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Airwaves: July 1, 2011

What is “Radio?”

Saul Levine is the owner of Go Country 105 (FM) and KMZT (1260 AM). I consider him to be one of the better broadcasters in radio, due in primarily to the fact that he tries as much a he can -- during an era when almost everyone else has given up on the idea -- to make his stations relevant to the local market.

Yes, you could make fun of the number of format changes on 1260 over the years. I’m guilty of that myself. Counter that to his FM which has run exactly three formats total since it signed on the air. Consider, as well, that often he uses the AM to try to fill a format void in the market and that he does this expecting little; Levine could have sold the station years ago but held on to it because he enjoys radio itself more than the station’s monetary value.

Yesterday I received an email with an interesting thought. In reference to a news article on the Pandora music service, he said, “I am becoming impatient with the media that refers to non radio transmissions as ‘radio.’

“Pandora is web streaming, not radio. Satellite programming is called Digital Audio Broadcasting) by the FCC; it is not radio. Radio should take steps to educate the consumers (and media) as to this fact. Radio is what comes out of a radio, not a computer or Smart phone from the web.”

In the strictest sense, Levine is correct, at least when it comes to the internet. Webster’s agrees, defining radio as “a system of of telecommunication employing electromagnetic waves of a particular frequency range to transmit speech or other sound over long distances without the use of wires.”

There is a slight problem, however, in thinking that the definition applies only to traditional broadcast radio. Note that satellite services fit the definition as well, using electromagnetic waves over a particular frequency range to transmit their programming. And if you want to stretch it a little, a smart phone allows exactly the same thing. I can hear broadcasts via my iPhone wherever I can pick up my cell-provider’s signal, and those signals arrive via electromagnetic waves.

But I understand his point, and in a general sense, Levine is still correct. Pandora is no more radio in my mind than playing a CD, record, tape, or iPod. It is a music service with no soul, no personality. In “real” radio, there is a soul. A soul behind the microphone, and a feeling that the station is bigger than life, if it is done right.

Most internet “radio stations” suffer the same problems. They are simple music services, they have no soul ... no personality. Must radio have soul and personality? In my mind, yes. Yet I am apparently in the minority, as one could make the same statements about stations like Jack-FM (93.1 FM) or Playlist 92.7. They play music and commercials, nothing else. How does that differ from most internet streams -- other than the commercials?

What about stations that pre-record or voice track their personalities to save money? Is that radio? By the Webster’s definition, yes. A little murky using my own.

As someone who misses the old version of radio, where stations competed against each other, DJs did more than just announce a song (and most don’t even do that now), and a bond was formed where listeners felt that the station was their friend, I still believe that radio -- traditional radio -- needs to do what Levine does with his own stations. Connect with the audience. Give listeners something that they simply can’t get elsewhere. Once you do that,the other services, no matter what you call them, become second choices.

Of course I’ve said this many times before. I plan to keep doing so until someone besides Levine and a small handful of others listen.


Copyright © 2011 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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