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The Resilience of Radio: Connecting Through Music and Real Personalities

"The medium continues to serve as a bridge that brings people together through shared experiences and shared love for music"

Radio World’s “Guest Commentaries” section provides a platform for industry thought leaders and other readers to share their perspective on radio news, technological trends and more. If you’d like to contribute a commentary, or reply to an already published piece, send a submission to [email protected].

The author is CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, which has been serving the nation’s community radio stations since 1978. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at Radio World.

For some of us in public radio, the past few weeks have been tough. The recent resignation of a veteran National Public Radio (NPR) editor who penned an essay alleging liberal bias in the network’s coverage has reignited demands from some congressional members to strip the federal government’s funding from the nonprofit media organization.

If this ever were to pass, it would definitely hurt stations in the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) membership. More than 60% of our members participate in a music licensing agreement between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and SoundExchange, in which NPR has a critical role in administering.

Rima Dael

In addition, many NFCB stations rely on the Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS), managed by NPR, to get many of their programs, not just from NPR but from American Public Media, Public Radio Exchange and others that distribute independent programs. And, of course, we all rely on the PRSS for national public safety since it is an integral part of our Emergency Alert System.

Additionally, the essay of the NPR editor conflated issues of a declining radio audience with a focus on DEI and community representation, which further allows anti-DEI sentiments to flourish in certain spaces.

This is what is most personally exhausting for me and many folks of color in radio, who have to defend our rights to be in certain rooms, and the value of centering our narratives which have been historically marginalized. For all of the above reasons, it has been challenging these past few weeks. 

So, who would have thought that the balm for my soul would come from the Jacobs Media TechSurvey?!! An actual survey with data that presented me with facts over my own perception! Yes, the survey results and data presented by my friend Fred Jacobs centered on commercial radio, but there are a ton of community and public radio take-aways as well! The following are my reflections and musings from this calming survey, and you can download the report at Jacobs Media’s website.

In a world inundated with digital streaming services and AI-driven algorithms, radio continues to hold its ground as a significant medium for connecting people to music and real personalities. The recently published Jacobs Media Techsurvey 2024 report sheds light on the enduring appeal of radio, emphasizing that at its core, people tune in for the connections they feel with radio DJs and personalities; and music trumps all other formats.

[Related: “Techsurvey 2024: AI Is Here to Stay. Not Everyone Is Happy About It“]

One of the standout findings of the report is the strong preference for real human voices over AI personalities and algorithm-generated playlists. Listeners value the authenticity and spontaneity that radio hosts bring to the table, creating a sense of familiarity and connection that cannot be replicated by technology. This human touch serves as a unique selling point for radio in an increasingly digital landscape.

Passing the mic for a quick moment to a couple colleagues articulating the importance of connecting with community around music and the edge we can have in public and community radio: 

“Public media plays a crucial role in music discovery for communities around the world.  The long legacy of trust that stations grow and nurture is fed by the dynamic and meaningful music we play. The vibrancy and diversity of programming, intentional relationships with the artists and their fans, and grassroots music movements creates and fosters a level of community engagement that is so rare and so special.  I continue to applaud the work our community supported stations do to champion the creative community, enrich listening experiences, and provide gathering spaces for exploration and innovation.”

— Nikki Swarn, General Manager, 89.3 KUVO & 104.7 THE DROP, Rocky Mountain Public Media

“Public and community radio are also essential to many artists who rely on us to expose listeners to their music, be they local performers or nationally touring acts, emerging or established artists. Being heard on a public or community radio station (or at a station-sponsored concert) really matters to musicians, as well as concert venues across the country, large and small. And having a musician perform live on the radio is simply magical. I can’t imagine the field of music without public and community radio.”

— Matt Murphy, General Manager, 89.9 FM – WERU Community Radio

One of the most intriguing takeaways from the Techsurvey report is the disparity between the perception of radio’s relevance and its actual listenership. Despite common beliefs about the decline of FM and AM radio, the data paints a different picture. A significant portion of the population still tunes in to traditional radio, underscoring its enduring popularity and influence. FM & AM radio outperforms listening to satellite radio and podcasts!

As we reflect on these findings, it becomes apparent that radio’s strength lies in its ability to foster connections — connections between listeners and music, between listeners and radio personalities, and even between listeners and their vehicles. The medium continues to serve as a bridge that brings people together through shared experiences and shared love for music.

So, to all the skeptics and naysayers who underestimate the power of radio in the digital age, the Techsurvey report serves as a reality check. Radio is not just surviving; it is really doing okay — which means, we, those in radio, are doing okay. Thanks to its unique ability to provide a blend of music, companionship and authenticity that resonates with audiences of all ages — this is important fact-based news. This is not a call to rest on our laurels — we must continue to innovate and connect with audiences of all ages.

Yet, for today, let us appreciate the magic of radio for what it truly is — a timeless medium that keeps us connected in a fast-paced world.

Thank you Jacobs Media for a much-needed reality-check!

[Related: “Techsurvey 2024 Highlights Radio’s Resilience, Impact of Localism“]