Weakening Signals
The Listener Signs Off at a Time When Radio's Future Is Fuzzy

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Bill Watson might play a four-hour piece by Bach, and then slap it on again, just because he felt like it. Or he might interrupt a Mahler symphony mid-spin, deciding instead to recite poetry or blend news bulletins with reports from his "Roman Empire correspondent," Edward Gibbon.

Long John Nebel, a former carnival barker who once sold lucky numbers on the streets of downtown Washington, filled the night with hours-long interviews with people who had traveled on flying saucers, which might be followed by a visit from Malcolm X, who might join his host in a lengthy discourse on the marvels of Chock Full o' Nuts doughnuts.

And Don Imus, long before he aged into a marble-mouthed crank, dragged himself into the studio each morning to dazzle impressionable teens by spicing up his program of pop hits with skewerings of Richard Nixon, charlatan preachers and all manner of phonies.

Watson's nightly lectures and odd juxtapositions taught me classical music, Nebel's unbounded curiosity about implausible conspiracies and the unfathomables of cosmology introduced me to the suggestive mystery of the night, and Imus's bad-boy prankishness showed me that adults didn't have to lose their adolescent passions. And all this happened on the little radio I kept by my pillow through most of my youth.

This is the last edition of The Listener, a column I have been writing on and off since 1995, and as I look back on some of the characters I have written about here and in "Something in the Air," my book about radio and what happens to old media when new technologies come along, I find a business and an art form in trouble: Just when radio cries out for creative revival, it is instead slipping into a disgruntled decline.

Today, hardly anyone turns on the radio expecting to be lured into intimate obsessions with voices that return each night, baring their souls and insisting on a relationship with the listener. Instead, we seek more voyeuristic entertainment in the far more random worlds of Facebook and MySpace, places where the lines between friend and stranger are fuzzy enough to deliver a bit of a thrill, but where expectations are lower and the talent is mostly anonymous and amateur.

Depressed by the rise of new technologies and their own fading place in the media landscape, neither those who own and run AM and FM radio stations nor even the new (but not new enough) satellite pay radio services are nurturing the kind of eccentric, iconoclastic voices that made radio so alluring from the 1950s into the '80s. Through those decades, when TV dominated American popular culture, radio was at once a mass medium and a clubhouse, a place where listeners could believe themselves to be part of an unseen community of like-minded people. Today, with the Internet having taken over as the primary provider of semi-private meeting spots, radio stations are cutting costs and bleeding talent, ceding the leading edge to the Web's collection of micro-audiences and the iPod's promise of infinite, but closely held, choice.

Writing this column in recent years, I could have easily done nothing but chronicle the departure of radio's most talented voices, as the Greaseman, Don Geronimo, Dennis Owens, Chris Core and Cathy Hughes left their microphones. Or I could have profiled all the stations that once sounded like Leesburg, the Eastern Shore or the District, stations that silenced local programs, choosing instead the cheap route of taking nationally syndicated music and talk shows off the satellite.

Radio's troubles have tracked the broader national decline of locally distinctive popular culture, as big media companies sought to save money by spurning the medium's uniquely local nature and instead serving up whatever programming was least offensive to the largest possible coast-to-coast audience.

But instead of dwelling on the deterioration of radio's quality as an entertainment and news provider, I devoted many columns to sifting through efforts by Internet, satellite and digital radio entrepreneurs to figure out how to make money by introducing listeners to new music.

Yet the more I listened to the likes of Pandora.com, Last.fm, Slacker.com and all manner of music blogs and Web radio, the more I heard the sound of automation -- sleek, efficient recommendation engines scientifically selecting the music I am most likely to like, yet missing out almost on what radio once offered: a glimpse into the hearts and passions of personalities who knew what music was new and cool, voices that offered a guided tour of unknown worlds, and sometimes even a frontal assault of the unexpected.

New media pioneers are working tirelessly to solve this apparently simple puzzle: In a media landscape in which we are each empowered to go our own way, how will we learn what is new and good? And if we do find our way there, how will we become part of a community sharing those riches?

In the easy decades of a tightly constricted mass media, there were three TV networks, monopoly newspapers and a handful of radio stations in each place. That lack of choice meant that much of popular culture was middle-brow in ambition and middling in quality. But the nation was guaranteed a common conversation about music, politics and nearly every other aspect of life.

The challenge for all media now is to find a path back to mass, while retaining as much as possible of the freedom and access that the infinite range of the Internet promises.

The programming on the radio these days does not light a way toward that goal. Music radio seems superfluous -- a selection of tunes nowhere near as varied as what iPod users choose for themselves, and without the added value that knowledgeable and entertaining DJs once provided. With the strong exception of public radio and a handful of all-news local stations such as Washington's WTOP, radio has largely gotten out of the news business -- too expensive. And the local talk programs that once made it easy for a traveler to figure out his location without ever glancing at a road sign have largely given way to Rush Limbaugh and a legion of imitators.

Despite this gloomy picture, radio's first 75 years have made it clear that there is an elemental desire for audio accompaniment, especially in the car, and so there is a future for something that may or may not carry the name "radio." The XM and Sirius pay satellite services won't make a lot of sense once free Internet radio is easily available in cars, but whatever entity XM and Sirius morph into after the government rules on their merger proposal, they will be well positioned as a leading provider of audio programming, whether we listen on a cellphone, PDA or in-car Web receiver.

Similarly, National Public Radio is now engaged in an existential struggle with the local public stations that from its beginning have been its financial foundation and sole means of distributing content. Inevitably, public radio's unique programs will be available by whatever technological means develop to satisfy Americans' desire to listen to music and hear the news.

The old delivery systems will either die off or change functions, just as the arrival of TV changed radio's role from the main stage of popular culture to a utility providing headlines, traffic reports, temperature and the latest pop hits.

The next decade or more will be a transitional time, as radio, like newspapers and television networks, forswears allegiance to any one means of distribution and declares itself platform-agnostic. Those media that, like the record industry, cling to old technology and a collapsed business model will see their futures crumble before their eyes.

Radio, shedding talent as fast as it loses audience, is rapidly becoming irrelevant to the younger generation. Yet most Americans still listen to something for much of the day. Radio could be the way into those ears, but only if it invests in creating compelling reasons to be there, only if it grabs hold of us the way the voices of past decades connected to the loves, pains and dreams of young listeners. As always, the future lies in the past.

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