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Radio, Apparently, Is Not Part of Chicago's Media Future. But It Should Be.

This past Saturday I attended the Chicago Media Future Conference, which was an unofficial follow-up to the Chicago Journalism Town Hall held in February. Both events intended to address the current perceived crisis in journalism as evidenced with the closure of papers, reporters getting laid off and a sharp decline in ad revenue. One attendee I spoke with characterized the proceedings as “journalism group therapy.”

The Town Hall revealed some tensions between the new and old media camps, with most of the bad feelings on the old media side. The somewhat less well attended Media Future Conference didn’t dwell on this divide, focusing primarily on the online world, including dead tree and television online internet initiatives.

Entirely missing from this weekend’s conference was any mention of radio by any of the panelists or audience. To be fair, I didn’t stand up to speak, and so share some part of the blame for the oversight. What’s even more notable about the omission is that many folks who work for Chicago Public Radio were present in the audience, if not on the panels.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Radio went through the big journalism purge nearly a decade ago as the consolidation-frenzy spurred by the 1996 Telecom Act sank in. Indeed it was nearly nine years ago when Chicago went from having two commercial all-news radio stations to just one. WMAQ at 670 AM signed off on August 1, 2000 to become all-sports station WSCR, leaving just 780 AM WBBM holding the all-news mantle. Only recently have newspapers really started to catch up with the carnage.

Even though heavily news-focused public radio has seen its fortunes and audience rise in the last decade–in direct countervalence to commerical radio–it seems like that hasn’t helped restore radio to the front of the public’s mind when it comes to journalism. Despite the rise in ratings, I’d bet the general public doesn’t take much account of public radio, turning instead to TV, internet and newspapers to get news, especially breaking news.

I have to admit this tendency myself. If I’m sitting at home and wonder what’s going on–even with severe weather–I’ll hit the ‘net first. Only on the rare occasions when I’m in my car (which isn’t yet internet-equipped) do I turn to radio for the latest. At least part of the reason for this are the many occasions when I did turn to radio to find breaking news, only to have to slog through endless commercials, voice-tracked DJs or syndicated programming, hearing no indication that a live person was anywhere near the station console ready to jump in with an update, even if just read from wire copy.

It’s too bad, really, since radio journalism still has the potential to cover both breaking news and investigative stories with a style and economy that newspapers, TV and internet are not quite ready for. Though SMS, mobile broadband and twitter show promise for reporting up-to-the-minute news from the field, these still don’t reach a truly mass audience. By contrast a radio reporter just needs a phone link back the studio–cell phone or landline–to file a live report, or a cheap audio recorder to get interviews to bring back via sneakernet.

Perhaps I’m a foolish optimist, but I think the immediacy and frugality of radio gives the medium an opportunity to regain lost ground in the face of the supposed crisis in journalism.  I don’t expect that people will ditch their iPods, smartphones, laptops and cable TV for radio. But when the power goes out, the cell towers are down or you’re simply in one of the many places that still aren’t covered in fiber and wi-fi, radio can still be the conduit of vital news and information. And what are podcasts anyway, but radio programs syndicated over the ‘net instead of the airwaves?

It’s easy to take radio for granted, even for a confirmed radiogeek like me. Yet I think that radio can link up with and complement online journalism and media, as the live, truly wireless sister with better than 99% uptime (no fail whale on the air) and a cost model that makes reaching a mass audience a bargain, even compared to the web.

At the next group meeting for journalists’ therapy, I promise to step forward and reveal my radio addiction and bring the subject to the fore. Radio is part of the media future, wherever you are, unless we all decide to abandon it.

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