RADIO FREE HARVARD: Don't Tune Out Just Yet: Radio Is Rising

According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, the golden age of radio died in the spring of 1949 when Wayne Coy, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, acknowledged the superiority of television. Radio sales had plummeted and periodicals issued story after story describing the plight of the beleaguered radio industry. Film and television had co-opted radio technology to move past the silent film era and into a new age of sync-sound entertainment. Why listen to Orson Welles narrate an alien invasion when you can watch Tom Cruise stop one?

Instead of continuing to use the live music format that most stations have been using since the late 1920s, radio began to turn back to the recorded album in an attempt to save itself. At first, it seemed, the answer to radio’s problems was music and the public’s faith in a reliable DJ. The burgeoning record industry found its own personal soapbox in DJs who championed new releases.

And, for the most part, the format worked. Martin Block, Alan Freed, and John Peel rose to national fame for their good taste and innovative programming. They simultaneously served as tastemakers and barometers for the listening public.

At least that was the going logic until August 1, 1981. At 12:15 a.m., MTV began broadcasting on the air and once again the sky was falling for radio. To unceremoniously hammer the point home, MTV chose to show The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” as its first music video. Clad in black pleather suits, the band members were only too happy to dance a funeral jig on the grave of radio. “Who wants to be a DJ when you can be a VJ?” insinuated the men in space suits driving MTV flags into the moon.

In retrospect, The Buggles were a little too quick to blow up that poor girl’s large transistor radio in the video. The Buggles now languish in one-hit-wonder hell, MTV has banned music videos to the outer-most reaches of cable, and if anyone still wants to grow up to be a VJ, one look at Carson Daly should be enough to kill that ambition. Radio, it seems, refuses to be killed.

While radio may have temporarily regained its footing, it’s still far from standing on solid ground. Listeners have stopped tuning in to commercial radio stations that continue to favor generic major label acts. Clear Channel Communications, one of the largest radio station owners in the United States, has been vilified just as much as the RIAA for its just business approach to the music industry. Entrenched in big business and afflicted by an orthodox attitude towards broadcasting, radio is in need of something. What that “something” concretely means is anyone’s guess.

This column won’t claim to divine the future of radio. The myriad problems with radio are far too numerous to be remedied by one miracle cure-all.

But there continues to be new ways that radio can retain its ostensible purpose—to be both reflections and creators of the public’s taste in music. Internet radio allows still-untapped possibilities to disseminate once hard-to-come-by musical events, as evidenced by the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to broadcast over Sirius Satellite Radio.

High school and college radio stations offer niche programming that may end up being the future of radio in the wake of the death of monoculture. Disgruntled insiders are learning from past strategies and international manipulations of radio—such as Radio Radcliffe and Radio Universidad in Oaxaca—to re-orient themselves to radio’s possibilities. And in Minot, North Dakota, the failure of corporate radio stations to alert the public about an impending toxic cloud (really, we don’t make this up) made the need for local control over Emergency Alert Systems all too obvious.

So please—tune in, turn on and don’t drop out. Radio has shown itself to be a resilient media force that just won’t go away. The new wave of radio technology on the horizon, such as satellite, high definition, and internet broadcasts, guarantees to alter the industry in exciting, but unpredictable ways.

Until someone comes up with a better medium than the pervasive, egalitarian radio signal, however, radio will continue to be worthy of our attention.

—Staff writer Kimberly E. Gittleson and contributing writer Evan L. Hanlon are executives at WHRB, Harvard’s student- run radio station. Gittleson can be reached at