July 19, 2006

Radio News Roundtable

The State of the News Media 2006

TableThe year began on a sobering note for the terrestrial radio industry. With increasing competition from satellite, online and now portable devices such as MP3 players, radio advertising revenues in the first five months of 2006 dipped one percent from the same time period a year ago.

In addition, CBS radio recently announced plans to sell off some of its stations in smaller markets and eliminate 115 jobs. Where does audio (or radio) lie on the fragmenting old media vs. new media spectrum? Can this medium, with its long, rich history, evolve to fit a changing information universe, or is it an endangered species?

Experts in the industry answered this and other questions in the second of the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s series of roundtable discussions about the future of journalism. The following are edited excerpts from the discussion. Read the full transcript.

Panelists:

Bill Buzenberg, Senior Vice President, News – Minnesota Public Radio

Tim Curran, News Director, Sirius OutQ

Adam Powell, Director, Integrated Media Systems Center, USC and Author of ‘Reinventing Local News’ (2004)

Dale Willman, Executive Editor, Field Notes Productions and Freelance Correspondent, NPR


What about the increase in radio programming aimed at specific communities of interest?

Buzenberg: I think this specialization is not something to be lamented but accepted. A listener, like a reader, can get the information and format that they like best. I also think radio listening begets radio listening, and will increase all listening to the specialized programs, as well as the major newsmagazines.

Willman: We’ve absolutely lost a great deal. By segmenting the audience, we have lost the commonality that holds us together as a nation. And we’ve lost the ability to hold civil discourse in a public forum. Segmenting can mean that those audiences without a voice can now be heard. But it should not be done by losing that public square.

Curran: Naturally, as Sirius OutQ’s news director, I think it’s a spectacular advance for broadcasting to finally serve ‘communities of interest’ who have been drastically underserved by the mainstream media. I can only hope the trend continues and extends to communities who remain largely untouched by these advances – the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, etc.

Does traditional radio need to return to the local to survive? In the cycle of consolidation has the medium has lost track of what it did best?

Buzenberg: Yes, local is very important for radio to survive, but it cannot survive on local alone. The best and largest stations combine excellent international coverage, national coverage and local coverage. With all three of these, stations can thrive and grow their audience.

Willman: I believe the ONLY thing that will allow local radio to survive is a return to local. In my first radio job, I had to read daily the obituaries from the local paper. At 17, I thought this was nuts. Later I realized what a fantastic service it was to the shut-ins who depended on us for their connection to the world around them. If we begin once again to serve our listeners with local information they can find nowhere else, they will begin to listen again.

Curran: Satellite radio and the Internet make this more vital now than ever. Localization is the one area where satellite providers can’t really compete – and where locally based online audio producers have the opportunity to eat traditional broadcasters’ lunch.

Powell: Localism is the traditional basis of U.S. broadcasting, which is why stations are licensed, not networks. But national programming is often what attracts a mass audience. Public radio audience growth has been propelled by national news programming for NPR, PRI and APM. But even as many decry the loss of localism, local news vacuums attract innovators, in print, on the air and on line. The medium hasn’t lost what it does best. It is just reinventing what it does best – nationally, with quality network and international news, and locally, under the radar screen of most media writers.

What do you think about the future of news? Does radio offer the audience something that they can’t get somewhere else?

Willman: Every medium has its strengths. Well-produced audio reaches into our heads and our guts, to affect us both intellectually and emotionally. That is a very powerful tool for conveying information. If radio news can re-capture this power, and use it to convey information of a local nature then it can survive for a while. The reality though is that running a transmitter is quite expensive. As people become more accustomed to obtaining audio from the web, more local podcasts will spring up to fill in the niche once held by local radio news. So long-term, I would suspect radio news, and perhaps radio itself, will be dead.

Curran: News remains one of the most popular formats on traditional/terrestrial radio. It’s free, it’s pervasive, and in markets where it’s well funded, it will continue to dominate. That being said, terrestrial news directors will have to continue tweaking their formats with an ear to what’s being offered by satellite radio and, especially, podcasters. ‘Radio’ will endure in some form or other because it is the perfect medium for absorbing news and information while getting from place to place or undertaking some other mindless physical activity (jogging, cooking, chopping wood).

Buzenberg: There is a still a huge and important audience for information on terrestrial radio, and there is more growth ahead. Although commercial radio listening has been shrinking, public radio audiences generally have been growing nicely with some flattening in just the last year or so. While some of public radio’s programming (non-entertainment), is available on satellite or by podcast, those are still very small compared to over-the-air terrestrial broadcasting. Radio broadcasts are needed to promote these other platforms.

Powell: Some enlightened terrestrial broadcasters are expanding news on radio, including commercial radio. All-news WTOP in Washington has created two entirely new radio broadcast services – WFED Federal News Service, an all-news station aimed at federal employees, and last month WTWP Washington Post Radio, in partnership with the newspaper. So in a few years, all-news programming has tripled on commercial radio in Washington, D.C. Terrestrial radio news can thrive – unless unimaginative broadcasters allow it to wither.

Does platform even matter anymore?

Curran: As wireless web technology matures, platform will matter less. But for now, you can’t get that live Knicks game on your Ipod, and platform continues to matter a great deal. As much as I might like to say that satellite and the Internet spell the death of terrestrial radio, I don’t think it’s really a zero-sum game.

Willman: It’s no longer about platform, it’s about content.

Buzenberg: Multi-platform is the future, and this does not have to be a threat but an opportunity. Some people will want their information mobile via MP3 downloads, others will want it via the web, others via satellite radio, etc. I don’t believe any of this sacrifices the FM dial, but all are complimentary.

Will traditional mainstream media organizations survive and thrive in the transition to the internet?

Powell: Faced with thousands of new and unregulated competitors, traditional news organizations will survive, but with an ever smaller slice of the audience. New media are a new business, not an incremental extension of print or broadcasting. And the cold, hard fact of the business world is, absent government-granted or -sanctioned monopolies, most new businesses fail. One exception: government-funded news organizations. The BBC thrives online, because it can draw on Britain’s mandatory license fees to aggregate resources to provide some of the best journalism online. Coming next: the French, the Chinese, and of course Al Jazeera. All are government-funded with an increasingly high profile on the air and online. The question is to what extent these journalists can be independent from the governments that fund them.

Willman: I think many, but not all, MSM will survive. While many people turn to sources on the Internet for news, they still see clear value in the MSM brand and all that this implies – comfort level, acceptance of the vetting role and more. My students are required to bring in clippings to class each week. Overwhelmingly, the primary sources they use are NPR, the BBC, CNN and USA Today. So while they are turning to the Internet as a delivery vehicle, they still rely on the established MSM as their primary news sources.

What about the paradox of more outlets covering fewer stories – more outlets covering the same “big” events and fewer covering much beyond that?

Curran: This is true to some extent. But some new outlets in this proliferation are aimed at covering narrower news segments more deeply. In our own sector, there are now three new broadcast news organizations covering the gay community (CBS News on Logo, QTV, and Sirius OutQ) where just a few years ago there were none. We feel no need to cover ‘the big events of the day’ (unless they are gay-related, of course), but we do cover events of considerable import to GLBT people that would never make it on AP Network News, much less the front section of the New York Times.

Powell: It’s not a paradox; it has been a planned outcome for almost a decade. If you want to put a date on it, consider August 31, 1997. That’s the day that MSNBC discovered they break out and make money by going with live wall-to-wall continuous coverage of the death of Princess Diana. Today, all of the 24-hour cable news networks know they can get a quite profitable rating point or so by focusing on that big tabloid story, hour after hour, night after night. But please note this is not universal. The New York Times is still a leader in print and online with broad, deep coverage. The largest audience television news broadcast is still “60 Minutes,” which covers a variety of serious news stories. And one of the largest online information sites, Yahoo, is differentiating itself with original content, some of it focusing on little-covered but important conflicts in remote corners of the world. Quality journalism about serious subjects will always differentiate and brand an organization.

More on the Project’s new research effort previous roundtables