You can add radio to the list of media that will be facing new challenges for survival in the face of new technology. For years, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio has been a major home for jazz programming in that city, with a full one-third of its weekday schedule devoted to music, along with a bevy of music shows on the weekend. Next year, that era will be coming to an end, as the station makes the switch to an a news/talk/public affairs format. That change is in response to—among other factors—altered listening habits as WBEZ’s music audience shifts to satellite radio and portable music players like the iPod.
To be sure, not everyone is happy with the planned changes, and a petition site has even been set up by listeners to protest WBEZ’s new focus. The station’s shift leaves the third-largest US market filled with little more than a collection of cookie-cutter music outlets owned by corporate giants like Clear Channel, Infinity, and Bonneville. One rare exception is WFMT, which plays mostly classical and is itself a subsidiary of one of the local public television stations.
The crisis faced by WBEZ is endemic of the situation being confronted by public and even commercial stations across the US. The general audience for public radio has a tendency to be affluent, college-educated white folks. That’s a problem not only due to the fact that public broadcasting has a government mandate to target a wide range of listeners, but an affluent audience is more likely to be tempted by the lure of digital satellite services such as XM and Sirius, as well as the ever-popular iPod.
Switching formats to news and public affairs thus resolves two major problems. First, it allows the station to expand its base by focusing on local stories that may be of interest to those outside of its traditional reach. Second, it also fills a void left behind by the format changes of the commercial stations, many of which have moved away from news and in favor of simpler, less labor-intensive music formats.
As more listeners find their music online or switch to the focused narrowcasting of satellite radio, the market for traditional radio may be on the wane. If so, the challenges faced by WBEZ may turn out to be just the tip of a very difficult to navigate iceberg for all radio stations—commercial and public. That would be a shame, because at its best, broadcast radio provides a combination of local focus and portability that no other medium can match. While the switch to HD radio (and the medium’s ability to multicast several programs at once) provides some hope for additional longevity, there’s little doubt that radio—like music and movies and television—is on the verge of change.