I recently read the Beloit College "Mindset" list, an annual back-to-school publication that chronicles the worldview of young people entering college, in terms of what they know and experience, compared to that of their elders. The primarily focuses on cultural references that college freshman would be unfamiliar with, but also delves into areas of the technology.
The Mindset list, focused on the college class of 2016, makes a couple of mentions of radio. To today's college freshmen, radio is an obsolete, seldom-used technology that has been replaced with digitized music, audio streamed over the internet, mostly heard over mobile devices like smart phones. The idea of listening to music or talk broadcast in analog over the airwaves, on a standalone box is as quaint as the notion of hand-writing a letter with pen and paper, or reading a printed newspaper. Something their parents or grandparents did in the Olden Days.
At first reading this was very depressing. I've been in love with radio since before I was a pre-teen. For my 10th birthday I received an RCA AM/FM transistor radio which became my constant companion. I loved listening to news and weather reports. I'd keep it under my pillow at night to listen to "The Big 8" CKLW, or the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings in season. A little later on I caught the AM DX bug, hearing clear channel stations from Cleveland, Chicago, New York, St.Louis and more. Radio was the thing that took my outside my not so happy childhood and adolescence.
While I can argue that these college freshmen are wrong about radio, I have to admit that my arguments are kind of hollow. Fact is radio as I knew it as a kid is really gone. The technology is clunky. That's evidenced in the fact that today, when I turn on the radio, I have a hard time hearing very much without going to great effort. Overcrowded bands airing mostly the same tired old talk and music on frequency after frequency. Noise - AM and shortwave are a morass of noise and electrical interference, FM beginning to be so as well. If I want to hear interesting or unique programming, and hear it clearly, I have to go on-line. I'm surrounded by radios - I have a listening station set up with about a dozen different sets, and many dozens more in my collection. Yet I spent 90% of my listening time on line. The old radio has become rather lame.
But I have to remember that the technology, the delivery system is just half of the equation. The content is the more important aspect. As to that, what's sadder to me is that I sense from the Beloit list that young people aren't interested in much audio programming beyond music. While they are certainly plugged into the latest audio delivery technology, I expect most of that is spent listening to music. Little or no time is spent listening to news, informational or educational content. There's a pervasive disinterest in what goes on in the world beyond their immediate situation. That bothers me. While not wanting to go into a "kids these days" diatribe (because, quite frankly, a lack of interest in what goes on in the world is not limited to the young), I do feel that it is unfortunate that even with the rich array of radio available through digital delivery, it's wasted on many or most people.
Which is part of the irony of the situation: while traditional radio is losing relevance, the fact is that there has never been a wider array of audio programming available than there is today. I remember years ago coming up with a grid that listed times and frequencies with the goal of being able to hear the BBC World Service 24 hours a day. I came up with about 18 hours that I could maybe hear the station, between shortwave and local broadcasts. Today I can hear them round the clock, through numerous means. I still haven't solved the portability, listen whenever-and-wherever-I am problem (not wanting to pay the costs associated with a smart phone) but I expect even that will become cheaper and more convenient soon.
Radio is still there, is still important. It's just that old radio graybeards like me have to adapt to it. Which isn't really a bad thing, is it?