Should Radio Mix Its Media?


Imagine a morning radio program hosted by Adam Nagourney, Katie Couric, and Howard Stern.

Okay, it might be a bit unbelievable. But it is, in a sense, what radio station WNYC and content provider Public Radio International (PRI) are planning on doing with a new morning talk show program. The proposed show would be a joint venture between The New York Times, the BBC, WNYC, PRI, and WGBH. The show is meant to compete with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” which currently has a stranglehold on morning talk programming. According to a PRI press release, journalists John Hockenberry and Adaora Udoji will be hosting the program, which isn’t set to launch until early 2008.

While diversity of radio programming at any hour is something that should be supported, this new venture raises some difficult questions. In a changing media landscape dominated by the all-inclusive Internet, should radio stations encourage the encroachment of other media like newspapers and television? Or should there be a separation between the three? Does it even matter?

Traditionally, our old friend the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has had a hand in regulating monopolies across these three media formats. For decades, it has maintained restrictions prohibiting media conglomerates from owning newspapers, television networks, and radio stations in the same city. But in the past two weeks, Kevin J. Martin, the chairman of the FCC, has come forth with a new plan that would relax this restriction and allow companies to control radio stations, newspapers, and television networks in the same city, within certain guidelines.

The impetus is understandable, given the difficulties that all three media formats have faced. The advent of 24-hour news coverage means that the old news formats just don’t cut it like they used to. The Internet has the advantage of being able to incorporate all three media formats without any of the usual time delays—YouTube is now the most effective town crier. This competition has led to enormous shifts, with many stations and papers being forced out of business or being bought by large media conglomerates that have consolidated the media industry (think the Wall Street Journal).

As these media conglomerates have bought up more and more assets, FCC regulations have become a thorn in their collective sides. Rupert Murdoch, who owns both the New York Post and New York-based Fox networks, has lobbied for changes with other media moguls, arguing that the restrictions are anachronistic. But even as both the print and broadcast media seek to revitalize themselves, the FCC needs to be careful in the amount of deregulation they allow. These kinds of horizontal monopolies are less-than-ideal solutions.

The most vulnerable targets in cross-format ownership are objectivity and diversity of opinion. The news world is incredibly small, with the same reporters often working and appearing across multiple formats.

Print reporters end up writing the books that are then reviewed and discussed on television and talk programs, creating a small community of highly visible and highly opinionated people. Newspapers pride themselves on unbiased reporting, but broadcast news’s format is frequently opinion- and personality-based. There is the dangerous possibility that the line between hard and soft news will blur as radio hosts and reporters interact while cashing checks cut by the same coporate overlords.

While integrative shows may end up being successful, recent attempts to holistically combine newspaper-style reporting and radio programming have failed. Bonneville Broadcasting and the Washington Post attempted to team up for a commercial all-news radio station that was meant to create another outlet for the latter’s reporters and encourage a different type of radio news programming. They billed it as “NPR on caffeine.” Now, after barely a year and a half of broadcasting, Washington Post Radio is shutting down due to the difficulties that arose from trying to reconcile personality-driven programming with in-depth news coverage.

So, in the end, the fact may be that newspapers will never be able to run radio stations (or vice versa). But in the meantime, as collaboration between different media continues, journalists in both arenas must recognize that different formats serve different demographics with very different needs. Their content shouldn’t be determined by lofty ideals about serious news versus fluff, but rather the audiences they’re supposed to be serving. While it may be interesting to have Maureen Dowd’s voice imploring us to save the world at seven in the morning, we’ll stick with Bob Garfield, thank you very much.