on a path toward irrelevance. Two, in the years in which I have been writing a regular column on radio and audio, I have covered most of the themes and issues that interested me. I hope to continue writing about radio from time to time as the medium morphs into something new, but I no longer saw great value in covering it in a regular column. Thanks for reading the pieces.

Posted by: Fisher | June 1, 2008 2:29 AM

Marc,

You will be missed with "The Listener" column, but you've hit it right on the head about radio.

Just as "Radio's future is in it's past," you've left us with a marvelous tome in hardcover entitled "Something In The Air" -- a must read and, in itself, a true "collector's edition" of what made radio great and what made great radio.

Thanks for the memories and continued good wishes to someone who's see radio a lot deeper than most ever will.

Posted by: CA Joe | June 2, 2008 12:03 AM

Marc,

You will be missed with "The Listener" column, but you've hit it right on the head about radio.

Just as "Radio's future is in it's past," you've left us with a marvelous tome in hardcover entitled "Something In The Air" -- a must read and, in itself, a true "collector's edition" of what made radio great and what made great radio.

Thanks for the memories and continued good wishes to someone who's seen radio a lot deeper than most ever will.

Posted by: Joe Benson, California | June 2, 2008 12:05 AM


The sad part is I enjoy local radio - local DJs feeding me random traffic/weather/news bits plus some random commentary. Do I want a station full of 'zoo-like' shows? no. Outside of Kornheiser, there is not much interesting radio going on, and he shows how you can do a local show that extends the boundaries of locality, yet still provide a reference point.

Posted by: Mike | June 2, 2008 3:31 AM

It's certainly a brave new world, and yes, commercial radio is out of gas. Except for those near Annapolis, who can hear WRNR at 103.1 FM.

In Washington, I'd point out that WPFW, 89.3FM plays to the local audience (with all it's warts and moles) and its recent programming reshuffle has only improved its offerings. I can't get enough of Texas Fred Carter on Saturday afternoons. Same with Tom Cole, Larry Applebaum and Jim Byers on Sunday. Those four guys can teach you all you need to know about their material. So learn to love jazz, latin jazz, soul and zydeco and give 'PFW a try. Weekday daytime programming is District centric talk shows, weeknights / weekend is music.

Peace.

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Posted by: di9r0okds2 | June 3, 2008 7:49 PM

Mr. Fisher -

I have enjoyed your insights by whatever means you chose to deliver them to the reader. The reluctance on the part of the majority of radio, whether they be in suits or behind the mic, to embrace anything remotely new and innovative, is a sad thing. Fortunately there is such a thing as the internet. Thanks for the writings.

Best,
Big A

Posted by: Big A | June 5, 2008 3:25 PM

Countdown: an anecdote, but I spent a summer in rural Idaho where there were only a few FM stations, with a satellite radio in my friend's car. With an obligation to provide their listeners with good music, the one classic rock station available on the FM band was definitely a better choice than any of the XM choices. If 1/3 of stations go dark, then only the strong ones will survive, and the less-strong ones will have incentive to get better.
Would anyone ever listen to a ClearChannel station, given the choice of something else?

Posted by: john | June 6, 2008 10:55 AM

I read Mr. Fisher's column and the ensuing debate with great interest. I've spent over 35 years in radio as an air personality, programmer, and regional manager. I've worked on the development of new programming concepts, product distribution, and launched (while working for Clear Channel, where I spent almost 9 years) 7 of the early XM Satellite Radio channels. For the past 2 years, I've been building The Standard Media Group's first Internet/HD Radio channel.

Mr. Fisher points out areas where Internet Radio could stake a claim, voids left by changes in big radio's business plan. Throughout the business world, there is great and understandable concern about the direction of Internet Radio. Big aggregators struggle to find a business model that makes sense. With their hundreds of music channels, automated "Juke Box" formats devoid of personality (even lacking produced 'Stationality'), are becoming a commodity with nothing special or unique, interchangeable like a juke box in the corner pizza joint. No glue to hold the listener or keep them coming back, nothing to set them apart from the dozens of other Internet juke boxes. So how do they make money?

What keeps the listeners coming back to hear and give value to their in-stream (traditional radio audio) commercials? Social Networking sites like Facebook are forced to create silly time consuming applications like "Pokes," "Bites," and stranger, that bring you back to your online profile more frequently for more impressions against the ads that generate revenue for the site. So what brings the consumer back to a radio station that plays the same 350 to 400 songs (average for most of the online radio services) over and over, with no personality or other compelling content? Listening to the best music or engaging content from your favorite personality (friend, if he/she were doing their job right) was a reason to tolerate the litany of commercials. So why sit through them when a click of your "Favorites" takes you to another juke box radio station with no commercials? So again, the business model...what is it that keeps the listener coming back?

Exactly. So for a generation that grew up on some of the most engaging, entertaining, eccentric radio personalities ever to open a microphone, is wall to wall music likely to create sufficient cume and time spent listening AND LOYALTY to make those in-stream commercials worth something? Enough to cover the millions of dollars the big aggregators have invested to build their hundreds of channels? Doubtful. So what's wrong with taking the best of radio's entertainment traditions and blending that with the things that make Internet listening more attractive for the MILLIONS (currently between 20% and 30% of American adults) now tuning in online?

Exactly. Enter www.MartiniInTheMorning.com. Everything a 35+ listener likes about radio with less of what they don't like. Gone is the tight playlist, gone is the blind eye (or deaf ear) turned toward "New" artists, and no in-stream commercials. What listeners WILL find on MartiniIntheMorning.com is a big dose of the music they're hearing when they go out to clubs, restaurants, the corner bar. Lovers of live entertainment, these listeners are no longer willing (or in my case, able) to sit on a dirt field as we did as kids to hear our favorite music performed. Instead, we're going to intimate venues where we can valet their car, have dinner, cocktails, and sit near the stage without doing (further) damage to our ears. The music in these venues is not rock 'n roll. It's Jazz and Standards.

MartiniInTheMorning.com plays 15 to 20 songs per hour by a wide range of artists, from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to Elton John, Rod Stewart, Sting and of course, new heartthrob Michael Buble - and they're ALL performing Standards. And if you're a radio station called MartiniInTheMorning.com, personality is a must. And that keeps 'em coming back. From music oriented parties to concerts, cruises and lifestyle appropriate charities, MartiniInTheMorning.com is creating a community. It's not a community defined by city limits or coverage area. As technology brings us closer and closer, the old saying "It's a small world..." is so true. The smaller the world, the easier it is to build a community connected by a lifestyle and the music that is its soundtrack. But the community isn't built around a juke box. It IS built around a lifestyle. That requires something living and breathing to deliver it to its members. MartiniInTheMorning is the delivery vehicle.

Re-read Marc Fisher's analysis on radio and its future. Then listen to the future of Internet Radio. Hint: It's not a juke box.

Brad Chambers
Chief Creative Officer/Managing Partner
The Standard Media Group/MartiniInTheMorning.com

10999 Riverside Drive
Suite 211
North Hollywood, CA 91602
(818) 766-7664 (office)
Listen Live: http://www.MartiniInTheMorning.com

Posted by: Brad Chambers | June 9, 2008 9:21 AM

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