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My View On Radio’s Future

[July 2023] Is the current threat to AM radio – or more? Dave has some thoughts.

Hello! Today, I am goin to talk about radio.

“Well, should be obvious”, I hear you quietly saying under your breath, “that is exactly what we are all about here.” Yes, it is, but today’s conversation really is not going to be technical in nature, it is more an opinion piece, or “I have questions.” I am more interested in exploring something that may not be all that apparent, and that is: why do we still have radio, and what is its relevance when we consider all the competing options which are available for our entertainment?

AN OLD FRIEND

I grew up with radio, and AM radio particularly fascinated me, long before I had any idea what it was all about.

I just knew that I could hear about, and from people many miles, sometimes thousands of miles distant. It was relevant then because it was the primary source of news/music in the home, and the only one available in your car.

Yes, I do go back that far.

The AM radio fascinated me, not only due to the programming content (do you recall the well-produced radio shows?), but also due to the fact that I could hear stations from many far-off locations as the sun set in the evening. This sets the scene for today’s conversation.

RADIO WAS WITH US

When TV came to our household, we then had the Lone Ranger, the Three Stooges, Bonanza and the nightly news. We had daily access to fantasy, and “fact” – but only when we were at home.

But we had radio anywhere, at home in the kitchen, in the car with dad as we drove around doing whatever it was that dad was doing. I do not recall any specific announcers at the time, but as “Gunsmoke” played out each episode, for example, I would listen to the radio show, completely taken in by the imagination the show provided. And here is why radio was so influential at the time those many years ago: the programming is what drove the medium: at the time, it provided the content that was what the listeners wanted to hear.

Now for this discussion, today, to make any logical sense at all, you should realize that I am not writing from a programmer’s perspective, nor any type of a manager’s viewpoint. I only fix the electrical, mechanical things and systems which quit working correctly, I am “just the engineer guy,” and this means I cannot fix the source of the audio which has been decided upon by program director or station management, and is then sent on to the transmitter.

FAMILY AND FRIENDS

I spent a couple weeks with my son over Christmas and every time we got into the car, when the engine was started the console came on and the selected programming began, but it was not radio.

It was either a podcast or his music lists, streamed from his unlimited data plan to his iPhone, thence via Bluetooth to the car’s entertainment system. And in light of that, I find myself wondering what do others use for listening, and why?

I asked my son (and he is now about 46) if he ever listens to radio, and his reply was “no, I never have liked AM/FM radio.” Interesting. So, I asked a friend (she’s about 66) for her thoughts and she replied that she cannot stand all the senseless chatter of the announcers. She said that she listens to Pandora when in the car. That way she can select and listen to what she wants to hear, and this eliminates all the cackling and inane commentary she equates with terrestrial radio.

My preference when driving cross country is still AM radio, followed closely by FM. I listen to CBC (Canadian Public Radio) when I can find it, or the US Public Radio (NPR) on FM. When neither of those keep my attention, I may select Sirius/XM radio, or music stored on the entertainment system’s hard drive or the USB port.

But I do like to hear what various locales have to say about their towns, their local businesses, “swap shops” and so on. Mostly, I want to know ahead of time whether I am likely to run into some type of problems ahead. The location and direction of travel of severe summer storms are at the top of my list.

However, the local weather information presented often seems to be tailored only to the local residents who already know the area around where they live. In the case of severe weather alerts, I usually do not know which county I am in as I am driving across the country, so the affected area descriptions do not mean much to me. The weather information I want to know about is more immediately available by various applications to either my phone or to my laptop.

The above is a screen capture of an application (www.windy.com) which I like to use when planning trips. In this instance, it shows the projected snowfall over the next 10 days. As I am deciding on when to leave, and by which route to travel, this is useful. No, it is not the kind of information I ought to be relying on radio to accurately convey, especially for a week out.

The following screenshot provides immediately useful, current storm information and I do not need to know which county I am traversing in order to determine which route to take, or perhaps just stop and wait it out. And this app provides information which is available to me, on my phone, immediately.

So what does all this mean? What is my point? And you are right to be asking this.

GETTING TO THE POINT

Ok, it is this: with all the many options to get the entertainment, and information we seem to like, why then is radio still in business? How is radio still in business? And, for how long?

This is a question that I have seen discussed many times, and as my part-time contracting work does not seem to be slowing at all, I wonder all these things, and more. Also, as I am well past 70, and do not see many young people yearning to get into this business, I am also wondering how is this going to continue? And it must be continuing very well due to the facility improvements and upkeep I see occurring year by year.

Part of the answer is the new equipment is more reliable, and therefore the maintenance has changed from cleaning and adjusting the mechanical aspects of electrical connections often, testing and/or changing tubes, etc. to stopping in and observing RF power levels, room temperature, cleanliness and move on.


www.digitalalertsystems.com

BUT, IS THERE A FUTURE?

One of the guys I visited with recently speculated that radio is here still primarily due to habit “inertia.”

He said people tend usually to continue to do what they know, and unless there is a real reason to change, they do not. Radio is easy to access, is free (if you do not count time listening to ads or “talent” that does not interest you as a cost), and it is available nearly everywhere. Cellphone coverage seems to be fairly decent throughout most places in the country, but there are great expanses where “unlimited data” means nothing. When a voice call, or even text, will not connect, radio is most likely there. And is free.

Therefore, I will close with this, I see radio as an ongoing medium, but with some additional, interesting (and exciting) aspects to it.

The engineers who are there to make it happen will have some very diverse skill sets as compared to when I started. Transmitters now are quieter, smaller, and are more easily watched over and controlled. About the only aspect of radio now that is the same as 40+ years ago is that when you turn the car or house radio on, there is your music, or commentary. Simple, easy, free. And now I am back to listening to the radio for what they may have to say which interests me, or what musical selection(s) might interest me, but I still find myself changing stations often when the “chatter” and the seemingly incessant advertisements become too much to bear.

And so the unanswered question remains: how is AM radio still viable, and for how long? In the end, I just do not know….

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Dave Dunsmoor retired after 35 years as an FAA technician and radio engineer in Minot, ND. He keeps busy hiking and still doing a bit of contract engineering.

Contact Dave at:mrfixit@min.midco.net

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