Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Radio Redux: Radio Has Been Less Local Than You May Think

In an article in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, Michele Hilmes, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin, wrote how radio is being reinvigorated and reinvented by new methods of transmission such as the Internet, satellite and even podcasting. Her conclusion is very compatible with the discussion in my new study of the considerable robustness of the radio landscape, turning 180 degrees the argument that the radio industry is becoming more consolidated and less local.

Prof. Hilmes wrote:

Radio thus becomes a gatekeeper again for individual producers, creating culture out of their local environments combining bits and pieces of music and information drawn from all over the world, now finding a wider audience not in their geographical communities but in the global associations that the content itself builds for them. This model is at once much more like early radio, the one created by amateurs and small businesses in the 1920s, and completely different in its time, space, and community-shifting qualities. But it is radio, after radio, and stronger than ever.
I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, in her introduction to her main argument she perpetuates more erroneous history of the radio industry. She asks: “What was radio?” Then she explains “In the United States, it was always primarily a local phenomenon emanating from that local station downtown or out on the beltway.” She laments that today “A drive across the country brought in not the staticky succession of widely divergent, colorful local accents and tastes, but the same hit list of songs and raucous DJ patter, wherever you went."

However, it was the radio industry that actually developed the network model later adopted by the television industry. Today, radio is largely a local medium serving primarily local advertisers and local audiences. But at its pre-television peak, radio was dominated by four national networks: NBC, CBS, ABC and Mutual. By 1947 94% of all stations—and all of the largest—were part of one or more networks. Even more germane for understanding policy today, the nature of the long-term contracts that the networks had with their affiliates gave these four networks the final say on most of what local stations programmed.

With four networks providing the bulk of radio programming, radio looked much like television did prior to the 1980s: hundreds of local stations that relied on national networks for their content. In 1937, for example, during typical weekday evening prime time hours, the Milwaukee AM radio station WTMJ (owned by the Milwaukee Journal newspaper) broadcast all NBC Red network programming (NBC had a Red and Blue network. Blue was later spit off and became ABC). The bulk of its afternoon schedule was network as well.

After television gained audience share in the 1950s, radio localism began to take the form of “Top 40” formats. Packagers such as Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon helped stations across the U.S. implement their formula. From 20 such stations in 1955 there were hundreds by 1960. Although the names of the disc jockeys may have been different – Hy Lit in Philadelphia, Alan Freed in New York — the sound was the same. They subscribed to national “tip sheets” to identify the emerging hits and Top 40 play list services.

Thus, it was back in the 1940s through the 1960s when one could drive across the country and hear the same programming on the stations with the strongest signals and largest audience no matter what city you were in.

I’ll have more on radio another day. Stay tuned.

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