Mourning the Loss of Radio

Radio that enables community conversation is
dead. I mourn the loss of radio.

Jack FM ad

Radio may
be old-
fashioned,
but it
works.
–C. Patrick Roberts

Bolts of lightning slashed to the ground. Rain hit the windshield like tiny shards of glass. The wind tossed us about. As Sharon and I drove out of the Smokies on I-40 we found ourselves in deep darkness in a severe storm. But how severe? Was it producing tornadoes? Should we proceed or stop? We searched for weather news on the car radio. Instead we heard what was obviously a music list programmed by someone far away and a long time earlier.

There was no helpful information from a local radio station to advise us about the severity of the storm and its potential danger. Radio, which once served the community and was valuable precisely because it was relevant locally, is all but a memory. Instead we heard soft rock and canned country. C. Patrick Roberts commented on this in the New York Times Magazine last week. (It’s archived in Times Select, the commentary-for-a-fee-section, but that’s another matter.)

I’m a country music fan, but flying to my demise in the darkness serenaded by George Jones didn’t appeal to me at that moment.

We had no way to determine the extent of danger this storm presented. We proceeded onward cautiously and found a motel.

I mourn the loss of radio. At least, I mourn the loss of radio that understood broadcast licensees have a responsibility to serve a community. Radio can encourage community. It is the most intimate of the mass media. It stimulates the imagination in a way that television does not.

Equally important, it enables a community to have conversation with itself. “Radio is a tool to make society work,” says Trudy Kragtwijk of Bush Radio in South Africa.

But under the counsel of programming consultants, radio has become a squawkbox or a jukebox. I doubt that talk radio has as much influence as the print journalists have attributed to it in the past few years. The popular media have become disposable. (Who remembers the DaVinci Code today?) They carry less influence because they are transient and diminished by the plethora of competing media. Their capacity to reach key audiences remains, but individuals are so swamped with content that we move on quickly and today’s hot item is tomorrow’s history.

Few things stick and motivate us to action. We are awash in a sea of mostly useless information because we’re overloaded and don’t see a way to use the information to make a difference.

It’s been an evolving process. First radio was neutered by the consultants. Then the FCC allowed corporate owners to buy up multiple stations in the same market (and own newspapers and billboards as well). Ownership moved from the community to corporate offices far removed from local communities.

Then the FCC relaxed rules that required community service, and in doing so fundamentally negated the idea that the airwaves are owned by the public and should be regulated for public benefit. They made a powerful statement de-valuing broadcast media as a means to encourage community dialogue.

Then new media proliferated, giving us multiple ways to get content. The die was cast. The concept of media that informs evolved into media that entertains. Radio became a concentrated form of entertainment sent down the line by remote control.

Much is said about the 24/7 news cycle but even this occurs in a non-stop entertainment environment. I hear virtually no major media executive today talking about media assisting citizens to engage in a conversation about the things that matter in their lives. That’s an idea dead as a doorknob.

I mourn the loss.

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