My friend Swifty pointed me to a sad story about the change in format of WBEZ, the last jazz radio station in Chicago, from music to news / talk. This is particularly poignent as Chicago is one of the great centers of jazz in America. Some loyal listeners have started an online petition to get the station to change its decision to change formats.
As sad as it is to lose another jazz station, the format change probably makes a lot of sense from a market share point of view. They will be offering 24 hours of public affairs and cultural programming, "putting mics in the hands of listeners… to let them produce their own shows, and adding satellite bureaus in the inner city," according to a Reuters news story. That sounds like a good thing to me.
More importantly, it raises important questions about the viability of niche radio markets like jazz and bluegrass and classical music in the Internet age. In a time where people can listen to streaming radio shows online, download their favorite music to their iPods, and access commercial-free satellite radio with hundreds of crystal-clear channels, how can traditional broadcast radio compete?
On the one hand, radio is one of the most accessible of media, widely available for free using low cost devices that you can carry in your pocket. On the other hand, radio has over the past 10 years come to be dominated by a smaller and smaller number of large corporations, notable Clear Channel . Smaller, niche format stations have slowly been acquired and changed to cookie-cutter "KISS FM" and "easy listening" and "urban" music formats with little variety or local color.
Meanwhile everyone from Sirius Radio to Live365 have been adding thousands and thousands of new stations with a breathtaking range of music and content, from every flavor of electronica to obscure Roots music. The swing dance website I help run hosts two podcasts as well as a streaming radio station. None of this would have been possible through the existing broadcast radio model.
There definitely is still a place for broadcast radio. It’s too cheap and easy to deploy, as the Prometheus Radio people in Philly demonstrate. But it is going to have to incorporate new technologies to attract new audiences while not alienating their existing supporters. WBEZ has recently started offering some of their programming as a podcast and internet stream. That’s a good start.