Whenever I have FM radio on in the car or in the background at home I can’t help wondering “Are there people listening to this right now saying, ‘God I love this song, I haven’t heard ‘Black Dog’ in a while.’” Every radio station sounds the same to the other ones in its genre. Van Halen and Pink Floyd dominate classic rock radio while Nickelback is a few stations down the dial and Lady Gaga is blaring out of somebody’s car windows. It’s terrible and, partly because of its constant sameness, the current radio format is slipping into a slow death. Good riddance.
What once was an intimate way of communicating with people has turned into a streamlined, corporate way to sell advertising. It’s always been about money, but at least it wasn’t so blatant. There’s an episode of This American Life that dates back to 1998 and tries to explain what’s happened. Appropriately titled “Radio,” the show (which you can stream or download on TAL’s website) captures what’s great and what’s terrible about the format Ira Glass and co. use to tell their stories. Radio lovers will be loving life when the show gets to its third act, when Glass visits an FM station in Chicago that seems to change constantly in order to attract more listeners. The DJs got into their profession because of the romantic version people have in their head of radio but where disappointed to find out that songs are chosen by focus group research and there’s very little personality someone can inject into their own show. It’s a real bummer.
Glass also talks to a DJ who quit her job after finding Jimmy Buffett t-shirts in a work closet. When she was being interviewed, Ida Hackele described how everything on the FM dial is now on purpose, there’s no magic to it anymore. According to the show, researchers are paid to cold call potential radio listeners and ask them how they feel about certain songs and what would make them change the dial. Much of FM radio is designed for such a broad audience that few people can even relate to it. Hackele says that what she’s most disappointed about is the lack of connection DJs have with their audience. A recent episode of Freakanomics Radio compares bad radio to factories and public schools.
The episode of Freakanomics (yes, the same Freakanomics) spends a lot of time on the education system but eventually they get around to interviewing the creator of Pandora, Tim Westergren. Westergren’s interview would fit perfectly in an updated version of “Radio.” The business model Pandora’s started has been so successful because of the public’s desire for customization. Aside from the convenience of having it in your car, why would someone choose a bland station over an Internet one that recommends music (or talk) based on their own personal taste?
It’s easy to see why podcasting is on the rise and Pandora had such a strong debut when it went public. Gone are the days of yore, when DJs were able to choose what music they played and were bribed with some good old-fashioned nose candy if they played certain records. Online, 20 minutes of commercials every hour is often replaced with a quick few sentences in that same time span. Internet radio has been a hit, but podcasts are an future in audio. Finding quality ones can be a chore and there’s not a real way to make money from them yet, but the potential is huge because of the lack of content restrictions and the way they appeal to niche markets.