Radio must evolve for audiences, new journalists

April 17, 2013 01:30

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman

Three things that worry me about the future of commercial radio news.
I’ve been on the conference tour recently, first at the SPJ Region 4 conference in Dayton, and then at the NAB show in Vegas. It’s given me a chance to speak, and listen to others talk about radio news. While the people talking about the radio news business are relentlessly positive, I keep hearing “yeah buts” in the back of my brain. This is not an indictment of the industry, but concerns I would have expressed if given the chance to speak next.

1.  Few students are interested in radio. The panel I moderated in Dayton was titled Radio Today. We talked about the current and future state of radio news to a pretty small crowd.  The number of people wasn’t embarrassingly small for an afternoon breakout session, but the competing sessions on open records, military stories to cover after the war, and social justice coverage were considerably more crowded. I think we had an equal number of radio veterans in the room as students interested in future radio jobs.

Few university journalism or broadcasting programs have a radio sequence anymore, which I understand since audio production is part of the new multi-media journalism training anyway. But when I’m talking to students in a classroom or at a conference, the number of students hoping to land jobs at radio stations is never more than two or three, and usually they are NPR junkies hoping to break into public radio.

2. Radio is losing its immediacy advantage. At the NAB show on Monday, NAB President Gordon Smith was touting radio as “the best source of information in a disaster… when cell towers and broadband aren’t working.” Well, he’s absolutely right. But can commercial stations make an economic model based on the frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, chemical spills and earthquakes in our markets?

Radio is as immediate as it ever was, but many other news outlets are now equally as fast and more ubiquitous. Coincidentally, while Smith was speaking, I learned of the death of Margaret Thatcher and Annette Funicello from applications on my phone that have nothing to do with radio. True, those deaths were not local stories, but the same situation plays itself out on social media and website in every market now. When a big story breaks, my first notification may be from the person who put it on twitter most recently.

3. Local radio will have trouble replacing the local coverage provided by newspapers. At the same session that Gordon Smith spoke, veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer was honored. In his remarks, Schieffer said with all the cutbacks happening at newspapers, it should fall to broadcasters to do the solid, deep, investigative journalism that would hold local officials accountable across this country.

Mr. Schieffer that is music to my ears! But I work at a station where my reporters can produce four minute stories (it used be longer, but that’s a different blog post) and can take days to do them. Few commercial radio local newsrooms can do that.

It made me think back to the SPJ session, when a commercial radio anchor described how he produces daily newscasts for cities in other states that he’s never even visited. Sure the “hub and spoke” model can tell you about crimes and rewrite AP copy, but how does a radio station do investigative journalism to hold local officials accountable from hundreds of miles away? This would be a tough job for even the most heavily staffed public radio stations. Sure we do investigative stories, some stations even have “investigative reporters,” but that reporting takes time and resources that many public stations don’t have and very few commercial radio stations have.

Look, it’s not all bad news out there for radio. Stations are discovering ways to deliver their content on multiple and mobile platforms, the number of people listening to radio each week actually grew last year, and we can all name the odd commercial radio station that excels at local news coverage. But the trend is a concern to me, and we need more than disaster coverage and (expensive) investigative journalism to create commercial radio newsrooms that students see as an awesome destination job.