World Radio Day: A format worth celebrating

February 13, 2018 11:00

“I remember you on NPR when Space Shuttle Columbia burned up in 2003,” a University of Alabama journalism student once told me. It was shortly after I became news director at Alabama Public Radio. His next comment stung.

“I was ten years old!” he said.

Thirty years in the radio business will do that to you. But, on World Radio Day, I can say it’s a great way to make a living. With my experience covering NASA for NPR, people sometimes respond with surprise when I say I got my start in commercial television. I was offered a weekend anchor job within two weeks of graduating college, but it just didn’t seem like the right fit for me. The best video was the lead story, and compelling stories seem to take a back seat. Within six months, I was out of that job and working at the NPR station in Orlando, where everything “clicked.”

Video of natural disasters and world events can be a powerful storytelling tool. But, for me, the audio that accompanies a good radio feature really makes that story stick in my head, and that’s what listeners have told me through the years.

I was a radio rookie in 1985. It was too cold for President Ronald Reagan to hold his inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. in January. So, the event was rescheduled for EPCOT Center at Disney World. On radio, everything was upstaged by the “clomp” of the Marching Dutchmen High School Band from Holland, Michigan. Each member was wearing wooden shoes for the occasion. In video stories, you can see it. But, on radio, the “clomp” of each step was more memorable.

In 2003, when that future University of Alabama journalism student was a ten year old, listening to my NPR coverage of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, the ominous silence after the astronauts’ last radio message spoke volumes.

Here in Alabama, we remembered the civil rights protesters hit with fire hoses and police dogs during demonstrations in 1963. Washington Booker was one of them. On Alabama Public Radio, he remembered what really motivated him as a twelve year old to join the marchers on the streets of Birmingham.

He wanted a banana split.

Booker remembered seeing white children eating ice cream at the local lunch counter where blacks were banned. Booker was in his sixties during our radio interview, but you could practically hear his mouth water as he described how he felt at that time. You didn’t need to see it.

That doesn’t mean radio professionals shouldn’t keep with the times. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center shows news and talk radio formats remain the biggest draw among listeners, but it’s not where the audience is growing. Since 2009, the number of people using the radios in their cars or at home has remained flat. By contrast, on-line listenership between 2008 and 2016 nearly doubled. Twenty five percent of Americans ages 12 or older also listen to podcasts. That’s up from around ten percent a decade ago.

If radio news people don’t know how to get their content into these on-line formats, they need to learn. My station just dived into the world of on-demand news. We call it the “little blue box” on our homepage. Listeners click on it and hear the latest newscast from our morning or afternoon anchors. But, we keep seeing new tools and success stories, which means the job of keeping up will never be done.

I’ll still stack the sound of the “clomp” of wooden shoes to video images any day. But, we grizzled radio veterans need to embrace “where the listeners are,” if we want to keep celebrating future “World Radio Days” in the years to come.