What exactly is the future of radio?

Modulatio(n), originally uploaded by Unhindered by Talent.

Cory of Monkey River Town left a comment on this photo that got me going on something I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about, namely the current and future status of radio (at least in the U.S.) and of KUMM (the student radio station here at UMM).

It’s pretty clear that radio in general, and KUMM in particular, is in a pretty weird place right now. With iPods, and podcasts, and XM why would anyone listen to live, local radio, especially the bland, commercial filled crap that dominates so much of the airwaves. When everyone was the captive of their cars or an inexpensive transistor radio, the current model worked pretty well. Now people have a huge array of choices, so it’s not clear how much longer they’ll keep listening to the lame stuff corporate radio keeps feeding them. They’re already leaving in droves (for example, and so far the suits haven’t been very creative in their responses (some are simply in denial).

As far as KUMM goes, I think the profile of listeners and (especially) DJs has changed enormously, and we’re still not at all sure what that means. 20 years ago, a milk crate of LPs was a pretty good sized music collection for a college student, and DJing at the radio station was a great way to access a vastly larger music collection than any student could afford (or find room to store!). Now, students have 50-100Gb of music on their hard drive and can’t find time to listen to a fraction of it all. When I started at KUMM in 1991, I was unusual in how much of my own music I brought in to the station (but I was old and had collected a lot over the years). Now I see shows where two or three DJs have laptops and iPods that they’re plugging in and playing from, and the only “station” music they’re playing is they’re required four songs from the official new music section every hour.

So why listen to KUMM? Why be a DJ on KUMM? Do we really care about upping our wattage so that people in Glenwood (and maybe Alexandria on a good day) can here us? Or is our real market in on-line broadcasting and (if we could sort out the permissions) podcasting specialty programs? My sense is that if we have a future, it’s online, but it’s unclear exactly what form that will take.


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5 Responses to What exactly is the future of radio?

  1. ToolboxY2K says:

    There’s a guy named Ron “Boogiemonster” Gerber who hosts a radio show called Crap from the Past on KFAI in the Twin Cities on Friday nights. I’ve been listening to him here in Jacksonville for the past several months and on one of his recent programs, he made a comment about how stations like KFAI (and, by extension, KUMM) can deliver on-air personalities that big corporate radio stations and Minnesota Public Radio can’t, and I think he’s spot on. This is coming from a guy who traced the origins of Crowded House’s “I Walk Away” to two demo songs from Split Enz — and played both demos plus Split Enz’ version of “I Walk Away” on his show. I don’t think most “Morning Show” or “Drive Time” DJs in Top 40 radio would even be allowed to attempt things like this because it wouldn’t attract the ad money that the corporates need to survive. That’s what stations like KUMM and KFAI are for.

  2. CoryQ says:

    I am glad I could spark a debate!

  3. christhamrin says:

    i sent this link to travis last week: http://www.wfmu.org/marathon/

  4. Jen says:

    Something that I love about KUMM, and similarly, The Current, is that you get insight into music that is generally unknown. Many of my favorite artists (now gaining in popularity: Spoon, Regina Spektor, Belle & Sebastian) I discovered through these stations.

    Furthermore, I know I get serious enjoyment out of sharing my favorite unknown artists with people.

    I would recommend checking out this interesting survey on what people would give up [internet / TV / radio] if they had to give up two.

  5. Phi says:

    ToolboxY2K: That could be interpreted as requiring or expected a certain level of togetherness on the part of the DJs. I certainly agree that stations like KUMM and KFAI (and parts of the BBC!) could/should serve the purpose of providing broadcast opportunities for people commercial stations just won’t support. But for that to be a service to the listeners, do we need a certain level of intention on the part of the DJs? The example you gave took some real work – research and digging and thinking and planning. A great show like Huck Brock’s excellent Poor Man’s Concert on Daniel Johnston last semester took real work, and I know that Huck spent a fair bit of money along the way. Most shows on KUMM just aren’t going to be like that, not because people don’t mean well, but more because these are full time students doing volunteer work for the station. In that universe, are listeners going to choose to listen to KUMM instead of their massive iPod stash? Why?

    CoryQ: Thanks a ton for kicking this off? I should also mention that Cory had additional good things to say over on Flickr. One idea that I particularly liked is the value the station has in helping make the concept of media and broadcasting more transparent to students. The web (blogging, YouTube, Flickr) makes it easier for “little people” to produce content, but (Time magazine not withstanding) the massive corps that own the vast majority of major media outlets still have a vast amount of power. If having a station like KUMM helps demystify “big media”, then it’s obviously serving a valuable purpose for the school. Doesn’t necessarily give anyone a reason to listen, though.

    Chris: That is really funny. KSTB (now KVRX) was the college radio station I volunteered at in Austin for a few years before we moved up here to Morris, and they were a cable-only affair because their claim to the only remaining non-profit frequency in Austin was being debated in court. It was eventually decided in such a way that the frequency is split between then and a community access station. Air frequencies are clearly a seriously limiting feature of broadcast radio, and the grasping of both commercial and nationwide religious broadcasting syndicates has pushed out a lot of the KUMM style stations. So does everyone go on-line? But then do we become lost in a sea of stations and noise?

    (As an aside, I had a fellow listing to a significant part of my Glass Eye Poor Man’s Concert last night from Torrance, CA. He apparently stumbled across us on some directory of stations that he could stream to his cell phone, and was listening to me on his phone! Weird…)

    Jen: Certainly those are reasons that I have long loved DJing and listening to college radio. Also, that’s a really cool poll – thanks for point me at it. (I couldn’t find a page with the original data, though – anyone know where that might be?) Radio is consistently being jettisoned by about 2/3 of the population, regardless of age, with the real change being the young ‘uns dropping TV in favor of the Intarweb. I suspect that they realize to a larger degree that if you have the Internet, you have TV and radio to a significant (and growing) degree, but the reverse obviously isn’t true.

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