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NPR Radiolab and the Radio Decline: Why We Must Update Our Radio Stations

Goodbye, radio — certainly your golden years are behind you. Run a quick Google search of anything to do with radio, and you will be met with not one but multiple headlines that begin “The sad, slow decline of [insert sector of radio here].” In the age of instant digital media, radio is in a period of decline.

Commercial FM rock stations are being sold off, National Public Radio faces being cut off by the federal government at least once a year, and the voice of the youth one embodied by radio is growing old. Now that we can make a playlist and get any music we want, why do we need someone to do it for us? Radio is in a make-or-break period of transition, and has been for the past decade. The dilemna is, in a essence, an image crisis: what is radio?

In order to answer this question, radio stations will have to do a number of things. They will have to return their loyalties to local audiences, provide engaging and fresh programming, and get accustomed to the internet. 

The importance of radio kind of hit me last week.

It was coming down to the last days of vacation before I started work again. I was making coffee and listening to my second Radiolab of the morning, and I realized, "I really enjoy this. It is interesting, well-edited and engaging."

In an instant, I realized that I was officially crossing the threshold into my dad’s territory: I was an NPR listener.

I listen to the This American Life podcast each week. I line up a NPR playlist after school each day to hear the news. Hell, I’ve even given a donation to NPR. (Me!) For years, I have just watched from the sideline as radio seemed to be dying out. Even while I spent four years as a DJ and two years on the executive board of WKNH Keene State College radio, I still felt it dying.

Sitting in the station at midnight on a Thursday night broadcasting a local band to maybe 30 online listeners, I couldn’t help but feel that I has holding the hand of a friend as their pulse slowly faded. I was a flannel-wearing crusader, trying to keep college radio alive as the hip, underground, free airwaves for the people it should be. All the facebook groups and status updates in the world weren't saving radio. But I was having the time of my life! How could it die?

Suddenly, my perspective had changed. I am now the listener; I need the radio.

This is radio. Radio needs to be underground, it needs to be fresh and it needs to build its support from the grassroots, even guerilla style. Do away with the commercial radio voices and lame station ID taglines/ jingles. Stations needs to promote themselves as the purveyors of fine music. Stations should be free-thinking, and they should make people who listen feel like a welcome part of the community: their community.

All around America, there are stations that people take regional pride in. Most of these stations turn out to be college radio stations. College radio should be the local voice of local youth. While radio is rapidly losing the young listeners demographic (people ages 12 to 24), I believe that it is the job of college radio to be the community alternative for young people.

At many colleges, it is. Take a look at the Huffington Post list of the best college radio stations (WKNH isn’t there, but I can vouch for WERS). These are stations doing it right — they are prolific, they appeal to a specific locality, and they gain support and pride from their community. 

It helps that most college radio stations receive a solid amount of money from the school. This is money well-spent. It is important that schools support their airwaves, however small, to keep them free and run by a range of young people. College support is how radio will stay relevant and continue to be a haven for new, obscure and non-mainstream music and a place where innovative programs, like radio theater or special interest shows, can be tried out.

A problem occurs when the school sees radio as outdated or too costly, and the station is sold off to a community. As a result, the station loses its youth appeal and its openness to new and different programming.

College radio is the best way to capture the young audience that is being lost to the glory of the radio these days. College stations need to be out there in the community and they need to stay relevant with their fan-base in order to grow. Young people have time to listen if they are given a reason to.

Radio is not dead, but listeners need something to return to. This is not the job of college radio alone, as great as it is; commercial radio stations need to reinvent themselves to appeal to their fans and community as well. So many good stations have been following formulas that have been used for years now. It is time to update the appeal of radio. Commercial radio needs to be daring and innovative with professionalism.

Radio stations need to play music, no matter what the music is, and have local personalities that bring people in and keep them loyal. The radio should be a way to learn about new music or just listen to what people have to say about it, whatever it might be. The radio is communication. It is part of our communities, and as long as it continues to evolve with the communities, it will not die. What is a golden age, anyway, if not now?

Commercial radio stations should also have programs that hold national appeal. People should be able to listen to programs from anywhere and enjoy them. Today, radio has the power to be anywhere; it is no longer confined to a frequency alone. Radio programs need to be available on the internet and on the airwaves to suit the younger generations on the move.

To get back to my being an NPR listener:

While NPR is not for everyone, it does strive for excellence. People who say it is too “left-leaning” have not listened to NPR long enough to get a sense of the far-reaching scope of their programming. It is informative, educated and intriguing radio that is moving in the direction radio should move.

In the information age, radio needs to have a strong foothold on the internet, and NPR does. They have a great website and they offer all of their programs online almost instantly. I am currently living overseas and I have no access to my local stations and if it wasn’t for podcasts or the internet, I would have never discovered the power of radio as a listener.

This is the future of radio 

Radio needs to be the alternative and it needs to be absolutely fascinating, no matter what the subject matter is. Radio also needs loyal listeners. Anyone who has listened to an episode of Radiolab or This American Life knows what good radio is all about.

It’s time to rediscover radio and it’s time for radio to be delivered into the 21st century. Radio is where a community comes together, where anyone from anywhere can listen in and enjoy a show. No matter what the programming is about, whether you agree with a show or not, whether the music is for you or not, radio is a voice for the people by the people, and it needs to survive.

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