Future of Radio: Will We Still Call It Radio?

Back in 2009, when the Pew Research Center released its annual state of the media report, it had this to say about radio: “Radio is well on its way to becoming something altogether new – a medium called audio.” It added: “Audio’s future, unlike print or television’s, seems less a crisis and more an intriguing fragmentation.”

listening

(Image by Averie Woodard)

Radio as audio means it is not just the AM and FM stations on your traditional radio dials. It’s streaming services like Spotify, Pandora or iHeart Radio. It’s Internet only radio stations, its satellite radio and it’s the music channels on your cable TV system  It’s podcasts, in fact you might even add Audible. Another word to describe it is listening.

Defined like this, radio will surely never die. Pew’s 2009 projection was spot on. Almost all of the alternative forms of radio/audio mentioned above have grown since that time and terrestrial radio itself, however destined it seems to be replaced by a digital only version, has hung on smartly. In an earlier post I described it as the last stand of the analog world.

Here are a few stats that back this up:

  • eMarketer.com estimated the number of internet radio listeners in the U.S. in 2016 at 176 million, almost double the number from 2010.
  • In 2009 Pandora had 7 million active users. In 2016, it has 81 million.
  • While the shine may be off SiriusXM, it is in fact still growing with 30 million subscribers in 2016, an 8 percent increase over prior year.
  • All this however, does not seem to be taking away from traditional radio’s audience as a 2015 Nielsen survey showed that within a one-week period, 92% of Americans age 12 and over listened to AM or FM radio

I don’t see any future time in which we are not listening to radio as a set or type of audio programming. What we might not listen to, however, is the radio device. At a recent conference Roger LaMay, the GM of WXPN, a public radio station in Philadelphia, provided some statistics that show the different device preferences of different aged listeners. The numbers pretty clearly show the listeners to radio in its traditional forms are older and the new options are first embraced by younger listeners.

Across NPR member stations, the average age of over-the-air listeners is 58… On tablets, it’s 53. On smartphones via the NPR News app, it’s 49. On Facebook, it’s 42. For NPR Music and NPR Twitter, it’s 39. On NPR’s website, it’s 38. For NPR podcasts, it’s 33. And for NPR on social media, it’s below 30.”

One of radio’s greatest assets as a medium in the number of places where it has been embedded. Most stereo systems and several generations of music players included a radio, your bedside alarm clock may well have included a radio and even some TV’s. Perhaps most importantly, pretty much every car has a radio.

Now there is a whole new set of devices to access a whole new set of audio options, including classic radio. There’s the desktop, the tablet, likely some wearables. But above all else there’s the smartphone. How many other devices has this palm of hand computer replaced? Firstly the telephone, but then the camera and the alarm clock. For me it has meant retiring my watches, a whole drawer full of maps and a vehicle installed GPS system. No more rolodex, no more calendars or personal diaries, no more phone books and no more printed newspaper.

hand-held musicAnd likely no more free-standing radios. The smartphone not only has apps that deliver streaming music services but it also gives you access to online apps of radio stations, breaking the geographic access barriers of terrestrial radio. And while it doesn’t seem to be widely known, most phones include FM chips that allow you to listen to over-the-air radio.

As with other forms of entertainment and information, the future of radio, or if you prefer, audio, is likely to be device agnostic. And the type of delivery, streaming, over-the-air, archived or on-demand is also likely to be of far less significance than the content itself. We will choose among them in the same way we have traditionally chosen from among different radio stations, maybe the touch of an icon instead of the push of a button or turn of the dial. And we might have to go to a museum to see a free-standing radio.

old radio

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Family Life

Edgemont Park pond

Taking the twins for a swim

Geese in Edgemont park

Mom and dad’s watchful eye

baby goose

Snacks!

Baby goose

Baby portrait

Edgemont Memorial Park, Montclair, N.J.

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The Future of Radio: Is It the End for Big Corporate Radio?

In the 1990’s the FCC relaxed its restrictions of radio station ownership and set the stage for large corporate consolidation of radio stations. Before long, two or three giant operators gobbled up a majority of the nation’s radio stations in most of the major markets.

ClearChannel logoChief among those consolidators was Clear Channel Communications, which was later sold in a private equity transaction to Bain Capital and Thomas Lee Partners. It was renamed iHeart Media. iHeart owns 858 radio stations in more than 150 markets.

The ClearChannel/iHeart stations are the epitome of big corporate radio. They are divided into narrowly defined formats. Their playlists are computer generated based on ratings. They are intentionally and unashamedly predictable and repetitive.  I don’t think that puts them in a very competitive position.If that’s what you want to hear, there are plenty of places to find it without having to listen to all the ads on commercial radio.

So how’s it working out for them.? Well, according to a financial statement by iHeart earlier this year, ““We incurred net losses and had negative cash flows from operations for the years ended December 31, 2016, and 2015, as well as for the quarter ended March 31, 2017.”

The leveraged buyout of ClearChannel in 2008 saddled the new entity with $20 billion in debt And they can’t pay it off. In a recent SEC filing iHeart acknowledged that they might not in fact make it through the year.

Then there’s the number two player, Cumulus Media. They own 454 stations in 90 markets. Seems as though they aren’t doing much better. In a filing at the end of last year they warned, “we may be required to seek protection from our creditors through a bankruptcy filing.” Their stock, which was worth about $30 a share a couple years ago, is now worth about 50 cents per. And in the first quarter they lost $7 million.

DJ robotThe financial troubles of these behemoths has meant there are even fewer local DJs, less local staff, less local programming, less local news. Instead we’re subjected to packages of data driven and computer generated programming that comes out of headquarters and is broadcast nationally. Robo-radio.

So if you want to consider what is a threat to the existence of radio, it may not be about Pandora or YouTube or Spotfiy. Instead the biggest threat is radio stripped of its local interest and built for the ad sales department rather than the audience.

Viewed in this light, the pending collapse of these large corporate consolidators can hardly be considered bad news. There’s the potential for more than 1,000 FM and AM stations to be put in play as these corporate entities collapse. Will one corporate owner replace another, accumulating the same sort of suffocating debt and delivering the same non-descript programming.

I’d like to think this could be the opportunity for a renaissance for radio. Maybe dozens, if not hundreds, of these stations could fall into the hands of independent local owners. In that case, radio can go back to its roots with local talent building communities of listeners with local programming tailored to their interests.

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Future of Radio: Is It the End for Terrestrial Radio?

In my series of posts on the history of radio, one was titled “Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star After All.” It was about the time when television became popular, the late 40’s and early 50’s, and the networks, NBC, ABC and CBS, virtually abandoned radio. Many, including the guys who ran those networks which supplied the most popular of radio programming, were ready to write the medium off.

Radio MastBut instead of fading away, radio had a revival. Transistors, car radios, teenagers, DJ’s, rhythm and blues and rock and roll all combined to make radio more popular than ever with both more listeners and more influence on a few successive generations of Americans.

Fifty years later, many are again questioning the future of radio. With streaming services, Spotify and Pandora, with satellite radio, podcasts and internet radio, with smartphones that allow you to carry your whole music collection in your pocket, what happens to all the those AM and FM radio stations?

Maybe nothing.

The Pew Research Center’s 2016 State of the News Media annual report didn’t have a lot of good news when it came to traditional media. That is, except for radio. “The American public’s consumption of audio content, which includes radio news and talk shows in addition to music, sports and other programming, continues to increase. Advances in consumer technologies allow increasing numbers of Americans to choose to listen to radio on a variety of newer platforms, while at the same time, terrestrial radio continues to reach the overwhelming majority of the public.”

The Pew report continues: “Traditional AM/FM terrestrial radio still retains its undiminished appeal for listeners ­– 91% of Americans ages 12 and older had listened to this form of radio in the week before they were surveyed in 2015, according to Nielsen Media Research.”

The radio industry trade publication Radio Ink concurs. “Still as strong as ever, radio continues to confound competitive naysayers by expanding its connection to analog listeners despite the proliferation of pureplay alternatives like Pandora and commercial-free experiences like satellite radio. In fact, radio was the only analog medium to show growth year-over-year in Nielsen’s analysis (+1% in time spent listening) and it is the only medium to command a consistent share of daily media activity (17%), no matter the demographic.”

So why is radio the medium with nine lives? Turns out that simple old AM/FM radio has a lot of things going for it.

  • Radio is free. There’s no monthly subscription required. It’s not bundled into some expensive package by your cable operator or broadband provider. It’s in the air. Turn it on and you’re good to go.
  • Radio has a business plan. It has nearly a century of history being supported by advertising. While traditional on-air spot advertising has shown a small but steady decrease in recent years, it is still by far the largest stream of radio revenue (75% according to Pew). Wil Pandora ever make money? (For the first quarter of this year Pandora reported more revenue, more subscribers, more advertising. And a loss of $132 million. Even higher than the loss of $115 million in last year’s Q1.) Why is there only one satellite radio provider? And who’s making money on podcasts?
  • Media advertising itself is in a state of flux. You can block ads on your phone or computer. You can record and fast forward past them on TV. But radio ads are pretty much unstoppable. And while display ads have been widely discredited in terms of effectiveness, radio has been practicing the newly-popular “native advertising” approach since the 1920’s. Just have your favorite DJ describe the great dinner he or she had last night at a local restaurant and you’ve got the kind of meaningful endorsement advertisers struggle to replicate on other mediums.car radio
  • Some newer cars today come equipped with satellite radio. Some have wifi. Some have wireless connections to your smartphone. But ALL of them, old or new, cheap or expensive, have radio. And you don’t have to set it up or figure out how to work it. Here’s the numbers from Pew: “…traditional AM/FM radio is – and by a large margin – the most common form of in-car listening. Just 8% of listeners in the car named online radio as the source they used most often and 12% named satellite radio, compared with 63% who named AM/FM radio as the audio source they turned to most often. That is up only slightly from 60% in 2015.” That’s right it went up!
  • The whole world doesn’t have broadband. The whole country doesn’t have broadband. Last year the FCC said there were 34 million Americans without broadband. There are still rural areas with little or no good internet options. There are people who don’t have smartphones and there are people who can’t afford the only available broadband. Some folks are unaware of how to find and listen to podcasts and some others don’t know how to connect their phone to their car speakers. But they can get radio and everybody knows how it works.
  • Radio scales at no cost. Station operators’ expenses are the same no matter how many listeners they have. There are no additional data costs if your online audience grows. Nor do your listeners need a bigger data plan to listen. And royalties are not calculated based on the size of the audience.
  • And finally, here’s one I hadn’t thought of (courtesy of Slate): “When the zombie apocalypse arrives, radio will save your hide. Anyone with a generator and an antenna can broadcast radio, and everyone listening hears the same key information in real time.”

Is it the end for terrestrial radio? No. At least not for now. Radio is looking like the last holdout of the analog world. But will radio have another revival? I’ll discuss that in next week’s post when I raise the question “Is It the End for Big Corporate Radio?”

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Made by Immigrants

Rolling cigars in Ybor

In Ybor City, they still roll cigars by hand.

In 1886 Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor established a cigar factory in what is now known as Ybor City, a section of Tampa, Fla. Martinez-Ybor was a Spaniard who moved to Cuba at the age of 14. His career is cigar manufacturing started there. He later established a factory in Key West and then moved it to Ybor. Other manufacturers followed and Ybor City became Florida’s first industrial town. Those factories and the jobs that they offered attracted a work force made up almost exclusively of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy. Romanian merchants followed, establishing stores in the city, and German lithographers came along and are credited with inventing a new art form, the cigar label.

A central feature of life in late 19th century and early 20th century Ybor was the social clubs for Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants. El Club Nacional Cubano was founded in 1899. Two years later another cigar manufacturer Igancio Haya started the Centro Espanol. L’Unione Italiana came along in 1894 with the initial membership of 116 Italians and eight Spaniards. These clubs not only served as the hub of social life for their membership, but fulfilled a variety of functions that included a type of trade union and a healthcare provider.

Italian social club in Ybor

The heyday of Ybor City as a cigar manufacturing hub was between 1890 and 1930. At one time it had tens of thousands of residents and it was almost entirely owned and occupied by immigrants. 500 million cigars were made in Ybor in 1929, but that also proved to be the beginning of the end for the industry. During the 30’s the demand for premium cigars waned and in future years manufacturers would turn to automated processes rather than hand-rolling. A decline set in that lasted through the 50’s and 60’s until the city was almost completely abandoned by the 1970’s.

Ybor began to make its comeback in the 1980’s as artists moved into the district. Gentrification followed and by the 1990’s Ybor was being reinvented as an entertainment hub, the “Latin Quarter” of Florida. It continues to be a thriving nightlife center with bars, clubs, restaurants and retail. The Ybor Chamber of Commerce describes it as “a cultural and intellectual hub for new-age immigrants.” It is a National Historic Landmark District and 7th Avenue, the main retail drag, was named by the American Planning Association as one of the “Ten Great Streets in America.”

7th Avenue

7th Avenue, one of the ‘Ten Great Streets of America’

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A Mayakoba Boat Tour

docks

Setting off from the docks of the Fairmont Mayakoba.

Mayakoba canal

Mayakoba is a one square mile resort area in the Riviera Maya section of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It is home to four luxury hotels. But it is also surrounded by undeveloped lands that include beach, sand dunes, mangrove and jungle. It is home to some 300 species and that number is growing as surrounding areas become developed and birds and wildlife find a refuge here. There are canals running throughout Mayakoba. These images are from a boat tour on those canals.

Mayakoba canal

canal bank in Mexico

Mayakoba canal

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Quintana Roo

Iguana

Quintana Roo is one of 31 Mexican states. It is on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. These images start in Cancun and proceed south along the coast through the Riviera Maya region to Playa del Carman and end in Tulum, an overall distance about 80 miles.

Park Las Palapas, Cancun

Fairmont Mayakoba

Fifth Avenue, Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen store

Tulum

Katrina

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A Mayan Seaport and Trading Hub

Mayan ruins

Tulum is a Mayan city believed to date back to 564 AD. It is built on the cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It is one of the few Mayan cities that had a wall. Tulum peaked as a city between the 13th and 15th centuries when estimates suggest between 1,000 and 1,600 people lived here. It is during that period that most of the buildings were erected. As a seaport it served as a trading post and artifacts found at the site suggest it was a trade hub for other parts of Mexico and Central America. The city was abandoned after the population was decimated by European diseases brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Tulum

Mayan ruins

In the middle of this building are the remains of a cistern.

Mayan ruin

Temple of the Frescoes

High point of Mayan ruins.

The Castle

Tulum ruins

Tulum

Mayan ruins at Tulum

Watchtower

The view from Tulum

The view from the top of Tulum. Today there is a bathing beach at the bottom of the cliff.

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More Montclair Film Festival — Lost in Paris, Found in Tultepec

The last days of the Montclair Film Festival took me from Denmark and Belgium to Mexico, by way of England. Actually I was just sitting in one of Montclair’s three theaters, but that’s where the films were from. Here are some short reviews from the second half of the sixth annual festival.

Lost in Paris

Fiona is an awkward young Canadian woman from some desolate hamlet in the frozen north. She heads to Paris at the behest of her 88-year old aunt Martha who is being stalked by a woman in a nurse’s uniform who wants to move her to a nursing home. Once in Paris, Fiona falls into the Seine, gets her nose caught in an elevator and is presented the ashes of a different old woman named Martha. The title Lost in Paris might make you think you’re in for some existential study of ennui. Nope. This is screwball comedy. There’s a third character, a homeless guy who lives in a tent on the river bank, who separately ends up having a relationship with both women. The title is to be taken literally as all three are more or less lost. This is a Belgian movie, set in Paris and mostly in English. Light and fun. I left the theater wondering if there really is such a thing as a biodegradable urn so you can toss your loved one’s ashes into the river without doing any damage to the environment. If so, throw me into the Great Falls.

For Grace

This is a fictional narrative movie that was made to look like a documentary. In fact, had I not listened to the comments of screenwriter Andrew Keatley, who was at the screening, MFF17 buttonI might well still think I had seen a documentary. Keatley also plays Ben, the main character in the movie. And the guy who plays the director in the ‘documentary’ is in fact the director of the movie. Have I lost you yet? The movie is about a man who sets out to find his biological parents. The search takes him to Dungeness, which honestly looks like the end of the earth. The movie drags us into the suspense of finding Ben’s real family. In the end what he finds is a different definition of what a real family is. I hesitate to say much else because spoilers will truly spoil this one. The title “For Grace” refers to Ben’s baby. The baby is played by a baby whose real name is Grace and the actress who plays the baby’s mother is really the baby’s mother. One member of the audience said after watching the film she felt “emotionally manipulated.” The rest of us just felt we’d watched a really good movie.

The Commune

Nobody killed anybody and nobody committed suicide. But when a middle-aged Danish couple with a teenage daughter decided, after inheriting a house that was too big for just them, to start a commune, no one really lived happily ever after. It’s Europe and I think it’s the 60’s based on what was on the TV newscasts, so everybody smoked. I think the commune turned them all into chain smokers. People started sleeping with people they shouldn’t have been sleeping with, someone lost their job because they couldn’t deal with the drama in the house, and not everybody marked off the beers that they consumed the way they were supposed to. It especially sucked for the teenage girl. About the best adjusted commune member was the guy who picked everything up that his housemates left on the floor and burned it all. No room for clutter in a commune. This is a movie that makes you just agonize over the life choices that the main characters make. Will someone come to their senses? No, not really. This one was far from my favorite of all the films I watched this week.

Brimstone & Glory

Think the running of the bulls is insane? You should see the burning of the bulls. The place is Tultepec, Mexico, a place where just about everybody with a job is busy making fireworks. A place where the candle on a kid’s confirmation cake turns out to be a sparkler that shoots up to the ceiling. It is on the day of the festival of San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of fireworks makers, that the bulls are rolled out They appear to be made of some sort of plaster or paper mache attached to a wooden frame. They’re the size of garbage trucks, brightly and intricately painted and stuffed with fireworks. The guys at the controls, and they appear to be all guys, light the fireworks and push and pull the bull through the main street with the rockets’ red glare shooting out in every direction. Did I mention that the streets are packed with people, seemingly with someone standing on every square foot of space? It apparently is some sort of badge of honor to come home with a scar or two.  The combat scenes from most Hollywood war movies don’t look as scary as this. The filmmakers even show the army of EMTs getting they’re last minute instructions. “Drunks and shouters go last.” And there is an uncomfortable sight or two at the first aid tent. My guess is that as a short documentary feature (67 minutes) it will be hard to catch this one on a big screen except at a film festival. But a big screen is a must because the glory is in the sights and sounds.

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See more reviews of Monclair Film Festival screening here.

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Montclair Film Festival 6 — From Baltimore to Paradise

Five days into the Sixth Annual Montclair Film Festival I’ve seen four of the 150 movies that are being screened. I’ve fallen off the pace I set last year when I watched 11 in 10 days. Sometimes life gets in the way. But what I’ve seen has been pretty impressive. I can recommend all of these.

Step

For the third time in five years, the festival opened with an inspirational documentary, Step. The title refers to a kind of rhythmic stomping, chanting group dance which is most Wellmont Theaterpopular in predominately African-American schools. The movie follows members of the step team at a Baltimore charter school, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. While the film follows the team through to a regional competition in Bowie, Md., the inspiration comes more from their experience at the school. The three team members which the documentary follows are girls with at least one caring parent, but with no resources to speak of. One of them, in telling us how her mother has always taken care of her, comments that they were homeless for a little while and she didn’t even know it. 2016, when the movie is filmed, is the first graduating class at the school. One hundred percent of these girls went on to college. One of the subjects of the film achieved her dream of a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins. Another got into some sort of college with a 1.0 GPA. Talk about a great guidance counselor. It also makes for a great movie. And, as was the case last year when Life, Animated opened the festival, some 1,500 people filled the Wellmont Theater to watch a documentary.

Dolores

Ever heard of Dolores Huerta? Me neither. But Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem and Robert Kennedy knew all about her.  As does Barack Obama, who in awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, admitted stealing the slogan “Yes, We Can” from Huerta. She was the co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers and a primary organizer of the successful 10-year-long grape boycott that ended with growers signing the first contracts with UFW. She also fought against the use of DDT and police brutality. She was a feminist more in her actions than in her words. She married and divorced two husbands and had 11 kids, some from a later relationship with Cesar Chavez’ brother Richard. A better role model than a mother, many of her kids are interviewed in this film. They acknowledge that mom wasn’t around as much as they would have liked, but seem proud of her and some have continued her work. All 11 kids rallied to her bedside when she was hospitalized for a good period of time after being beaten by a coward with a badge and a billy club. Dolores herself is still going strong at 86. She was in Montclair for the first screening, unfortunately for me I went to the second screening. So why haven’t so many of us heard of her? The simple answer is because she is a woman, but there are other problems in our society that help answer that question. The Texas Board of Education banned her inclusion in the social studies curriculum. And in Arizona they went one step further when Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill into law banning the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona schools. How ignorant is that? Brewer should be forced to watch this excellent documentary because she obviously is lacking some education.

Paradise

Nothing about the movie Paradise has anything to do with any vision of paradise that I’m aware of. This sub-titled Russian film is set in Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. A Russian princess and a German nobleman who had a fling in Italy in the early 30’s find each other a decade later in a German prison camp. He’s a cold-as-ice concentration camp inspector for the Nazi ruling party and she has been imprisoned for hiding two Jewish children. The movie is in black and white. Because grim doesn’t come in color. How many ways are there to despair? This film covers most of them. There is one major act of humanity that at least offers some hope in not quite paradise. The movie title Paradise comes from a Nazi vision of such. Having said all that, this is a brilliantly scripted and engrossing movie. It’s just not always that easy to watch. The movie is part of the competition for audience choice awards. I gave it a four out of five.

Brave New Jersey

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of New Jersey? Bravery, right? It’s a part of our heritage which is explored in this fictional movie about how the rural Central Jersey town of Lullaby responded to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938. One of Lullaby’s brave residents jumped in his truck and crashed it into a tree. Another took off in the family car, without the family. And the town minister saw the light after whacking himself n the head with a collection plate. On this night when the good folks of Lullaby thought it might in fact be their last, a marriage and an engagement fell by the wayside. And a new couple or two discovered each other in the darkness. Brave New Jersey mixes fact and fiction, just like Orson Welles himself. This is the funniest movie I’ve seen about Central Jersey since “Clerks.” You don’t have to be from New Jersey to enjoy this one. Fun for everyone.

Earlier I noted how impressed I was that 1,500 people showed up for a documentary on opening night. The third screening of Brave New Jersey was on a Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. And the largest theater at the Bellevue Cinema was full.

 

 

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