What is the state of content in radio news?
The project did not make a separate study of the content on radio this year, as it did in broadcast television, cable, the Internet, newspapers and magazines. The number of stations and the difficulty of monitoring locally make such an undertaking difficult.
But some generalizations and some anecdotal information are possible. And they suggest reason for concern.
Lawrence Grossman, the former head of PBS and NBC News, said in a recent address at Louisiana State University: “Commercial radio … has by now totally abandoned serious journalism, except some might argue, in a handful of big cities whose all-news radio stations typically offer little more than a 24-hour headline service. Radio network news is a relic of the past. Instead, commercial radio is flooded with syndicated talkers (talk is cheap), whose opinionated, mostly archconservative on-air personalities take strong positions on major public issues. What once was an industry dominated by locally owned and operated stations and three national radio networks is now an industry dominated by three giant corporations, each of which owns multiple stations in a number of markets, and owns and programs hundreds of radio stations throughout the nation.”1
The Future of Music Coalition, an advocacy group made up of members of the music, technology, public policy and intellectual property law communities, which has been critical of radio consolidation, issued a report entitled “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?” It states that four companies control two-thirds of the domestic news audience.2 Data from the most recent newsroom survey by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, or RTNDA, show that an increasing number of radio stations in other formats are receiving information from a central news department. On average, a single newsroom provides content to three stations. What does this mean?
According to some critics, it means that radio news may be running the same risk of other commercial radio content, as described by William Powers, the media columnist for National Journal, into “a horror show of packaged homogeneity and cynical, demographic button pushing.”3
Is this dire critique fair? Since comprehensive information about content is difficult to come by, the more detailed sense of things comes from anecdotes, but these often paint a worrisome picture, too.
Alan G. Stavitsky, the associate dean of the school of journalism and communications at the University of Oregon and one of the country’s few scholars who specializes in studying radio journalism, often offers his own experience as an illustration of radio’s changing picture. Stavitsky started his career in radio broadcasting working for a small radio station in Wisconsin. The station he worked for was one of many stations dotting the state that were programmed locally and, in addition to whatever music or information, provided things like coverage of school-board and village meetings, school-lunch menus and lost-dog announcements. These were news items that, obviously, were vital and important only to individuals in the station’s “backyard.” Now, that same area is served not by a system of hyper-local stations but by stations that mostly broadcast network and syndicated programming produced outside the state, with announcers in places like New York and Dallas. This transformation, while it does not change the outward appearance of that area’s radio landscape, does eliminate the nuances that made the local radio station a familiar part of the community.
The factors in all this are harder to pin down. Some would argue that this is simply the marketplace at work, a reflection of what audiences want. Others contend it has less to do with demand than supply – the minimum that owners are willing to spend to get by.
Certainly a major factor is regulatory. Critics date the start of much of the change to the 1980s, when the FCC began loosening the rules on radio content and ownership.
So is there any good news about radio news content?
Advocates of consolidation make a case for its potential benefits. Data from the RTNDA show that, even if they are providing news to multiple stations, the staff numbers in radio newsrooms are growing. This situation is allowing stations that might not have offered any news programming before to add such content to their daily schedule. The numbers also show a climb (though changes in methodology from previous years makes exact comparison impossible) in the minutes of locally produced news content.
And listeners can easily migrate where they want. At NPR, where most agree listeners can find high-quality radio journalism, the audience has doubled in the last decade, and grown by 60 percent in the last five years. This does include some content, but often not very much, that is local.4
For all the worries about the decline in local content, Arbitron information tells us that more than 94 percent of the American public tunes into the radio each week and that virtually all of them get some news there. It also tells us that News/Talk/Information stations enjoy the largest percentage of listeners of any other format. What’s more, radio leaps over such obstacles as the digital divide, economic status and even the language barriers. The boundaries of the audio town square are broad and inclusive.5
1. “Should The Government Subsidize the Press?” Speech delivered at Louisiana State University, 2004 Breaux Symposium: News in the Public Interest: A Free and Subsidized Press, March 19- 20, 2004.
2. “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians? A Report on the Effects of Radio Ownership Consolidation following the 1996 Telecommunications Act,” Future of Music Coalition, p. 38, www.futureofmusic.org, based on data from BIAfn MediaAccess Pro, www.biafn.com (data as of May 16, 2002)
3. William Powers, “Radio Rich,” National Journal, November 15, 2003.
4. Data provided by NPR, unpublished.