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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

National Radio Day just passed, and while, for years now, so-called “experts” have predicted radio’s demise, as someone who works in the industry as a host (and has been an avid consumer of radio for decades), I see firsthand every day how the medium impacts the lives of the American people in distinct, meaningful ways.

It’s been nearly three-quarters of a century since FDR’s fireside chats, but radio remains one of people’s favorite platforms for receiving news and political commentary, as well as for expressing their personal thoughts and views. 


Now, however, some in media circles are dismissing the relevance of the radio, projecting that music streaming services will ultimately bring about its demise.

For example, earlier this month, CNBC published an article featuring quotes from Larry Miller, the director of New York University’s music business program, which made the case that Spotify, Pandora and the like may cause the radio to fade away in as little as one decade. As is the case with many hot takes in the media today, Mr. Miller’s doom-and-gloom analysis lacks regard for basic facts.

The statistics show that today, over 80 years after the radio’s rise to prominence, the platform continues to hold the largest weekly reach of any platform. It is still heard by 92 percent of Americans over the age of 12, including 90 percent of young people. These numbers have hardly budged since the 1970s. By comparison, TV weekly reach has declined to 87 percent for the U.S. population at large.

Do these figures signal the inevitable death of an industry? Hardly.

In the past, Mr. Miller has worked with the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) and Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). He may be an expert when it comes to music policy, but he’s certainly not one on the radio.

While music industry giants like the ones Mr. Miller have worked with have likely been affected by the $2 billion in revenue the music industry lost from 2005 to 2016, radio has remained as strong as ever.

Which begs the question: Why?

Well, music isn’t the backbone of radio. It thrives not due to the mere playing of songs for people to hear — but for two reasons: First, the connection that the listeners have to the people or medium playing the music; and second, for the “theater of the mind” that radio creates. A radio host has enormous power — their content having an “express lane” directly into the cerebral cortex.

For example, one of my guilty pleasures each weekend remains the rebroadcast of episodes of the late, great Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40.” AT40’s popularity stemmed as much from the love fans had for Kasem himself as it did from the music he spun. He felt like a distant family member to an entire country, which was drawn to his homey, down-to-earth personality. That’s why, five years after his death, people like me are still listening to his show through syndicated tapings. While they can listen to their favorite oldies anywhere — from Spotify to YouTube — there’s only one place they can get Casey.

It’s why, as I’m coaching young DJs on college radio, I reiterate this point: Music fans can get their music fix anywhere. But they’re tuning into you and your show because they want to hear what you’re playing. They want your connection to this music.

And this stems from what I was taught as I was coming up in talk radio — people are tuning in to hear your opinion. They may not agree with it, but they want to know what is honestly on your mind. The more of you that comes through, the more they can interact with you and what you’re saying, the more they will tune in.

And that is how you create a radio family: Honesty, interactivity and respect.

For example, since the first days of my own radio show, I’ve had people who I consider regulars. People who call in or email me, message me on social media, or text the show directly. These individuals feel like family members to me, and I believe that the feeling is mutual. At the same time, I continue to get a large number of calls from millennials who are just getting into politics and utilize my show and the interactivity as a way to formulate their viewpoints. These people feel welcome and accepted thanks to my show and many others.

One doesn’t get this same type of engagement with streaming services. That interaction with a live person is essential. While streaming services demonstrate the best of American innovation and serve a valuable purpose, they are strictly transactional and do not provide the audience with direct connections. That’s why as roughly 70 percent of the leading streamers’ listening comes from just 3 percent to 5 percent of its total audience, radio continues to get 70 percent of its listening from 35 percent of its total audience.

If I was forecasting the long-term health of a business, I would take the one with a broad base of loyal listeners over the one that’s dominated by a few, which will likely abandon the service once the next best thing comes around.

The doomsayers, the so-called “experts,” have been predicting radio’s death for decades now. They did so during the rise of vinyl, 8-track, the cassette, MTV, the CD and even the iPod. They have been wrong before, and over time, they will be proven wrong again.

Anti-radio pundits can predict the end of the world all they want. But as someone who is both a fan and a content-producer, I think it’s clear: Radio has a long life ahead of it.

• Andrew Langer, president of Institute for Liberty, is the host of “The Andrew Langer Show” on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore.


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