August 5, 2005

Can local radio survive the satellite?

Staff Writer

Radio has been part of our lives almost as far back as we can remember.

It has been in the background as we celebrate, as we travel, as we get acquainted and as we work. It has come to the foreground during moments of great joy or sadness.

Most of us include radio when remembering automobile trips to, for example, Florida - the search for new stations as we left New Jersey and our pre-sets faded, the metropolitan sounds as we passed by Washington and Baltimore, the stronger country influence throughout Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, and the variety available in Florida.

Some experience the same dial twisting as they head to the Jersey Shore from Pennsylvania, North Jersey or New York. A lot of fun on the trip is seeking out a new station. In recent years, however, there was the frustration of discovering how much the stations in one market sounded like those in another.

Now, with the quality of CD players, both portable and built-in, everybody in the car doesn't always experience the same stations or the same music. DVD players built into SUVs and station wagons have added even more to the options.

But even bigger challenges are coming for over-the-air radio stations.

Two companies have exploded onto the market with satellite radio systems - XM and Sirius. With a special receiver and a monthly fee, listeners can enjoy hundreds of channels featuring all the programming they can find on their current AM-FM radio --- and lots more.

XM is currently the larger of the two companies. It offers the pop hits of the day broken down into many different styles and mixes. It programs oldies by the decade, allowing you to chose your era. Its talk shows come from both sides - America Right, with the likes of Laura Ingraham and Matt Drudge, and Air America, with hosts like Al Franken and Jerry Springer. For sports fans there are ESPN Radio, Fox, Sporting News, two NASCAR networks, a PGA network, three networks covering college sports and play-by-play of every single major league baseball game. Last weekend, XM re-broadcast the entire Live 8 concert on one of its channels.

Sirius offers many of the same things - music broken down into styles and eras, including one all-Elvis channel and another that is largely Jimmy Buffett. Their talk lineup goes a step further with Sirius right, left and central. And they offer National Public Radio. In sports, Sirius also has ESPN Radio plus live play-by-play of every game in the NFL, NBA and NHL. Very soon Howard Stern will move his show to the system and Martha Stewart will take over a channel.

Both systems have an abundance of news channels (CNN, Fox, NBC, ABC) plus weather and traffic for almost every major city in the country.

Now, this all doesn't come for nothing. The receivers run from $50.00 to more than $500.00 (pretty much in the same price range as a radio) and the service costs about $13.00 per month. The receivers are being offered now by almost every automobile manufacturer.

Why, you might say, would anyone pay to listen to the radio when they can listen over the air free of charge?

That is pretty much what you heard when cable television was first introduced. And look what happened. If you spot a rooftop TV antenna in your neighborhood, phone the Smithsonian.

What impact will all of this have on local radio?

At one time, owners of radio stations were strictly limited in the number of stations they could own in one market. This allowed for more diversity of opinion and programming. When the FCC greatly weakened those regulations, large media companies began buying bunches of stations all over the country. They'd use virtually the same formats in every market, cutting costs and looking for bigger profits.

Many of these automated radio stations, which offer little to the local community, will face the biggest challenges from the satellite services.

In mid-June, New York's WCBS-FM, the largest oldies radio station in the country, switched its format to something called Jack-FM. The idea started in Canada and came to this country originally in Colorado. It's a format similar to the "random-shuffle" mode on an iPod or Walkman. You might hear Pink, followed by Led Zeppelin, then Tina Turner. Almost anything goes musically in this format with a play list more than double most stations plus shorter spot breaks and (don't let Jerry Beebe read this) no DJs.

But "more music" isn't necessarily going to be the answer to surviving in the future against satellite radio. Because satellite radio is probably just the first step. You can already hear both satellite systems online and you'll have similar choices on your cell phone and other portable electronics very soon.

If local radio is going to survive this assault, it will have to become unique. A station will no longer be able to just carry imported signals and network programming and hope to build an audience and find advertisers to pay the bills.

Over-the-air radio stations do have some other options, though they require significant investment. Some are introducing FM quality to AM stations and CD quality to FM. They can give listeners weather and traffic on demand and up to eight channels for each station. About 300 stations across the country have incorporated the technology needed for these options but, to take advantage, listeners will need a special receiver that costs more than most satellite receivers.

When broadcast technology originally became available and radio stations were licensed, they were there for the public good. Their purpose was to enhance the community, to be involved. A return close to that approach might be what will be needed in the future.

Looking locally, a station like WOND, for example, which has a lineup of local talk hosts that includes the venerable Pinky Kravitz and the controversial Don Williams, mixed with Rush Limbaugh and Larry King, seems to be ready for the challenge because you can't hear Kravitz or Williams, or most of the topics they discuss, on the satellite.

Music stations will need more hosts like Stern and oldies rocker Jerry Blavat - whose unique personalities will draw listeners and will not be available on satellite. And more stations will end up following the lead of companies like Wildwood's Coastal Broadcasting, which uses live remotes and active involvement in community events to become not just an advertising outlet, but also a neighbor.

Bigger media companies may one day purchase channels on these satellite systems and offer their formats to listeners all over the country, similar to super-stations like WTBS or WGN on cable TV.

Radio in Atlantic City and its surrounding area has gone through many changes throughout the years. Some in the industry will tell you there are just too many stations for a market this size. The market that featured personalities like Bob Weems, Larry Keene, Tom Lamaine and Jackson T. Chase decades ago now features Eddie Davis, Mike and Diane, Mark Hunter and, well, Jackson T. Chase.

The stations that don't make the adjustments will lose. If you can hear the greatest oldies, for example, on satellite and never lose the signal, why would you listen to them on a local station? The only answer is that the local station is programmed in a way to make you feel like it is part of your life. The same applies to top hits, R&B, talk, sports and any other format.

In the future, we'll probably see our radio stations sound more and more like Atlantic City and Wildwood, with less of those formats that sound like they could be in any city. Most of us will continue to listen to our local favorites, while also making use of the options available from the new technology.

Satellite radio, and the other coming options, will probably cause local radio to become local again. And, for that, we should all thank them.