I was getting my car repaired, and I got into a conversation with the 20-something guy who was waiting on me. I told him I had written a book about Boston radio, and I asked him what his favorite station was.
“I never listen to radio,” he said, “but my mother still does.”
I’d like to say I was shocked, but it’s a comment I’ve heard from other young adults, including many of my students at Lesley University. Today, they can easily download their favorite songs without having to sit through endless commercial interruptions. Few of these kids have any emotional connection to radio.
Whenever I discuss this with colleagues, I am often told that radio has simply become yesterday’s technology. But I disagree. I believe many of radio’s problems are an outgrowth of the policies that deregulated broadcasting and allowed a handful of giant conglomerates to dominate what’s on the air.
This has been bad news for independent stations with unique formats, as well as for stations with personality disc jockeys and a finger on the pulse of the city. Many have been replaced by cheaper options — predictable and safe music, syndicated or voice-tracked hosts, minimal local presence.
It’s been great news for the corporate owners: they save lots of money by syndicating, voice-tracking and using cookie-cutter formats. But there is also a serious consequence: they are driving away the next generation of listeners. After all, if most stations sound the same, why bother to listen?
My students don’t dream of becoming disc jockeys (as I did), nor do they hope to have a show of their own. Increasingly, radio has become irrelevant to their lives. As someone who has spent more than four decades in broadcasting, I am deeply saddened by what has happened to the profession I love.
So, naturally, I was disappointed to learn that WFNX was just sold to Clear Channel, which remains one of the biggest media conglomerates. (Disclosure: Some years ago I worked as a consultant for WFNX.) I have nothing personally against Clear Channel, and several friends of mine work at one of their stations. But as I see it, Clear Channel’s bottom-line mentality is part of the larger problem. In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience. Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.
Of course, stations get sold and formats change. It happened to WJDA in Quincy, WBCN in Boston and now WFNX. While these stations may not have had the biggest ratings, they had devoted fans who wish things had turned out better. Fortunately, there are still some wonderful stations in Greater Boston. But there should also be an environment where independent owners can thrive, and where the needs of the media conglomerates do not supersede the needs of the listeners.
In my ideal universe, there would be room for well-run corporate stations (with local announcers, please), but also room for stations that want to take chances and do something different, the way WFNX did for such a long time.
Donna L. Halper is associate professor of communication at Lesley University. She is the author of five books about media history, and has two essays in a new SABR book about Boston baseball, “Opening Fenway Park in Style: The 1912 Boston Red Sox.”