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Beth Knobel

Beth Knobel

Posted: March 25, 2011 11:47 AM

Why Radio Will Live on


Imagine that you're on the bus going to work. As you pass a particular building, your phone asks you if you'd like to hear a radio story about an event that happened there.

Then you get a text on your phone from a different station asking you to write back if you're stuck in traffic. The station uses the information to create a real-time traffic map on its website.

Then a Twitter message asks, since it's the 8th day of the month, for you to vote on which of three composers' 8th symphonies you'd like to hear at lunchtime on the local classical music station.

This is the future of radio.

I sit on the Community Advisory Board of New York Public Radio, and we just held an event about what's in store for the medium of radio.

And I'm happy to report that radio's future -- or at least the future of audio reporting -- is still bright in many ways. And new technologies like the ones I describe above, and social media, are all helping to keep audio reporting alive.

Many radio stations are hurting these days, as young people lose the radio habit. Radio's "not cool," as one speaker put it. Indeed, very few of my students at Fordham University own one, even a clock radio.

But the stodgy image of radio is changing, as radio stations use social media and other communication technologies to engage their audiences.

Radio stations are already moving aggressively into social media. Part of that effort includes obvious things like Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. But that's all going to expand even more, as stations benefit from new, innovative ways to send and receive information.

Social media is clearly succeeding in bringing in some young listeners. People under 30 may not tune in to radio regularly, but if someone sends them a link to some great piece of audio, they may just open it. And if they listen and like what they hear, they might then tune in to a radio show, or subscribe to a podcast. Experience shows that good content will hold listeners if they just give it a try.

And it's not just social media that's engaging radio audiences. WNYC, New York's main NPR station, has been successfully using texting, too. Example: after last December's devastating snowstorm, the mayor said in a press conference that the city was doing a good job of clearing the streets. WNYC quickly asked listeners to text in to say whether or not their street had been cleaned. The station used the info to make a map, and then went back to listeners over the next few days to update it. Then the station asked those same people, once the streets were clean, if their garbage had been collected. That's real community engagement.

Technology is also remaking the broadcasting side of radio. Anyone can now make and broadcast radio programming on a home computer, and receive it on nearly any mobile device.

That means that terrestrial radio will undoubtedly go away someday. But I seriously doubt that that's going to be the end of radio. Radio stations will continue to exist, but they will distribute their programming digitally, and use the money they now spend on over-the-air broadcasting on content creation instead.

That may be a good thing in the long run, because stations' money will go to hiring more staff, funding more stories and developing new, technologically savvy ways of reporting instead of expensive transmitting equipment. Internet broadcasting already allows people to hear stations from far, far away, increasing listenership and, with that, potentially revenues.

In the end, though, the future of audio reporting is all about the content. Radio not only provides great reporting, but it's also a valuable editorial voice that helps listeners makes sense of the barrage of information that is raining down on us all these days.

That's why my former CBS News colleague Mike Wallace and I wrote our recent guidebook for young journalists, Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists -- to argue to young people that no matter the delivery system, what really keeps journalism valuable is strong content. And by using technology to improve its content, radio can keep itself not only alive, but vibrant.

 
 
 

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