Saturday, April 17, 2010

Media: Down to One

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I went through the process of updating my web pages on radio stations today for the first time since 2006. There's nothing much to get excited about; the updates are minor and do not currently appear on my web site. They won't be publicly accessible until I migrate the domain to my new provider in the coming days. Yet, I cannot let the moment pass without some comment on the decline in radio in the twelve years that these pages have existed.

The first thing to note is the number of shows on my idealized schedule that are no longer on the air. In come cases, the host has died (in a surprising number of cases, tragically); in most cases, the show was simply canceled. The entire weekday evening schedule no longer may be heard except for the news programs and This American Life on Friday. This is not a coincidence; the money in broadcasting is during drive-time, and to a lesser extent, during mid-day. Audiences are not as large in the evening, so shows most appropriate to that time of day are not cultivated. The few stations that do produce live programming in those time slots instead of repeat programming don't spend much on it, usually providing a talk show host without a producer. Cheap shows generally aren't notable, and hence there hasn't been anything new and notable and hence the old shows remain in place.

There have been few shows to add in the past four years, period, all of them from public radio. The only commercial show to appear on the schedule now that wasn't there in 2000 is Dr. Joe Schwarcz's one-hour weekend show on scientific topics, and it existed in 2000; I just didn't know about it yet. Commercial radio isn't attracting or cultivating its talent in a way that I find interesting.

This leads to the change that stood out for me. The pages include listings of commendable radio stations in various genres, including commercial talk radio. These are stations that are so compelling that one can just turn them on and leave the dial there basically all day without getting tired of them. When I first wrote that page, there were several commercial talk radio station that I felt belonged on that list, from KABC in Los Angeles to WABC in New York.

Not anymore. There's one station left, KGO in San Francisco. All of the others run too many repeats, too many syndicated shows, too many unlistenable hosts with ridiculous fringe viewpoints that won't take intellectual discussion seriously. This isn't just a right-wing phenomenon; I haven't found any left-wing stations that do not demonstrate those disqualifying features, either, though perhaps with a few less repeats and additional listenable local hosts KPOJ in Portland, Oregon might make it. Balanced or moderate stations are hard to find, period.

KGO is the only commercial talk station I think I could leave on for hours on end and not feel desperate to change to something else. If anything, the station has improved in the past four years since my last update, with Gil Gross taking the afternoon shift, John Rothmann moving into late nights, and Brent Walters bringing a truly collegiate perspective to God Talk. Its news blocks aren't great, but the station clearly sets the standard for talk radio in North America.

I don't buy the argument that good commercial radio can't exist in the current economic and media environment. I agree that it's hard, but if KGO can do it, others can also. Program directors and talk show hosts need to spend some time listening to KGO's on-line stream and bring similar non-banal, non-radical discussions to their own markets. I suspect they would find their efforts rewarded with listeners and thus advertising dollars.

Meanwhile, I wonder if, before the next time I feel the need to update those web pages, something awful will happen to KGO and I'll have to eliminate my list entirely.

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