Monday, August 4, 2008

Radio: Are gatekeepers necessary?

I am part of a group that randomly e-mails one another.
Most – but not all – participants have worked or known one another in some manner over the past thirty years or so. Some participants do not have a media background. Discussions range from culture to politics to media.

Recently, the elder statesmen of the group argued that music doesn’t hold the same cultural significance for young adults today as it did back in the late sixties through the mid-nineties – and that there are no existent representatives or superstars for today’s contemporary music listening adults.

He believes today’s rock music is analogous to jazz where you have a large number of artists with each catering to a smaller, specialized audience.

Another, who has never been in the radio or music business, believes that gatekeepers – in this case, the air personality and the radio station – are now, at best, an option.

One of our participants, a former successful program director and nationally-known air personality, has two teenage daughters and a 9-year old daughter, who is just starting to take some cues from her sisters.

Here’s what he said:

“The teens both have iPods, and are as different as night and day in their taste.
“My 16 year old swings toward mainstream pop, but she does not get it from the radio. She checks out iTunes recommendations, listens to iTunes and Amazon samples, and then gets curious and starts surfing the 'net. She discovered Laura Pausini that way and downloaded several of her songs. Pausini is big overseas, but not widely known in the USA. The 'net world of today makes for interesting side-trips. She got curious about girl groups, and read about The Runaways. Now who the hell is playing The Runaways on-air anymore? Does not matter. She discovered them through the 'net. This lead to The Go Gos, and The Bangles. Now, she checks out YouTube to see what they look/sound like. Had she been a hit radio listener, she would never be exposed to these acts, which now populate her iPod.

“My 14-year old, is a techo freak. She streams the techno services like Jungletrain, where the title and artist is read out on the player. From there, she looks them up on Wikipedia, and finds their official website. She turned me on to Ulrich Schnauss that way.

“As much as I love and still advocate a great and knowledgeable live personality as a host, it is now a value-add more than the necessity that it was in our day. Back when, without us, the audience had no way of connecting the dots. As you can see in my examples, the kids are now connecting the dots all by themselves with all of the text, bio, audio and their fingertips. And I have not even mentioned Pandora or other sites that find "similar artists" for you (although the 16 year old does not like Pandora, since she thinks some of the links make no sense and would rather look around herself).

“I just took the kids on vacation for a week in our minivan. They took turns playing me their iPod music, patched into the van's audio system. When that ran its course, they borrowed my Palm Treo, tethered it to their laptops to bring in the 'net, and streamed videos from about a dozen different sites. When they took a nap, I reclaimed my Treo, put on my headphones (as not to disturb them) and streamed some music. Then, as a change of pace, I went to a spoken word specialty site and streamed audio of interest to pass the time on the road.

“Notice what's missing? Radio.

"Notice what's NOT missing? The kids' love of music.”

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Notice what's missing? COMMERCIAL radio. If it were commercially viable, it would be ON the commercial airwaves. It is interesting that some stations that cater to teens and young adults are successful and some that try to, aren't successful at all. What is the difference? Programming? Personalities? Imaging? Live talent vs. VT'd talent? Heritage? What are YOUR thoughts?

Anonymous said...

After thinking about the blog topic, isn't that what HD side channels are for? Non-traditional, eclectic type formats? I guess the question is, is HD worth the expense to pick up the five kids that are seeking Euro-club-pop?

Anonymous said...

John, you wrote a good one with the help of your anonymous contributor. There was a time when top 40 radio in the sixties and early seventies and AOR in the mid to late seventies played a wide variety of music which allowed us to develop our musical tastes and styles and eventually find things on our own. Back then we always went back to the radio to learn more.

Today radio is an automated researched to death juke box devoid of variety. It is so genre specific that regardless of format it bores quickly. Pandora which many people praise is little more than a radio consultant's "modal" music generator.

I agree that gatekeepers are not necessary and you also have to point out that gatekeepers except in rare circumstances do not exist in radio today. Radio personalities are now radio announcers or voice tracked.

I long for the day when a DJ I liked turned me on to new music or related some new piece of music to something else.

HD radio as someone mentioned here is not the solution. What is, is radio with real musicologist personalties that can weave interesting music while maintaining a commercial edge to appeal to the widest possible audience. It can be done. It was done for years.

Thank you, John. This was long overdue and thank you to the anonymous contributor for sharing the story of his daughters and how they find their new music.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Top 40 radio in the sixties provided that thread and the DJs of that era talked about the music and helped us find the linkage whether it be British invasion, R&B-Motown or the California sound.

Radio could do it again if it had people not automation racks controlling its programming and delivery.

Anonymous said...

Anyone with opened eyes and ears can see/hear that this scenario is what it is all about, for today and the future.
For a brief period now, only the poor minorities are lagging behind, the broadcast outlets airing Rap, Hispanic and foreign language still important to them. But they will catch up, leaving any type of music radio gone and forgotten.

How many radio dramas, plays or variety shows are on the air on U.S. radio today? TV took them away, just as the internet and the Ipod are taking music, the savior of radio after TV, away.

Did the automate-consolidate-castrate era of the big conglomerates cause this to happen? No, but they certainly accelerated the trend, to their detriment.

What will be left for radio? Possibly local talk, sports and news. Religion took over shortwave. It will likely take over what's left of AM.

The best FM can do would be to re-introduce variety, personality and interest on a local level. But only a handful of stations in a market will survive doing that.

For the rest? It's over. Like buggy makers when the automobile came along. There may always be a niche for the product, but as a mass-audience, commercially viable industry, radio will be gone.

This does not mean that the talent, creativity and energy that people have shown and will show is useless. Not at all. We will need those people more than ever now. But the delivery system will no longer be AM/FM broadcasting. The delivery system has changed. But the need for entertainment has not. And the days ahead for those who grasp that will be more exciting, fun and profitable than ever.

Anonymous said...

Radio is too late. It ignored the younger generation. It insulted the generation that grew up with radio from tween-age. To those of us who grew up with radio in its greatest years you short changed us. Played us to be the lowest common denominator. You and newspapers deserve your fate. You disrespected your customer and lost them in the process.

Splicer said...

My thoughts?

I rediscovered Progressive Rock in late 1994 after years of wandering the wilderness looking for a type of rock that I could like. I wasn't just rediscovering old classics like Genesis (Gabriel era), King Crimson, Yes, ELP or even Gentle Giant - I was being introduced to dozens of groups, both old and new, that I'd never heard before. This was via a chance discovery at a CD and Record show in Manhattan. Flash forward the 14 years since and I continue to be an avid Prog Rock fan although most of my listening is done online, on my laptop or my iPod. All my purchases are done online (downloads if possible, CDs if not). I also have developed a great appreciation for avant garde jazz and 20th Century and beyond classical music.

I have no need nor use for music radio stations. After the 70s and early 80s, radio became way too formatted and narrow in it's offerings and I began my long retreat from listening to it at all. To be blunt, music programmers and consultants disgust me because they are speaking a language designed to sooth their corporate masters even though they know little about what the audience wants.

All of this written while I listen to my 5uu CD. Next up, The Flower Kings or perhaps some Magma.

Anonymous said...

radio hasnt done it right for ten, fifteen years easy. the last time radio showed any excitement was the alt-grunge gen x era when you had diverse acts from tori amos to no doubt to pearl jam and soundgarden all played on the same station and then the coot edged that format into active rock. i think radio reached the point of no return and new alternatives beginning with self discovery, the elimination of gate keepers, plus the availability of downloading and portability of taking an entire library with you in your pocket made radio obsolete. when i read about cbs radio and aol doing internet radio i cant believe they think that is all there is to do. that is why they fail.

Splicer said...

To "anonymous" who mentioned CBS/AOL: You're missing the point. It's not about about succeeding in the classical sense, it's about the few at the top making some cash for themselves with the idea and then jumping ship before it comes crashing down.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

"After thinking about the blog topic, isn't that what HD side channels are for? Non-traditional, eclectic type formats? I guess the question is, is HD worth the expense to pick up the five kids that are seeking Euro-club-pop?"

"HD Hypocrisy"

"Here's a few more reasons why only iBiquity and a few clueless radio group heads could make a big thing out of HD radio tagging... The very damn radio stations that broadcast in HD offer no programming worth listening to. HD Radio is a virtual sewer of formats owners don't want on their terrestrial frequencies and other assorted garbage that no one sane would listen to -- let alone spend money for new radios -- tagging or not."

HD's side-channels are garbage, and mostly clever reworks off the main analog channels - this is partly why consumers have zero interest in this farce:

Compete website traffic analysis of versus competing technologies:

Google Trends search frequency analysis of HD Radio versus competing technologies:

Anonymous said...

anonymous said...

"What will be left for radio? Possibly local talk, sports and news. Religion took over shortwave. It will likely take over what's left of AM"

There is a handfuil of religous broadcasters in the US, but shortwave still has plenty of non-religous international broadcasters:

Many 50kw AM stations running news/talk/sports are rated in the top-5, up to #1, in their markets (WLW for example). There is no indication that religous broadcasters will take over AM radio. I love it, when posters talk out of their asses!

Lisa Mullins' guardian angel said...

John, I know this may not be the right place for this but you and your readers should know that NPR and PRI have merged. Considering that public radio is the only group to have gained audience over the past year this is important news. This puts shows like The World under the NPR umbrella. This news has not been released to the public yet. This is from an internal memo. You enjoy exclusives so here's one for you:

We are pleased to announce the first step toward achieving a significant new collaboration in public broadcasting. Today, PRI, Public Interactive (PI), and NPR signed an agreement for NPR to acquire the assets of Public Interactive, the Boston-based nonprofit organization founded by PRI that has played an instrumental role in the development and expansion of websites and digital services for 170 public broadcasting customers.

This acquisition lays the groundwork for a digital distribution infrastructure to serve stations, producers, networks, and their partners in the communities we serve. At the completion of the acquisition in late August, PI will become part of NPR, and PI's 20 staff members will become NPR employees. The new unit will be led by Debra May Hughes, the current President and COO of Public Interactive, and will be guided by an NPR Board-appointed committee similar to that which guides today’s Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS).

Merging the assets of PI with NPR enlarges the scale and scope of digital services for the benefit of all public radio constituents.

It aligns resources, expertise, and station relationships to grow stations' websites and digital services to make public media a more powerful presence online.

This goal is central to NPR's digital strategy, which emerged from the New Realities planning process, is reflected in the 2006 Blueprint for Growth, and is approved by the NPR Board.

The exploratory work of public radio’s Digital Distribution Consortium and previous efforts such as the Public Service Publisher Initiative identified the needs for a collaborative system for public media web content exchange that would mirror what today’s PRSS does for broadcast content.

The time for investment in this area is now. Public media's web capabilities are dramatically under-resourced. For example, on average, public radio stations have fewer than one full-time staff member available to support their station’s digital efforts. Clearly, we need to pool resources to develop our collective potential.

On the Intranet, we have posted a Q&A that delves into different facets of this decision, and would like to call your attention to several station benefits:

• PI will support and expand the array of digital products and services now available to public broadcasting stations.

• PI-designed digital tools and services will include significant NPR content from which clients can select, in addition to content from PRI, BBC, Reuters, and other producers.

• While PI will maintain its current service model, it will create a new array of opportunities that will benefit the system as a whole.

• PI offers new distribution opportunities for all public media content producers.

• PI will become part of NPR but as with PRSS, which is managed by NPR on behalf of the system, PI will remain "customer and content neutral," serving stations, producers, and networks equally.

This is an exciting development, and it is one that we feel will bring meaningful gains for stations, NPR, and public media as a whole in the digital environment. Once the acquisition is complete in late August, we will find ways for you to learn more about your new colleagues from Public Interactive and their important work. Please watch the Intranet for updates.

Anonymous said...

This is so funny. You guys keep thinking, "If we just bring back the old methods of personality and live & local, we can go back to the past."

I'm sorry folks, but you can't bring back the past. People are not going to give up their cell phones, ipods or computers in order to listen to DJs on the radio. They had a role and a purpose at one time. But that time has passed.It's not coming back. It doesn't matter if we're talking about commercial or non-commercial radio. It doesn't matter if we're talking about HD or satellite. It doesn't matter if we're talking at all! There's nothing anyone can do to change human nature.

And quit trying to come up with reasons, like if radio had been more experimental, this never would have happened, or if consolidation hadn't happened, this never would have happened. Who cares? The fact is that someone invented some things that people like. There is nothing anyone in radio could have done to prevent people from buying cell phones. Nothing anyone in radio that could have stopped people from buying computers or iPods. Nothing. So stop blaming radio or owners or research or iBiquity.

We live in a new media environment. You can't push the toothpaste back into the tube. In the 50s, there was nothing anyone in radio could do to stop TV. All the great radio personalities of the past 50 years did nothing to stop the explosion of TV and cable. Learn from that. Live with the changes. Move forward.

Marco Werman's guardian angel said...

To Lisa Mullins' guardian angel:

The way I read the NPR-PRI story - they did not merge the networks. It appears that PRI sold NPR its interactive division and that the nets are still independent of one another.

Anonymous said...

I still use radio and would listen more if I had better programming at my disposal. I also have an iPod dock in my car and I do listen to internet radio and mostly European stations at work. I prefer the European stations because they have wider playlists. I rarely listen to terrestrial radio other than public radio and occasionally collge. If I had better choices I would listen to more terrestrial radio and I don't mind commercials since some are informative and even entertaining as long as they are not stacked up in five minute blocks.

Anonymous said...

Lisa Mullins' guardian angel said...

"This is an exciting development, and it is one that we feel will bring meaningful gains for stations, NPR, and public media as a whole in the digital environment. Once the acquisition is complete in late August, we will find ways for you to learn more about your new colleagues from Public Interactive and their important work. Please watch the Intranet for updates."

"The Wonderful World of HD Radio"

"Perhaps it is because it is the American Public that has been paying a large portion of the development costs for HD radio? Yup, that is you and I. An FCC filing from North Carolina’s Public Radio Stations cites: Just a few weeks ago, the House Appropriations Committee approved an additional $40 million to assist public radio stations’ transition to HD radio technology.”

"DEAD AIR: Radio's great leap forward stalling in the Valley"

"KMBH, the National Public Radio affiliate based in Harlingen, switched to HD this year, but the change did not boost its inconsistent analog signal in the upper Valley. Monsignor Pedro Briseño, the manager of the station and its television affiliate, did not return multiple calls and an e-mail requesting comment on the station’s shift. A fundraising campaign on the station asked local listeners to contribute to the upgrade earlier this year, touting the change as a service to listeners that would improve their experience. The station’s business manager said she could not reveal the cost of the upgrade, saying all media requests have to be routed to Briseño. A public information request faxed to the station Monday evening has not yet received a response. Organizations that receive government funding are subject to state and federal open records laws, but have seven business days to respond to information requests."

"HD Radio: Will More Awareness Translate To Sales?"

"Unfortunately, Ibiquity does not: Yes, they have gotten many radio stations to make the $100,000 or so investment required to add HD Radio broadcasting, but what the leave out of their PR spin is that MANY of these stations were Public Radio/NPR stations that had their equipment paid for by special funding from Congress. So tell me, senior executives from, say, Sony, Mitsubishi, Best Buy, etc.: How do you feel about Ibiquity''s lobbyists getting US taxpayers to pick up the tab for many of their transmitter sales? Wouldn''t it be great if your lobbyists could get Congress to mandate that US taxpayers be required to buy your products, too? Do you even slightly care? Ibiquity will take their money and run, and HD Radio will join a long list of failed formats, like Dolby FM radio, Elcassete, mini disk (in the US), etc."

"HD Radio: Fun with Math"

"I think it is fair to say that the audiophile community, those people who take their FM seriously, is dead set AGAINST HDRadio. Not only do most people never intend to buy a radio, unless as a plaything for early adopters and collectors, but are aghast at the FCC for even allowing IBOC to thrash up the FM bandwidth. Plus, people with enough technical savvy to read the specs are insulted by the false claims of 'CD sound quality' or even 'near-CD sound quality'. These are transparent marketing hype, beyond mean puffery. Sorry, but HDRadio has sworn enemies. This goes beyond just business but has political reprecussions for FCC and for Congress. This has the whiff of political scandal - and I'm a rock-ribbed Republican! The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is especially vulnerable. My advice for any businessman is to avoid any association with HDRadio."

It's the NPR stations that bilked Congress out of tens-of-millions for useless, dstructive (adjacen-channel interference to jam community radio off the dial) HD/IBOC.

Anonymous said...

"It's the NPR stations that bilked Congress out of tens-of-millions for useless, dstructive (adjacen-channel interference to jam community radio off the dial) HD/IBOC."

Some of those community radio stations are also members of NPR. So they'd have no reason to put them off the air. In fact, the community station I personally built is an example.

And to the best of my knowledge (and I know you'll correct me if I'm wrong), no community station has complained to the FCC about IBOC intereference. This has all been a Chicken Little escapade.

Anonymous said...

"I still use radio and would listen more if I had better programming at my disposal."

What would you consider "better programming?"

Anonymous said...

I hope everyone who is thinking about looking at those stations Clear Channel and CBS are selling reads Gorman's blog first before putting in a bid. Radio is worth a fraction of what it once was. With the economy in decline and major advertisers abandoning radio for other media. Knowing that and you are still interested in buying a radio staiton. GFL!

Anonymous said...

No gatekeeper is better than a bad gatekeeper which is what radio had become. I would prefer input from those whose musical tastes I respect to provide me with information regarding new music I may like. I remember when radio was like that. Maybe the radio business should remember that too before they program themselves out of the picture.

Anonymous said...

" I remember when radio was like that."

I remember when the music was a whole lot better, too. I'd put some of the responsibility on the bad music made by bad musicians who seem to be reinventing the wheel. We already had The Who. We don't need a bad immitation.

Jennifer Waits said...

First of all, I loved hearing the stories in your post about kids/teens and music discovery and it's so fun to hear that the youngins are catching on to classic bands like the Bangles and Runaways!

And, I agree that commercial radio is unlistenable.

But, there is still interesting stuff to be found on non-commercial radio, especially on the very best college and community stations.

I still enjoy a well-curated set of music put together by a creative, knowledgeable college radio DJ. I continue to discover new music on college radio and never find myself bemoaning the sad state of music "today", as there is ALWAYS something new and interesting in the independent music world.

Plus, with changes in technology, one can listen to college radio on one's radio, iPod, iPhone, clock radio, computer, etc.

Anonymous said...

Damn, that short piece written by the anonymous PD and air talent? I wish I had written it. He's right, he's right he's right. Spot on! Except ... the part about DJs being a "value add." I believe there is talent out there, and I'm not talking about the Opies and Dopeys of the world. DJs could be so much more if they were allowed to be what they once were -- the unfiltered conduit between the audience and the artists. That said, and as much as I hate to say this ... it's not our time anymore. We had no idea what we were doing all those years ago, but we sure did something right. But that was at least one lifetime ago, and our intersection with history has passed. It's time to hand over the reins to all those little iPod pishers and let them create their own era with their new toys and the ways and means they know better than we do anymore. As Pete Townshend once said: "The Kids are Alright." And probably even better than we were because with all the new ways they find music (and with such tenacity!) they don't feel the need to so narrowly define themselves the way we did.

At my apartment my Metallica CDs sit next to my Joni Mitchell CDs and she sits next to Mystikal -- and I have never once heard them fight amongst themselves. So why do we continue to try to musically lobotomize kids by forcing them to pledge allegiance to one format? I think it is beyond wonderful that kids are seeking out different styles and different genres and flipping off the stations that still try to beat them into submission by blasting ridiculous positioning statements between each song.

As for Pandora, well, I LOVE it. And my faux 20-year-old son thinks it's "AWESOME" too. If Internet radio is ultimately squashed over this absurd issue of royalties and retroactive payments (are you F***ing kidding me? It makes my head spin that it actually has gone this far...) well then, game over.

Finally -- John? You were a NIGHTMARE to work for. And for that, I can't thank you enough. Your blog is so insightful and your passion is inspiring.

Ed Esposito said...

Nice column but the comments are certainly worth reading, even the radio is deadsters. Missing the point, though: there are lots of people listening, just not on the schedule we determine anymore. Radio still has a role to play if you broaden the reference to audio, regardless of where it comes from. I like my news on the radio -- and I like my news on my streams and iPod -- and occasionally I even like my music on the digital cable satellite channels. The column point isn't that radio is the past, it's that our choices are the future. My old pal Doug Sutherland (now podcasting, by the way, in Montana for your Clevelanders who remember him) made money early by taking a Phoenix station with a crappy signal and doing something interesting on the air. People listened. In today's world you can do something interesting on the web and people listen. The content still matters -- it's always mattered -- and the folks who get that and are creative are the ones who rise to the top.

Gee, Paris Hilton's take-off on running for President gets over three million viewings in two days...creative still works, and it doesn't hurt that almost every TV and radio news operation under the sun put it in front of eyes and ears to help drive that traffic.

If we spent a fraction of the time remembering the listener instead of sniping over the platform we'd have great listening again, no matter where it comes from. Hell, that's why I grew up listening to 100.7, CKLW, and pulling in old Dr. Demento shows on pre-iPod disc during the early days when you could get him.

Anonymous said...

"Gee, Paris Hilton's take-off on running for President gets over three million viewings in two days...creative still works"

Three million seems like a lot, but it's not. A typical national radio show reaches 15-20 million ears. And it doesn't get the promotion Paris got.

Still a whole lot of people listening to traditional radio.

Hookahlounge said...

Butch Hancock was born in Lubbock Texas in 1945, and started his career as a songwriter in the early 70's. He started The Flatlanders ( in 1972, along with Jimmie Dale Gilmore ( and Joe Ely ( They released one album, and the group broke up after about a year. They reunited in 2002, and have released 4 albums since. From 1973 on Hancock continued to write songs and perform , having a very successful solo career. He has been called "one of the finest songwriters of our time" by Steve Pick of the St Louis Post-Dispatch. He has released 16 albums, starting with "West Texas Waltzes and Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes" in 1978, and ending with "War and Peace" in 2007. He is also a talented photographer, with a gallery named "Lubbock or Leave it" in the 1980s and 1990s. 3.666 Our scorecards for the three departments should include the following aspects then, and please remember that this is only an indication and will be different for each organization:

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