The New Transistor Radio
It's no secret that Federal Communications Commission deregulation and media consolidation has arguably wiped out any local or regional differentiation in commercial radio. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that many college and public radio stations are following suit as they devote more and more hours to NPR offerings such as "Car Talk" and "A Prairie Home Companion With Garrison Keillor."
The irony is that no matter where you happen to live, it's easier than ever to find regionally focused stations. It's just that the regions these stations focus on might be thousands of miles away.
Digital broadcasting and the latest wave of smart phone apps have enabled people to listen to very local programming from very remote locales. And more and more smart phone users are tuning in. A recent survey by Audio Graphics and Borrell Associates found an increase of 48 percent across all age groups in mobile online radio listening from 2009 to 2011.
As a further testament to the growth of mobile radio's popularity, Pandora's customizable Internet radio app has been installed on more than 20 percent of all smart phones in the United States, according to Nielsen. And according to Pandora, nearly half of its daily streaming activity comes via smart phones.
In a sense, the combination of smart phones and apps has become the transistor radio of a post-modern era, a portable device that can tune in stations around the world and make you feel like you're living just down the street from them.
When country pioneer Charlie Louvin died in January, Nashville-based WSM-AM DJ Eddie Stubbs told listeners about visiting hours at the Harpeth Hills Memorial Gardens Funeral Home "out on Highway 100, just a couple miles past the Loveless Cafe, same side of the street."
A couple months later, New Orleans' WWOZ-FM rang in Fat Tuesday by playing Mardi Gras mambos and letting listeners know what time the Golden Eagles would be assembling outside Big Chief Monk Boudreaux's house in the 11th ward.
It's tough to get more local than that.
"We do our best to dance locally and advance globally," says WWOZ General Manager David Freedman. With that in mind, the station introduced its dedicated app for Apple platforms in February 2010, just in time for its live remotes from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
One year and some 20,000 downloads later, Freedman is bringing to fruition a dream that goes back to the year AOL started providing dial-up Internet access.
"Back in 1995, there was a quiet visionary at NPR by the name of Bill Bean," Freedman recalls. "He and I talked about the magic of being able to drop in any time — and from any place — and have a New Orleans experience through the Internet. I never forgot that, and it has always been my model."
Listeners can enjoy similar experiences tuning in to Austin, Texas' KOOP-FM or Kentucky-based WMMT-FM, which bills itself as "Real People Radio." But WWOZ does have a distinct advantage, which is New Orleans itself, a city with deep and varied musical roots.
Freedman says his goal is to provide an authentic New Orleans experience — to capture the vibrant culture and celebratory spirit of the people who inhabit the city and its surrounding areas.
It's an approach that seems to be paying off.
"As far as I know," says Freedman, "WWOZ is the only station that receives more listener support from outside its coverage area than from listeners who can tune us in on their FM radio."
Some 500 miles north of New Orleans is the other city that's inextricably linked with American music history. There you'll find WSM, which took to the Nashville airwaves back in 1925 with a radio "barn dance" that would come to be known as the Grand Ole Opry.
Even without satellite radio and Internet streaming, WSM's 50,000-watt signal is audible on a clear night throughout much of the United States. Last year, its digital outreach grew to include two mobile apps — one for the Grand Ole Opry and the other for the station itself.
On the basis of call-in requests, emails and Facebook fans, WSM Program Director Joe Limardi figures the station's global reach now extends from Norway to Afghanistan. As the host of the station's midday "The Classic Cafe" program, he gets requests from listeners ranging from 16–65.
"Nashville is unique in the sense that many types of country music originate from here, not just Top 40 country," says Limardi, whose station serves its traditional country offerings with sides of bluegrass and Americana. "The listeners like to test the WSM library to see just how much reach and depth it has. I would say we are able to fill about 90 percent of the requests that come in. Some are just too deep and obscure to play."
But none of those requests, one suspects, are too deep or obscure for Stubbs to know something about them. This July will mark Stubbs' 15th anniversary hosting the station's evening shift. He's also the voice of the Grand Ole Opry, and was asked by Louvin's family to read the eulogy at the legendary musician's funeral.
According to Stubbs, the early years of public radio were devoted primarily to classical music, along with news programs and talk, plus the occasional bluegrass and jazz programs on the weekend. As time went on, many public stations phased out classical programming completely.
"With classical music being largely dropped from public radio, it didn't paint a very bright picture for the other specialty music programs," says Stubbs. "At the end of the day, radio — public or commercial — is a business, and like any business it needs to be profitable. As difficult as it is for passionate music fans — and I'm one of them — the reality of it is that public radio can make a whole lot more money with news and talk programming."
As radio competition becomes increasingly fierce, Stubbs believes quality content is more critical than ever. For him, that means playing music he feels is "really good and really country," while contextualizing it in a way that might lead listeners to think differently about the artists and their musical contributions.
"More often than not, those old recordings have been a big part of my life for well over 35 years, and when they speak to me, I feel compelled to speak about them," says Stubbs, suggesting the kind of musical devotion that predates corporate takeovers and may ultimately outlive them. "I just say what's on my mind, and speak from the heart, about music that means something to me."
(Bill Forman is a writer and music editor for the Colorado Springs Independent and the former publications director for The Recording Academy.)