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Television Era Radio News – That’s the way it is

television era radio news

During the television era radio news lost its dominance, and became part of a rolling format of information and entertainment. Its focus shifted to local communities and narrower listening segments.  

After World War II, the radio news had nowhere to go but down. As Walter Cronkite put it: that's the way it is. Serious television broadcasting launched in 1948 with full-time evening programming over the main networks.

Television was able to quickly stand on the shoulders of everything radio broadcasting had accomplished. Radio networks, managers, entertainers and advertisers migrated to the new medium. The radio serials and variety programs became TV shows. The news followed, mainly as an adaptation of radio news and newsreels to the watchable medium. At the networks, radio and television news operations did not get along very well. In fact, you could conclude that radio newsmen treated their television colleagues with much the same disdain they had received from the press a generation earlier.

Television displaced radio news leadership through the following arc. It started with the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Viewers watched the ceremony live in England, and with a twelve hour delay elsewhere as chartered airplanes carried films abroad. It accelerated through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Most of the first hour of coverage from Dallas sounded like radio news; pictures took a bit longer to arrive. By the Apollo 11 moon landing in the summer of 1969, television was in charge of news. Not only live coverage, but live video from the moon.

TV Era Technology and Innovation

Some innovations helped radio. Most important were portable transistor radios, car radios and better quality music on stereo FM. The latter helped radio hold its place against music on eight track tapes and cassettes. But most innovations boosted television.

At first, television news was as minimal and stark as radio news had been in the 1920’s. Basically, television news started out as an adaptation of radio news and newsreels. BBC television did not produce much news programming until it started a 25 minute evening newscast in 1955. What it carried instead was newsreels which aired several times a week. BBC news was determined keep personalities out of the picture. Actual newscasters did not appear on screen in Britain until a year later. American television carried news from the start, but often just a simulcast of radio news. By 1956, film and newsreels were replaced by broadcast quality video recordings.

Telecommunications networks were critical to television’s growth. At first, long distance telephone cables enabled still pictures to be transmitted in about ten minutes. Film coverage of events had to be carried by airplane, so foreign news coverage was often delayed by 12-24 hours. Networks for transcontinental television coverage were built during 1951-1958. Then, Telstar went into orbit in 1962 starting the era of satellite news. This technology soon enabled subscription television in 1975 (HBO) followed by the first cable news network CNN in 1980.

Portable miniature television cameras had shown up in 1968. Up until this time, radio had competed on speed and cost. Eventually video technologies and network connections drove down the cost of television news, and sped its distribution significantly.

Television Era Radio News Format Changes

As big name entertainers and national advertisers fled to television, radio switched from programs to formats. Some people called it musical wallpaper. The formats were a continuous cycle of music-news-sports-weather and disc jockeys. Advertising shifted to “spots” (30 or 60 second advertisements) that also cycled. Formats varied mainly by what kind of music and how much talk were aired. All of the basic formats in use today were established by the 1960’s, as was the use of formats to target demographic groups.

With the decline in network radio and national advertisers, radio shifted its emphasis to the local community for content and local advertisers for revenue. Television era radio news played an important role in this competitive differentiation and survival strategy. The 1950’s was a period of reconstruction and witnessed an increase in the number of radio journalists. Stations built local newsrooms and hired news staff to focus on the community, rather than the big national or international stories. More and more, news was instrumental in this radio strategy of identifying with the life of the local community.

Finally, radio recognized it had been displaced as the center of attention. Its new formats did not demand long-term attention from listeners. They could come and go, and radio would fit in. As part of these new formats, radio news shifted to the now-familiar five-minute reporting format, and coverage avoided complicated details. Television era radio news “on the hour” started in 1957.

Talk Radio and News

One of the popular radio formats is news-talk-information, second only in popularity to country music. News-talk features telephone call-ins, discussions, news and public affairs. There are all-news stations in larger markets.

Originally unique to American radio is talk radio. The FCC repealed its Fairness Doctrine in 1987. For nearly forty years, this regulation had required radio stations to present a balance of opposing points of view on controversial subjects. Not any more. The repeal opened the way for talk shows with particular points of view. Perhaps the most infamous proponent of this type of news and public affairs programming was Rush Limbaugh, who explains how talk radio works.

By the end of the 1980’s, radio was no longer the primary source for electronic news. Instead, it was a comfortable companion that informed and entertained increasingly mobile audiences. The emergence of Internet the following decade would lead to another sea change.

If you want a deeper dive into the subject, watch this interview with the author of That's The Way It Is: A History of Television News in America. Some good commentary on radio news, as well.

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