During the Internet era radio news continues to reach a wide audience. But radio’s viability over the next generation will be tested like never before.
“What we have, we hold.” That pretty much sums up radio’s position during the Internet era. To recap, radio news lost its dominance with the arrival of television in the early 1950’s. It switched to a rolling format of music and disc jockeys under an overarching strategy of “close to the local community”, in which radio news was critical. And that’s where things have stood for more than sixty years.
On the listenership side, radio measures reach and hours tuned. Reach is the number of people who listen to radio. Reach is holding steady at more than 90%. Hours tuned has declined. In part, this is a self inflicted wound of the rolling format, which does not hold attention. In part due to proliferation of alternatives. Dependency on drive time has increased. In the future, greater use of public transit and the ubiquitous data connectivity of self-driving automobiles will hurt radio. Demographics are not encouraging, either. Radio’s lowest numbers today are in the under-30 age group. Nobody knows whether this audience will embrace radio, or not, as they age. At present, though, conventional AM/FM broadcasters are holding on.
When it comes to news, most of us still follow international, national and local stories. Television is our primary source for all three. Online has displaced radio news for second place, with print fading fast. The formula is simple. Each of our news gathering senses has a medium: watch television, listen to radio and read online, increasingly mobile. Radio news has consistent share of media across all age groups except young adults.
Radio’s biggest challenge is not listenership. Instead, it is economics. This is true for two reasons. First is the declining share of advertising expenditure. In the absence of government support broadcasting relies on advertising revenue. (So does the press, actually, although to a slightly lower extent.) Advertising creates the illusion that news is free. With the rise of digital advertising, traditional media face revenue erosion. The wide variety of choices makes it harder to achieve success with the advertising model. In large measure, advertisers cannot measure results on radio and television with much precision, compared to digital. Over the past decade, radio advertising has declined from 10% of total to 8.5%. Based on current trends, radio’s share of advertising will erode further to 7.0%. That’s a big hit.
Second, efforts to reduce radio operating costs have led to more and more chain or automated programming, which hurts radio’s strength of “close to local community.” This centralization is also happening in radio news.
Internet Era Radio News – Convergence and Backpack Journalism
Digital forms of radio such as Internet streaming and podcasts have found their place, but not seriously damaged terrestrial radio. Interestingly, over the past 30 years, radio and its news service have done a remarkable job of developing synergy with social media. Radio has pretty well completed this adoption using sophisticated tools.
On the news front, the traditional roles of journalists are morphing together. He or she may need to be a reporter, editor, sound-person, photographer, video-editor and social medium all at once. In many markets, local journalists work cross media, particularly with television, and in smaller markets with what is left of local print.
Most radio stations and their news operations have their own web sites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Reporters use social media for gathering information – leads and tips, feedback, breaking news, monitoring activities, conducting research. Reporters use social media for disseminating news off-the-air and for attracting listeners. This requires very sophisticated skill sets and ability to address multiple time pressures, including filtering out noise to find news. Social media is very much a pathway to news, for both consumers and reporters. A typical radio station website includes text, pictures, audio, podcasts and blogs.
Most radio stations outside large markets have a very small staff, often a couple of people. They buy outside news services, and radio groups often run centralized newsrooms for multiple markets or media.
Internet Era Radio News – Codes and Practices
Perhaps the main reason radio news is still trusted is that it maintains strong adherence to codes of ethics and professional practices. This is really what still differentiates broadcast news from the profusion of social media platforms. Platforms do not curate news. Broadcasters still do.
In 2011, the Radio Television News Directors Association added “digital” to their mandate. Originally formed in 1946, the RTNDA now does business as the Radio Television Digital News Association. RTDNA is the world’s largest professional organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism. I would encourage you to read their Code of Ethics, very relevant to Internet era radio news.
RTNDA provides some clear guidelines for social engagement. “Social media and blogs are important elements of journalism. They narrow the distance between journalists and the public. They encourage lively, immediate and spirited discussion. They can be vital news-gathering and news-delivery tools. As a journalist you should uphold the same professional and ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, truthfulness, transparency and independence when using social media as you do on air and on all digital news platforms. Social media comments and postings should meet the same standards of fairness, accuracy and attribution that you apply to your on-air or digital platforms. Twitter’s character limits and immediacy are not excuses for inaccuracy and unfairness.”
Broadcast History Radio News
This article about Internet Era Radio News completes our series. We have traced the history of radio news since its inception more than a century ago. The story of the rise, dominance and decline of radio news is not over yet. As for the future of radio news, we close with Ed Murrow’s trademark Good night and good luck.