It’s not all the time I write on this blog about secular topics but this one is near and dear to my heart. And it still does have to do with our faith and Church. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked “Why would you want to go into radio? No one listens to radio anymore” or “Theres no money in LPFMs (ie many Catholic radio stations). Whats the point?” These questions, while asked genuinely, are based off of the false premise that radio is dying or that at the very least isn’t needed.
First, the easiest to argue against is that radio is dying or is dead. The facts simply do not back this up. Studies show that 93% of people listen to AM/FM radio. That figure is higher than television viewership (88%), personal computer use (50%), smartphone use (83%) and tablet use (37%.) This data is based off of Nielsen, who compiles TV and radio rankings, and Pew State of the News Media studies. Radio is not dead. It is thriving.
Secondly, and this will take longer to answer, radio is needed, now more than ever. Radio was one of the first communication tools in our country. Stations such as WGN Chicago and WSN Nashville reached long distances and brought things like news and music to so many households. You can still pick up WGN on 720AM at night as far south as Wiston-Salem, NC. WSN was the station that made country music famous with the Grand Ole Opry, a radio program that still goes on today.
The United States was one of the first countries to open up radio to the market place and keep it that way. Most radio in the US is privately owned by both large and small corporations. For example, EPIC Radio 103.5FM is a low-power FM station that is owned and operated by EPIC Radio Inc. We have three employees so I would classify us as a small (non-profit) corporation. Whereas iHeartRadio owns more than eight hundred radio stations reaching an estimated one hundred and ten million people each week. They would be a large corporation.
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During the Soviet Union (and even now in China), the government controlled the airwaves. That way they could spread their message and propaganda without the fear of competition. Side note, this is how Voice of America and Radio Free Europe got started. They were controlled by the western powers and set up along the borders of the Soviet Union so that Russians could hear what was going on in the outside world. Both organizations are still around today.
In the United Kingdom and other European countries, government controlled media is still plays a big role. The BBC, arguably the most recognizable broadcasting brand in the world, is funded mostly by HM Government. The UK does have competitors in radio and in television. The largest TV competitor is ITV (Independent Television), but many in the UK originally thought that non-govermnent TV would problamatic for brits. James May, a British broadcaster (who used to be on the BBC’s Top Gear and is now on Amazon’s The Grand Tour) said in an interview that he was never allowed to watch ITV as a kid because his parents thought it was a bad influence.
Here in the US we have a slightly different view of government funded media and much of that view comes from the First Ammendment, the right for the freedom of the press. This means the press can publish stories that can be derogatory towards the government without fear of punishment by the government. We do, in the US, have some government funded (though not entirely) media, namely PBS and NPR. Some believe that because government television is not for profit, they are less biased in their reporting and are more educational to watch.
Now, like everything else, there are many critiques from both sides. First, PBS and NPR are largely independent from the government. Yes, they both get some grants and funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which recieves its funding from taxes, but the vast majority of PBS and NPR’s money comes from individual and corporate donors. Some are quick to jump in and say that all are left leaning donors, however I know of a very conservative businessman who funds programming on UNC-TV in North Carolina. In addition, many PBS and NPR stations are affiliated with a public university and get a significant amount of funding from them as well.
But overwhelmingly, the vast majority of Americans do not get their news from public television. Instead they opt for local TV, cable news, or talk radio. Local TV can be a bit of a misnomer because most local TV stations are owned by large coporations. One exception is WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina which is owned by Capitol Broadcasting Company which only owns a few stations in the state. But in the same market, Walt Disney owns WTVD (aka ABC11). Walt Disney is the parent company for ABC.
So all of this is great but how does this establish a need for radio? Well as I mentioned before, and the research backs this up, most people listen to the radio. They might watch CNN or WRAL but they also listen to the radio. Now I’m not arguing that we need only talk radio stations or only Catholic radio stations, but we need good radio that is informative and entertaining. And I believe that they only way to do this is to keep it local.
We have managed to do this with EPIC Radio 103.5FM in Wake Forest. We air weather every hour, the news most hours, and a community calendar twice a day. All of these ideas came as a response to a comment filed with the FCC when we were applying for a transfer of ownership for this station. The commentor said that it wasn’t local enough.
That is the problem with most radio today; it isn’t local enough. Stations might provide local news and weather but where does that weather come from? For a few stations in Raleigh it comes from the local TV station. For others it comes from the Weather Channel in Atlanta or AccuWeather in New York.
But most people’s frustration with “non-local” radio doesn’t come from the weather, it comes from the on air announcers and DJs. This is where I’ll shamelessly plug my former employer WIZS in Henderson, North Carolina. Whenever we did stuff on air, we were doing it live. Only on holidays did we voice track our shows. Every day when somone would tune into 1450AM (and now 100.1FM) the person they heard speaking on the radio was in studio physically punching the button to play the advertisments and starting the next song.
Now, I’m not advocating necessarily for physical button pushing; I believe computers have made radio stations a lot easier to run and operate and automate, which at times can be good. Our station EPIC Radio 103.5FM is fully automated 24/7. But we are also in our starting stages and the nature of our station isn’t music, it’s talk and the people that are talking are (usually) live but from Relevant Radio, who we here at EPIC Radio believe gives its listeners a good, honest, Catholic view of the world.
In today’s world this is necessary. Major networks and newspapers have had major errors and overall bad reporting in the last few years. In an effort to obtain higher ratings and more subscribers, these media companies have moved further and further to the right or left in a fruitless effort to find their niche audiance. What they don’t seem to understand is that their niche they can’t seem to find is decent reporting without blatant mud slinging (or divinization) on one side or the other.
Radio is uniquely suited to step up and fill this gap. Radio is powerful. People listen to the radio, as I’ve demonstrated before. The most heard people in America are Rush Limbaugh and David King and Rachel Martin (from National Public Radio’s Morning Edition). Now these are syndicated programs (sorta for NPR but I’m not going to get into that now) and stations can choose to air or not air these programs; most stations do not. Most stations also do not air news at the top or bottom of the hour unless they are talk radio stations, which generally air programs like Rush Limbaugh or are NPR stations.
This is what makes stations like our unique. We air programming for our audience, that is, Catholic apologetics and commentary (that is our niche), but we also have the news at the top of most hours, weather following it, and a community calendar with events hyper local to Wake Forest twice a day. We can harness the power of radio to be truly informative and entertaining at the same time.
This model doesn’t just work for talk stations but music stations as well. I was very impressed with a small country station in Joshua Tree, California that aired a one minute news breif at the top of every hour and country music for the rest! Radio is desperately needed and has the power to move the masses and be informative.
Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that radio isn’t important. How can it not be imporant when ninety-three percent of people listen to the radio? How can that not be a powerful tool? Those of us running radio have to keep that in mind; with great power comes great responsibility as the old saying goes, so we have to keep in touch with our mission. At EPIC Radio that is to seek the truth and have the passion to live it out. We help you seek the truth too by keeping you informed. I hope other stations in the country can step up and follow suit.
Matthew Handley is the host of Last Week with Matthew Handley on the EPIC Radio Network and is the executive director of EPIC Radio Inc. You can hear Last Week with Matthew Handley on Saturdays at 12pm on EPIC Radio 103.5FM or anytime on-demand here.