When we look at the state of radio, we find a medium that is stable though often overlooked. The stability is a testament to the fact that each technology has its own enduring strengths. In the case of radio, its resilience is traceable in part to the fact that listening to it has become so much a part the daily routine of most Americans that it has faded into the background. The radio is something that comes on when the bedside alarm goes off, when the car is started, when you walk into the gym.
At the same time, it is hard to calculate the full impact of the changes the medium has undergone, especially the loss of localness in news. There is merit to the argument that it is beneficial for more stations to broadcast news. It means that people going to the radio for music, talk or religious guidance are also getting information about public life. On the other hand, the evidence clearly suggests that news on the radio, particularly in small towns, smaller cities or even regions, is increasingly something from far away — national headlines, CBS News, NPR. The distribution of news from central newsrooms, as opposed to newsrooms in the stations themselves, might seem to argue against social fragmentation. People getting the same news are brought together. But radio once stood out as a local news medium, like newspapers, and that, in a growing number of communities in America, is no longer the case. While there are more outlets, or more spots on the dial, the diversity of sources actually producing the news has shriveled. Even more important, the events in one’s town, knowledge of local institutions, the ability to rally around local crises, even awareness of local people, charities and problems, are all eroded.
The implications are subtle but far-reaching. The political culture, like the music, becomes homogenized. The adage that all politics is local becomes less true. The ability to deal with local problems becomes more difficult as an important mediating institution in town, local radio, disappears.
The anecdotal evidence that the content of radio news has diminished, even if the quantity has expanded, is a reminder that quantity and quality are different.