Does Radio Have a Future?

Does new music have a future on radio?

Can radio programming embrace new listeners and new musical experiences? Is there a sustainable place on the airwaves for music other than the Top 40 Pop or Classical hits?

Do most of us actually listen to music on the radio? Or do we use it more as a comforting ambience, a kind of designer noise to fill empty times and spaces, in our homes, workplaces and vehicles?

Do people prefer Mozart on the radio simply because its easier to ignore than Harry Partch? Do we demand this kind of radio? Or does timid, unimaginative programming only perpetuate itself?

Most music radio these days is not broadcasting – it’s middlecasting. And the larger the target audience, the more middle-of-the-road the programming. The middle may be where the money is. But it’s rarely where the heart and soul of music resides. Maybe what radio needs is less middle and a little more of the extremes…radically-broader conceptions of broadcasting, or extremely specific kinds of narrowcasting.

All too often, music programming on both commercial and public radio is an uninspired blend of ignorance and fear. Most programmers know very little about new music, and they live in fear of negative reactions from their listeners and sponsors. The result is a widespread dumbing-down of radio, which sadly underestimates the intelligence and curiosity of listeners. But I believe listeners are far more sophisticated and open-minded than most radio programmers (and recording executives) imagine.

Just as people in the United States have become more and more adventuresome about experiencing new tastes in food and drink, they’ve become more and more ecumenical in their musical tastes. Younger listeners are especially open to a wide range of new musical experiences. Despite a prevailing wasteland of what Frank Zappa called “Ugly Radio,” there are some exciting and encouraging models of innovative programming, particularly on college and alternative stations.

In my travels around the country, I’ve heard some very interesting radio shows. One time in Virginia, I was a guest on a program called “Defenestrations”. The hosts lived up to their title. Demonstrating an extremely broad range of musical knowledge and tastes, they threw conventional stylistic distinctions right out the window. When I arrived, an Ives song was on the air. By the time I left, they had somehow made a perfectly seamless transition from my music, to a Bulgarian women’s chorus, and on to Marvin Gaye.

On the other extreme, I’ve heard what may be one of those urban legends about a radio station somewhere down South that plays “All Louie, Louie, All the Time!” Satie would be delighted. Radio is finally catching up with his Furniture Music and Vexations.

Beyond music, does radio in general have a future? Is there anything inherent in the medium itself which distinguishes radio from webcasting and other new media?

Radio people are fond of saying that theirs is an intimate medium. And if radio does survive into the new century, my guess is it will become more personal and more idiosyncratic. But radio needs something even more fundamental than smart new programs and ideas about “content”. What radio needs most is the best creative thinking of people who can re-imagine and rediscover its essential qualities as a medium for the transmission of magic.

What do you think? Does radio have a future? Do you have an encouraging or amusing radio story to tell? Have you heard or imagined any interesting new models for radio in this country?