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Harvey & Irma: Radio Shines

Just a couple weeks ago, we were at the Radio Show in Austin talking about how radio had shined in its coverage of Harvey and in the aftermath of that monstrous storm. And, even as some convention attendees rushed back from Austin to families and homes in Florida, radio operators across that state were preparing to be lifelines to millions.

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Chatting with colleagues at the convention, we were reminded of the revised history we’d imagined a few years ago: one in which high-power wireless technology was the new development and Internet-connected everything was already well established. In our fiction, we imagined that only within the past decade or so had wireless technology that allowed the transmission of a signal over a range of 30 miles or more been developed. In this alternate reality, streaming services like Spotify and Pandora were already well established. Also, already well established would be recorded audio talk shows delivered via internet (maybe they’d be called something other than “podcasts”).

It’s easy to imagine the government would want these new transmitters licensed in all metropolitan areas of the country, to be able to disseminate information in the event that hackers brought down the Internet or in case of a local or national disaster. To encourage citizens to purchase the receivers, commercial and non-commercial enterprises would be able to license these channels and provide information and entertainment people would want to hear, to serve in the public interest.

With no established traditions or norms, starting from a clean sheet of paper, how would radio sound? Would we attack with 5 or 6 songs in a row, followed by 6+ minutes of commercials when the online services were running far less inventory? If the norm for music listening was a non-local, un-hosted Internet stream, easily personalized to the tastes of a user, would we choose to take full advantage of being local to listeners in a specific community?

While we probably wouldn’t try to engage in a music quantity battle with the online services, we might try to differentiate on quality. We might populate a station with music experts curating the music (while presenting music that tested well with targeted listeners). We might seek to find hosts who were legitimately funny or highly entertaining, who would use the Internet to interact with listeners, creating content for both the radio signal and the station’s online presence. We might create a station that celebrated the music choices of the listeners, but with enthusiastic hosts championing the listeners' picks.

Or, you might not play music at all. You might become the audio outlet for a local TV news powerhouse or a local newspaper. You might build a local talk station, where Topic A is whatever the local market is buzzing about that day. You might bring a local version of "The View" to radio, where the topics hinge on values, ethics and morals, where the topics are compelling because they play to our sense of right versus wrong.

You might engage in testing the commercials you ran for advertisers, to make sure every commercial was working as effectively as possible to satisfy the station’s clients. You’d champion the theater-of-the-mind possibilities of this new audio medium. You’d seek to exploit every possible local community connection to build audience while building value for the new service.

Or maybe you’d do something entirely different. We’d love to hear your ideas.

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