Why Radio Isn’t (and Shouldn’t Be) Going Away

With 21st century technology giving us instant 24/7 access to information, anything without a screen and an internet connection seems archaic. So, do people even listen to radio anymore? The answer is yes, and for good reason.

The digital age has created an inviting world of instant communication and the illusion that what the viewer is witnessing on the screen is happening in the moment. Visuals have aided the viewer in filling in the vivid details of what they are observing, leaving commentators and news anchors to only inform viewers of what is not represented in the visuals.

On the other hand, radio anchors and reporters are tasked with describing the visuals that listeners cannot see on top of any extra details. Radio needs to make a listener feel like they are at the scene without being able to see anything at all. The extra effort and lack of visuals have led most people toward the more tempting and exciting visual mediums, leaving radio as a oft-forgotten source of information.

Radio, comparatively, is more informative and more dynamic than digital mediums. Radio provides a platform for in-depth discussion of an infinite range of topics– from pop culture, to music, to politics, to science. It allows for more two-way communication between anchors and listeners with call-in options during shows. It doesn’t distract from information with visuals and relies on more colorful and descriptive language to paint images in the minds of listeners.

Radio has adapted to the digital world by incorporating the internet and mobile technology with the content it produces over airwaves. National Public Radio (NPR) uses its website to constantly update its audience with breaking news, blog posts, podcasts, and video. It has also created two apps that provide users on-the-go access to audio and digital content. Small, local radio stations often have websites to digitally publish the stories they air.

For radio, digital content complements the audio that is produced, rather than dominating it like with television and social-media based content. Because of this, radio might have an edge on solely digital publications by reaching larger audiences across multiple platforms.

Radio is easier for listeners to tune into on a daily basis – in a car, on a smartphone, while at work, or anywhere where radio waves or even internet is accessible, as opposed to television or social media platforms that require more engagement and greater connectivity.

Radio also has the advantage of being able to produce long-form segments that are more informative and discussion-based than the 24-hour cable news cycle has become.

Television has become audience-based, airing programs based on who their primary audience is during each hour of the day. Radio, as a more easily accessible medium, can produce the segments that television often reserves for evening and late night.

Many people might be surprised to know that radio is not a dying communication medium– it’s actually thriving.

Research conducted by Pew Research Center in 2015 found that consumption of radio continues to increase across all platforms. The study also found that 57 percent of Americans age 12 years or older listen to online radio, such as Pandora and Spotify for music, podcasts, and talk radio programs, up significantly from only 27 percent in 2010.

Even more impressive is the number of car listeners– 91 percent in 2015. Pew Research found that AM and FM stations of music and informational programming make up the majority of listenership, over satellite and web-based listeners at 37 percent.

Public radio, in particular, remains a competitive medium in a digital world. NPR represents the majority of public radio stations throughout the country, and maintains an average of 26 million weekly listeners over the past ten years. Its member stations across the country pay NPR for its produced content to share to their audiences, garnering significant following and listener donations. The most popular segments among listeners are Morning Edition and All Things Considered, both of which are produced by NPR but broadcast across its member stations.

As successful as radio is, there have been recent discussions over whether President Trump will follow through with his plans to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This action would threaten NPR’s member stations and other forms of public broadcasting who rely on federal funding as nearly 50 percent of their individual operating budgets.

In 2016, the CPB received $445 million in federal funding. This portion of funding makes up only 0.02 percent of the federal budget. This small contribution comes out to only about $1.35 from each taxpayer annually, and funds content that is educational, entertaining, and informative to millions of Americans daily.

Many local radio stations cannot operate without federal support, although radio stations receive significant funds from generous listener donations– these donations would need to increase by 200 percent. Without appropriate funds, NPR member stations would no longer be able to afford NPR-produced content, and many stations do not have the resources to produce their own content.

Public broadcasting organizations must begin preparing for if and when they lose their federal funding. There is a large, supportive audience that already donates a significant portion to radio funding – but that alone is clearly not enough. Before radio is written off as a non-essential area of federal spending, attention should be brought to how far that $1.35 per person goes toward informing the public.

Radio is and continues to be a very reliable, informative, and entertaining medium. It does what television and the internet can… and more. Although it is easier and often more entertaining to turn to visual mediums for content, radio has plenty to offer.

For anyone who has shied away from radio territory, do not rule it out completely; you might be surprised at just how modern the “old-fashioned” medium can be.

Editor’s Note: Adams currently serves as a News Operations intern at NPR in the Washington, D.C. headquarters. The views expressed above are not necessarily those held by NPR.

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