Fading medium remains relevant

As a journalist, I’m constantly being told that my future is dismal. “Print is dead” — just what every graduating senior wants to hear. Radio, too, is often touted as a dying medium. But is it, really?

My dad worked at KLOS, an L.A. classic rock radio station, for more than 20 years. He spent 23 years total working in the industry. Radio is, in effect, ingrained in my family. The sounds of Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin were a constant presence in my house growing up, defining many of my childhood memories.

KXSC radio DJ Isabel Khalili-Lazarjani (pictured) claims radio substitutes such as Spotify and Pandora will never take the place of live, curated radio shows. / Photo courtesy of C. Molly Smith

KXSC radio DJ Isabel Khalili-Lazarjani (pictured) claims radio substitutes such as Spotify and Pandora will never take the place of live, curated radio shows. — Molly Smith | Daily Trojan

Because of this, I have to know, for myself, and for my dad, what the real state of radio is today. So I spoke to a few people currently working in the business to get some answers, to hear about the state of radio from the industry perspective.

One such insider is Sky Daniels, who is currently interim general manager and program director at KCSN. He formerly programmed WLUP (Chicago), KFOG (San Francisco) and KISW (Seattle). He also worked at KMET (Los Angeles). Daniels left the radio business for about 15 years to pursue other music-related ventures, but ultimately came back.

“Radio was in my blood,” Daniels said.

The decline of radio can be attributed to two things. First, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed companies to own multiple stations, in effect enabling them to dominate certain genres. Second, the rise of the Internet in 1998, which offered unlimited access to music at a time when radio was becoming homogeneous and uninteresting.

To Daniels, radio skipped a generation as a result of these two factors.

“It’s that 1997-2010 era where radio kind of lost a generation of listeners,” Daniels said. “There’s where I think you see a lot of the ‘radio is dead.’”

Mark Felsot currently works as an engineer on NBC Sports Radio Network, KLOS Heidi and Frank Morning Show and KLOS Breakfast with the Beatles in addition to co-producing Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure show on SiriusXM. Among many other ventures, Felsot also worked on Little Steven’s Underground Garage SiriusXM show.

Similarly to Daniels, Felsot has also noticed a pattern: The industry has been shrinking. There used to be multiple stations for each genre (three country stations, four hip-hop stations, etc). The limitations can be felt on both sides of the airwaves.

“It meant less choice for the listener, but for the people who worked in radio, it meant less job opportunity,” Felsot said.

That being said, Felsot added, “I still think people use radio, but maybe not in the way that it was used 15 years ago.”

Interestingly, from the insider perspective, it would appear that radio is not dead, nor is it dying. It is simply smaller.

The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism released a report, “The State of the News Media in 2013,” which supports the idea that radio is neither on its way out, nor is it thriving. The report said:

“In 2012, 92 percent of Americans age 12 or older listened to the radio at least weekly, essentially the same as it was a decade earlier (94 percent).”

People are still listening. The radio is still relevant.

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a friend’s radio show at USC’s KXSC. The DJ, Isabel Khalili-Lazarjani, chose film scores as the theme for her Thursday night show, Cat Nap. At 21-years-old, Khalili-Lazarjani is part of the generation that radio skipped. And yet, her love for the medium is infectious.

“Even if you have all these other ways to access some kind of pseudo-radio, it’s not real, it’s not curated,” Khalili-Lazarjani said. “That’s never going to replace a DJ sitting there with their own unique taste and experiences, putting together a playlist for listeners. That’s what I love about radio.”

Khalili-Lazarjani looks to Spotify, Pandora and YouTube as examples of “pseudo-radio.” These outlets bring music fans one step closer to finding music they might like, but it’s a flawed system, often skimming over local and international artists. They easily find what’s popular, but might miss what’s on the edges of the music scene, such as a cool, emerging band that’s just starting out.

These music-finding methods act as a stepping stone, but shouldn’t be treated as the final solution. Herein lies the importance of radio. As Khalili-Lazarjani said, radio is curated. DJs are storytellers, and they create experiences. They seek cool, new music out to be presented to the listener. Daniels could not agree more. He’s even seen younger listeners tuning into these trusted curators at KCSN as of late.

“Let’s face it, the one thing about the Internet is that it offers you infinite choice,” Daniels said. “You can seek out any and every type of music you want to pursue. But there is so much choice, and there is so much that is open to you that most people get to a point where they can’t continue to go on that kind of endless search. They want to find trusted curators, filters that say we’ll do some organizing and we’ll discover some artists that we think you might be interested in.”

Granted, it’s all in the programming. Much of radio today is still incredibly dull and repetitive, “vertical,” as Daniels puts it, because it’s all the same. This homogeneity has left Felsot feeling a bit doubtful about the future of radio.

“I’m not overly optimistic,” Felsot said. “Unfortunately, companies that are left that own a lot of radio stations, they’re not necessarily run by people who love radio.”

But then there’s much to be said for horizontal radio, what Daniels describes as robust, diverse and interesting programming that’s starting to seep its way back in. It acts as a throwback for the way radio used to be: broad and rich.

To answer my initial question, radio is not dead. It’s definitely past its golden age, but now we’re seeing radio rear its nostalgic head, looking to capture the dynamism of the past. From the soundbooth, radio is different, but it isn’t going anywhere.

“It ain’t dead yet,” Daniels said. “There’s still a heartbeat. We’re doing our best to keep it beating.”

Where it will take us exactly is unclear, but one thing is certain: “The next 10 years are going to be interesting,” Felsot said.

One final (unrelated) note, to those who read last week: My dad beat me in the father-daughter Oscar pool. I lost by one, but I still lost. Congratulations, dad. Until next year…

C. Molly Smith is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Art Garfunkel,” runs every other Friday.