R A D I O N E W S F O R M A T S III

All-news, Newstalk, NPR and Deregulation

 

Radio is always changing. The golden age of commercial radio news in the sixties and seventies began to fade as AM radio found itself outclassed by another broadcast competitor. FM stations had been increasing in popularity through the seventies and soon were stealing audience from AM stations just as TV had done to radio thirty years earlier. Music listeners, in particular, deserted AM for the FM dial because the music sounded better on FM.

News programming was one of the main tools AM stations used to retain their audience, even to the extent of dropping music altogether. The all-news format started in California: KFAX in San Francisco in 1960 and XTRA in Los Angeles in 1961. Neither station had reporters, just news readers. In 1964 WNUS started up in Chicago, with a similar format. A year later WINS started in New York City. It had reporters. And unlike the other three, it's still on the air, still all-news. [30]

Every large city soon had at least one all-news station in the mid-sixties: WBBM and WMAQ began in Chicago, KFWB and KNX in Los Angeles, KYW in Philadelphia, etc. Many of the all-news stations were owned by the Westinghouse network.

In the seventies all-news was the fastest growing format. NBC decided to offer all-news programming to stations of any size in any market. In 1975 the NBC News and Information Service began, offering 47 minutes of national and international news every hour of every day. It failed to attract enough advertisers and clients and lasted only two years. Ted Turner had more success with CNN Radio, begun in 1982. It offered the audio portion of CNN's Headline News at first but then developed its own programming.

Larry KingBruce Williams

Talk formats were another obvious, and less expensive, alternative for AM stations. Larry King, overnights on Mutual (above left), and Bruce Williams, evenings on Talknet (above right), were some of the first personalities to develop a national following with the talk format in the late seventies.[31]

In 1987 the Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the FCC. The requirement that broadcast licensees present controversial issues of public importance was perceived as a deterrent to free speech. Its departure was a big boost to talk radio.

In 1988 talk show host Rush Limbaugh moved from KFBK in Sacramento to a nationally syndicated mid-day program based in New York City. His blend of conservative satire and political news commentary attracted a huge audience. Today his program has the largest audience in radio, around 13.5 million. [32] Broadcast officials say that by injecting new life into the talk format and helping many stations retrieve some of their audience, he saved AM radio. [33]

The next two most popular radio programs in the U.S. are news programs: National Public Radio's Morning Edition (13 million listeners)[33] and All Things Considered (12 million listeners) [34].

Jack Mitchell

The fact that National Public Radio is now one of the largest news organizations in the U.S. is amazing to one man who was there from the first day it went on the air, May 3, 1971. University of Wisconsin Journalism professor Jack Mitchell was NPR's first employee, the first producer of its first news program (All Things Considered), and also the chairman of the board of NPR at one time, and the director of Wisconsin Public Radio for 21 years.

"We said at the beginning we didn't want to be another microphone at the press conference. Now it's the main microphone," he says. "I did not perceive that NPR would become what it is, partly because I did not perceive that all the other media would go in such crazy directions either." [35]

NPR went on the air in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Compared with other news organizations, which sent correspondents to the battlefield, NPR had comparatively few resources.

"We could not provide fresh information about what was happening in Vietnam, but we could cover and foster the debate in this country about Vietnam," Mitchell wrote. "In fact I came to regard that function as the most important service public radio could provide, offering a place for Americans to discuss the implications of the facts others reported and to debate what they should do about them." [37]

Twenty years later when another Asian war began, in the Persian Gulf, conditions were different. NPR provided coverage similar to other news organizations. In fact, it was the largest radio organization covering the Gulf War. [38]

Step by step, over the years NPR became more and more solid journalistically, discovering how to fit the rules of radio into its unique non-commercial format. Today, it's half billion dollar plus annual budget makes it one of the largest news organizations in the world. [39] As NPR was growing, learning and adapting, commercial radio news was adapting to different changes, and shrinking.

The crazy directions of other media that Jack Mitchell referred to, was caused in large part by FCC decisions in 1981 and 1996 that undermined commercial radio news. These two decisions signaled a major shift in U.S. media policy.

Since 1927 broadcasters had been directed by the Federal government to operate "public interest, convenience and necessity." The FCC deregulation decision in January 1981 removed a number of requirements that had been imposed on broadcast license holders for decades, including:

The FCC decided to redefine its role as more of a technical overseer and let market forces determine programming decisions. This short-sighted decision undercut news and other public service programming "because it failed to address the major characteristics of commercial radio: format strategies, audience targets and program centralization." [41]

In her Master's Thesis studying the impact of deregulation on news in the Madison, Wisconsin radio market, Helen Molnar included a comment from a former FCC general counsel taken from the September-October 1984 issue of Channels of Communication: "Henry Geller...said the idea that the marketplace will take care of the public interest is 'cockamamie.' Broadcasters, says Geller, will never serve the public interest, 'they just want to sell soap.'" [42]

Following that 1981 decision, radio broadcasters were free to broadcast almost anything advertisers were willing to underwrite. In fact, they were virtually obligated to choose the programming most appealing to advertisers. Some broadcasters found a way to keep news programming attractive to broadcasters, others perceived it was easier to do without.

In her study, four years after deregulation, Molnar found Madison's three main AM radio newsrooms (WIBA, WTSO and WTDY) still going strong with an average news staff of five full-timers each. She listed three strong radio news attributes that still apply even after deregulation:

  1. News is an important element in building audience loyalty
  2. News can give the edge to stations when music formats are very similar
  3. Radio news is far more flexible than television or print. Radio news is easier to gather and edit. [43]

Now, 20 years further down the road, radio news has eroded much further, to the point where there's little news available on the commercial dial outside of all-news and some news-talk stations. This further erosion was encouraged by another FCC decision in 1996 which greatly relaxed ownership limits in radio and resulted in a huge wave of consolidations.

In his book Listener Supported, Jack Mitchell observed that commercial radio news programming was shrinking at the same time public radio news programming continued to expand, as a result of this second deregulatory step. "At most stations, news and public affairs disappeared in favor of nonstop streams of cheap-to-produce music. These changes reduced commercial stations to shoestring operations. Only public radio stations, unconcerned about the bottom line, were willing to devote the resources necessary for meaningful news and public affairs programming, locally and nationally. Begun as the low-budget alternatives to mainstream commercial radio, public radio stations now spend far more money on programming than most commercial stations." [44]

Mitchell noted that at about the same time as the FCC deregulation decision, legislation out of the Republican congress targeted NPR for budget cuts. The budget was cut, but then gradually restored to pre-cut levels over the next few years. At the same time NPR stations went to their listeners to request donations to fill the gap, and found a responsive audience that continues its support at significant levels today. Public radio news enjoys stronger and stronger financial support while commercial radio news is a shadow of what it used to be.

Mitchell concluded: "At the beginning of the 21st century, only public radio provided anything approaching meaningful radio journalism." [45] While there is significant evidence to support this assertion, and it certainly applies to coverage of international, national and state news, it's also true that public radio news doesn't always cover local news to the same level that all-news and news-talk stations do. Public radio is not known for traffic news, either, one of the most important elements of the news schedule for radio stations that want to serve their commuting listeners.

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30. Bliss, 190
31. Tom Harrison and Walter Sabo. "It All Started With Talk." Radio Ink (West Palm Beach FL: July 10-23, 1995) 78
32. The Top Talk Radio Audiences, Spring 2007 http://www.talkers.com/ December 2007
33. Robert Feder, "Rush Deaf But Not Silent" Chicago: Chicago Sun Times, October 14, 2001   < http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4155/is_20011014/ai_n13934729>
34. Morning Edition http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=3 
35. All Things Considered http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=2
36. Jack Mitchell, office interview, Madison, Wisconsin, December 7, 2007
37. Jack Mitchell, Listener Supported, The Culture and History of Public Radio (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2005) 72
38. Ibid, 142
39. Ibid, 189
40. Helen Molnar, Trends in Programming Diversity and the Production of Local News in the Madison Radio market Post-Deregulation. (Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986) 6
41. Ibid, 193
42. Ibid, 200
43. Ibid, 162-163
44. Mitchell, Listener Supported, 175
45. Ibid