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Radio: The new frontier?

| Monday, August 31, 2015

One of the best episodes of the TV series Frasier is “Ham Radio.” Frasier attempts to direct an old radio drama, “Nightmare Inn,” to celebrate KACL’s (the radio station at which he works) 50th anniversary. The episode ends, of course, in complete disaster, as accidents and colliding personalities leave the drama unfinished. This episode never fails to amuse me, partly because of the ridiculous nature of the radio drama.

I wonder, however, if this episode will be as funny in twenty years or so. Is this episode a product of its time, a time where these radio dramas weren’t distant past and the radio was still very much a mode of entertainment? A time where radio personalities still held some clout, people still tuned in to hear their favorite programs and TV’s were not yet the trophy of our sitting rooms.

Things go in and out of fashion. Record players, which were once big in the 1970s, but gradually lost favor as people went for smaller, more compact devices, have suddenly been resurrected, as some music connoisseurs claim that some music actually sounds better on a record player’s speaker. At one point iPhones were getting smaller, but now the iPhone 6 Plus barely fits inside a normal-sized jeans pocket.

Radio has not gone in and out of fashion and has managed, somewhat, to evolve with the changing times and demands of each era. Instead of offering dramatic readings, comedies and other programs like these, many radio stations turned to being music stations, so that while we drove around in our cars, one of the only places that radios still exist now, we could listen to the popular music of the time. Talk shows are also popular in America, and sports channels have managed to remain relevant throughout the years. Even now, however, as more and more cars are made with jacks for putting our cellular devices, we are rejecting the traditional idea of listening to the radio as we drive. In the near future, we will probably engineer cars that do not have radios.

One of the many evolutionary steps of the radio has in fact been the podcast. Like Hulu or Netflix, a podcast allows us to listen to radio series without having to listen to the radio at that particular time. It also allows radio to have more niche audiences, and are often free. Podcasts allow people to enjoy aspects of the radio, without having to go out and buy a new radio system, simply to listen to one show they particularly like.

Radio in America is a unique beast. Given that it is mostly a private enterprise, with some public stations like NPR, radio in the U.S. has always been careful to go with its audience’s demand. The BBC, Britain’s public broadcasting service, does not operate like that and can have radio shows that no one listens to, as it is funded by public money and does not have to respond to the popular market. Radio in the U.S. has changed far more than radio in other places because it has needed to change to match its audience.

However, even with that, there are now options such as satellite radio, in which you pay a subscription, which then funds the content of that radio. On satellite radio, while you do have the traditional music channels, you also have old radio shows that play on a loop, and you also have varying types of music channels. While you pay a subscription, you ultimately end up with more variety than you would on a normal radio channel.

What does the future of radio look like? It will probably end up with actual radio dying a slow death. We prefer to listen to our own personal choices of music and entertainment; not everyone likes every song they hear on the radio. My younger sisters are really part of a generation who don’t like to listen to the radio, because they cannot choose what song or show they can listen to. They’d much rather plug in their phones and have their choice, and there is something to be said for that. Things like the Frasier episode, and perhaps Frasier’s work life, which centers around a radio office, will become obsolete; radio will be something of the past.

However, I hope that the radio is still a viable source of information and entertainment in years to come. As much as I love television and films, there is something to be said in just listening to someone speak. There is skill in being able to sit in silence enraptured by just a voice.

But perhaps we could change the monotonous voices of NPR.

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