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Radio – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

News remains an important part of what was once simply called radio. In many ways, indeed, the tradition of listening to the news — aural transmission is the original way people got news — is among the most enduring.

But the radio business is undergoing no less of a revolution than any other part of media. The audience is fragmenting across new listening platforms. The revenue models are unclear, and which technology will emerge is uncertain.

What we once knew as radio is now something more complex and in many ways more interesting. In addition to the AM and FM dials, now there is satellite, HD, Internet, MP3s, podcasting, and increasingly, cell phones.

In 2007, the audience for traditional radio continued to slip some. But AM/FM listening still reached 93% of the population over 12 years old, down less than two percentage points overall since 2000.

At the same time, the audiences for new audio continue to grow. The numbers are still small. And it may be that a technology that has not yet become a major factor — cell phones — could in the end be a dominant one. Much more change, in other words, is to come.

Financially, the industry faces large challenges, leading to experimentation and change. Radio is finally putting more resources into the Web, into social networking, on-demand news features and portable Internet radio equipment. Online revenue is growing, but not dramatically.

Some companies, partly in reaction, continued to move toward privatization. Clear Channel, the largest radio concern, started the trend in 2006, and had nearly completed the move by selling off some of its stations by the end of 2007. Cumulus Media signaled its intent to move toward private ownership in 2007 as well.

With fragmentation, moreover, comes variety. Even the content of traditional broadcast radio is now remarkably varied, depending on the source. Public radio thrives. News headlines, our content analysis suggests, provide an important and diverse source of information — and are far more than anchors reading wire copy. Talk radio, meanwhile, is something quite distinct from traditional news, and narrows, not broadens, the agenda.

What seems safest is the idea that listening to news and information is likely to endure, even thrive. But the shape of that is both changing rapidly and in other ways changing very little.