One of the presentations at Internet Research 5.0 was on the future of college radio in the era of webcasting. David Park, a professor at Lake Forest College. He is the faculty advisor for the college station there, which recently started broadcasting over the web, using a service called Live365. He realized that when they started broadcasting hockey games over the web, the parents of the players, sometimes living very far away, suddenly became listeners of their “local” station. Park says that this raised questions for him about the nature of local radio. Was this an example of the “death of distance”?
Local radio has been considered important for a long time. It allows for people to hear and learn about their local area, hear local artists, and generally helps to connect people within a community. Already, people have said that there is a death of distance when it comes to radio, because there are a limited number of formats across the US. You can turn on the radio in San Diego, and it will generally sound the same as if you were listening in Boston. There is value in local broadcasting, and some of the value has even been codified in law. We don’t want to lose it.
Some have suggested that the ideal is a number large-scale radio stations (or syndicated networks), along with small stations. Unfortunately, the financial pressures of finding advertisers makes it hard to stay in business as a small broadcaster. The nature of college broadcasting, usually subscriber-supported, has managed to keep most of them in business even as much of the industry has consolidated.
It makes sense that college broadcasters would want to go online. Not only can they attract an audience without worrying about getting expensive, more powerful transmitters, it is also a very good way of raising money for the station. Unlike the traditional telethon, users need only click and give, and as a result, they end up with more funds than they would otherwise.
Webcasting allows you to keep much closer track of how big an audience is, and where they are listening from, minute to minute. For directors, the temptation to tune your programming to react to that newly visible audience is very strong.
So what happens when college radio goes from local to global by broadcasting on the Web? Will the new audience shape the content of the news in new ways? Will you have to serve a broad audience who is not interested in local musicians or college sports teams? Park decided to interview directors of college radio stations to see whether this was already happening. He did hour-long interviews with ten directors, and numerous other shorter interviews.
His worries, it turns out, were unfounded for now. Even though webcasting has been around for several years, most listeners remain within the standard broadcast area–they just prefer to listen on the computer. The formats on the radio haven’t changed much during this period, at least from the perspective of those doing the programming.
They did raise two interesting issues though. Many of the out-of-area folks are actually alumni, who leave town but still want to listen to the old station. This could be good, since it raises cohesiveness, but it could also lead to more conservative, unchanging programming. Old listeners may not want to see the station change, while in the broadcast model, the audience “cycles” every four years or so.
The other noted item was that the webcast attracted a lot of listeners overnight, when it was daytime in Japan and elsewhere. One possible future for webcast college radio is that it would broadcast for a more local audience during the day, and a more global audience at night.
This raises the question more generally, I think, of how the change in the delivery system, including the reach and capabilities of the new medium, might affect the content more generally. How will big radio react? What is the future for this new form of broadcasting?