When radio began it was something for hobbyists to do. Few homes had radios. Stations were locally owned by frequently (or so it seems) idiosyncratic businessmen who correctly saw it as an effective way to advertise their service or product. Stations went on in the morning and off at sunset. Signals were scratchy and transmitters were unreliable. As the medium developed so did the technology and the talent. Before long big city stations were on all day, every day. Call letters were regularized. Certain frequencies were set aside for “clear channel,” 50,000 watt stations which could be heard for hundreds of miles. Other frequencies were set aside as regional stations (5,000–10,000 watts), and others were local frequencies (250 to 1,000 watts). Networks developed and movie stars began doing weekly radio shows and every home had a radio. Then cars had radios. By the 1940s the president of the United States was doing a weekly broadcast he called “fireside chats.” Many people learned about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio and the learned about the end of the war the same way. Radio made vaudeville comedians into big stars, who became film and TV stars. Since the beginning of the medium, TV shows (or Netflix etc) have followed the formulas popularized by radio, whether sitcoms (The Jack Benny Show), drama, sports, or talk shows. Early TV shows regularly used the same writers, actors, and even scripts from the radio shows that preceded them. Seinfeld was nothing more or less than an updating of the Jack Benny radio show. Both were enormously successful. Once upon a time, radio stations had copy writers (for shows and commercials), full-time engineers to keep the station on the air and sounding good as well as to run the equipment for the entertainers who attracted listeners.
In the 1930s and 40s radio introduced the world to crooners like Bing Crosby and in the 40s and 50s to swooners like Frank Sinatra. Before the Beatles made girls scream, Sinatra was making them faint. In the 1950s radio introduced white audiences to black music, sometimes by playing black artists themselves. Mostly, however, stations played “cover” artists, e.g., Pat Boone, who watered down and slowed down songs originally done by black artists that were considered too sexually suggestive. It was radio who introduced baby-boomer teens to rock and roll in the mid-50s and it was not long after that programmers began to play the “top-40” (vinyl) records on a tight rotation.
The 1950s also saw the beginnings of FM radio. AM stands for Amplitude Modulation. The signal comes off an AM tower in a circle. It bounces off of clouds so that kids in Omaha and Oregon (rarely) can hear 50,000 watt stations in Chicago. FM stands for Frequency Modulation and the signal comes off the tower in a straight line. It features higher fidelity sound and eventually FM broadcasts became synonymous with stereo—AM stations attempted to broadcast in stereo in the 1980s and 90s but that seems to have fizzled. As FM radio grew in popularity AM radio began to diminish. The AM band was saved by talk radio in the beginning in the late 1980s and arguably by one figure: Rush Limbaugh. Say what you will about his politics but he made both AM radio and talk radio—which, before Rush and perhaps Larry King, who did overnights on Mutual Radio, was, just awful—financially viable. Today, sports talk radio is roughly the equivalent of Top 40 radio and helps, along with political talk and religious broadcasting, to keep the AM band alive. FM, once entirely dedicated to music, now carries a smattering of talk radio (from NPR to sports talk).
The Death Of Radio
By the mid-70s, however, Top-40 radio had run out of gas. Stations were increasingly owned by chains and controlled by consultants, who, over the course of the next twenty years squeezed the life out of it. In the 1980s owners learned to use computers, crude by our standards, and music on 10” reels of tape to save money on employees and entertainment. By the early 2000s one or two companies owned most stations.
The creativity once found in local radio stations and in network radio (e.g., CBS, The Columbia Broadcasting System and NBC, the National Broadcasting System) still exists here and there in some sports talk show and in some political talk shows, where program directors still let their “air talent” exercise some creativity and have fun on the air. For the most part, however, with a few exceptions, radio has become unbearably humorless and dull with stations competing for a smaller piece of a shrinking and fragmented pie. Before the reign of consultants, stations competed for a broader part of the market but by the 1980s consultants drove radio to “narrow casting,” i.e., identifying a particular slice of the “prime demo” (25–54) and targeting them exclusively. The most important thing came to be never to offend your target audience.
In the 2000s, some of the more significant air talent fled terrestrial radio for satellite radio (SiriusXM) where, as with cable/satellite TV, listeners subscribe to listen (mostly in vehicles).
Podcasting Is The New Radio
Podcasting has won. Clear Channel Radio, which dominated radio in the 1990s has re-branded itself as iHeart Radio, i.e., according to its streaming and podcast service. Radio stations increasingly turn to podcast downloads, to their Siri and Alexa numbers, in order to prove their success to potential advertisers. I listen to radio frequently but almost entirely by podcast. The Newspaper business used to be, more or less, at war with radio but they have gone into podcasting in a big way. My hometown paper, the Lincoln Journal Star, has a popular sports podcast. Their Omaha competitor, The World Herald, Has one too.
I suppose that many radio stations and networks now envy the number of downloads of the most popular podcasts. According to Apple Podcasts, the top podcast in America is “Nice White Parents” from the New York Times. Barstool Sports produces the 2nd most popular, “Call Her Daddy.” “The Joe Rogan Experience” comes 3rd, “Crime Junkie,” is 4th and “Very Presidential with Ashley Flowers” is the 5th most popular podcast in the USA.
There are relatively few consultants in podcasting yet and that is a good thing. It is the home of creativity and authentic communication. It is not controlled by iHeart. Most podcasters set up in their homes and produce content that interests them. Sometimes they find an audience. Apart from a few remaining big name radio personalities, most of the biggest names in radio are podcasters. I am no Joe Rogan or even Adam Carolla (#59 according to Apple podcasts) but I know with certainty that more people have heard me on The Heidelcast and Office Hours (see below) than ever heard me on any of the several stations at which I worked (KECK-AM/KHAT-FM; KBHL-FM; KGRL-AM/KXIQ-FM, KLIN-AM/FM).
People listen to podcasts for the same reason they used to listen to radio: interesting people saying interesting things in interesting ways. The reason Rush Limbaugh has had the number 1 radio show for 32 years is because he is interested in and passionate about his subject and his audience. He cares about them and they care for and connect with him. They feel as they know him personally. Rush understands entertainment and he has a sense of humor. Good podcasting works the same way. It creates a personal connection between the host and the listener. The hosts have fun and the listeners have fun listening.
Most of the podcasts to which I listen might not interest you, unless you are a diehard Nebraska Cornhusker football fan or devoted to confessional Reformed and Presbyterian theology. For those podcasts on which I have regularly appeared (e.g., Presbycast, Abounding Grace Radio, Theology Gals, NoCo Radio, New Geneva Podcast) see the Heidelmedia Archive (below).
The better of the podcasts to which I listen regularly would work even if they were not about Husker football or politics because they are two or three guys who (at least sound like they) enjoy each other and are having fun. Armstrong and Getty is a really well produced syndicated (mostly political) radio show from Talk 650 KSTE (Sacramento, CA). The Sub Beacon podcast, mostly about film, works for the same reason. The hosts have mostly known each other since they were kids. They are all grown up now (sort of) professional writers who have a lot of fun talking about film. Conan O’Brien’s podcast can be really good (e.g., his recent interview with Tom Hanks). Among the podcasts you have seen me mention here or heard me mention on the Heidelcast, I have listened to the Steve Dahl podcast. He is a radio legend from Chicago (WLS, WCKG, WLUP, WMVP etc). I find Sheryl Attkisson’s podcasts interesting since she covers stories that are not being done to death and in a way that is not often done any more. I have mentioned and even posted episodes of “The Black History Fashion Show“ because Lester Cahill teaches me things I do not learn anywhere else. Most of those just listed are not religious in nature and if you are unfamiliar with secular radio or pagan culture or are easily offended by it, you should not listen. I mostly listen to podcasts to be entertained or to distract myself (e.g., various Old Time Radio podcasts such as “Down These Mean Streets” and “This Day in Jack Benny”).
Satellite radio is expensive. Howard Stern may be funny but he is also filthy and thus, in my opinion, lazy. The “morning zoo” format (I cannot repeat in this space what radio people call this formula) was tired 15 years ago Terrestrial radio is not often fun, energetic, interesting, and entertaining any more but radio is not dead. It lives on podcasting where tens of thousands of folks are producing and recording stuff and sometimes finding an audience and becoming good broadcasters.
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