Who Even Listens to Radio Anymore?

Written by Ryan Harrison

With newer technologies, such as Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music gaining notoriety as increasingly large portions of the public’s minds, it raises the question: why produce content for a ‘dying’ medium, and how does choosing to produce content for radio affect the content itself? In a world with nearly limitless options and choices, everything is intentional, deliberate, and with effect, but contrary to popular belief, content creators that choose the alternative radio medium are fulfilling their mission, and generally successful in what they seek to accomplish. 

“I learned at a young age that I represent a lot of people and with that I celebrate the music that we use to express ourselves, and I use the music to express my thoughts and feelings about the world,” said DJ EyeV, a radio host from WHIV. Radio station hosts contextualize the music with their own world view and approach to radio. This is something that makes every show from every station unique and individualistic. By radio, it is important to establish the types of shows being focused on, as there are many different genres, like local corporate radio, community radio, and college radio stations. To clarify, the stations featured in this article are all local to New Orleans, but WTUL is a college station, and the rest are local community stations. Local community radio strives on one major ideology, alternativism, which is defined as the rejection of social normalities in search for substitute ways of life, as radio shows are a combination of interaction from the host, as well as music they have curated for the show, both of which can be used to present different ways of life.

“One of the reasons for being part of an independent station is that I’d worked for 22 years in corporate radio. But even when I was selling commercials and doing voice-overs for Clear Channel, their stations still never played my music on the air. So I figured if I had my own show, then I could play all the people who go through the same thing that I went through. Even though we’re a low-power station, it still gives them the opportunity to be heard and have their music played on the air,” said Gina Brown, a host for WHIV. By conducting shows like this, it creates opportunities for people in the community, as well as provides new perspectives through the talk show portion of the show, and through the diverse music she plays. These diverse voices help prove the success local community radio is experiencing, as many of the stations’ mission statements focus on providing an outlet for alternative viewpoints and music and do so impressively, which is certainly the case for many of the stations in New Orleans. Having these different voices is vital for the purpose of the medium, as alternative radio is intended to provide those who seek to hear something different. The word ‘different’ is important, as alternative radio isn’t left leaning, or right leaning, it’s just providing music, opinions, and conversations that differ from what is being conventionally covered by other mediums and radio stations playing the top 40 hits, just shuffled and repeated.  

Moreover, alternative radio will always be the ‘underdog’ when it comes to competing with the radio station playing the top hits, or Spotify, but its status as the underdog doesn’t invalidate its success accomplishing everything that the medium is meant to do. As traditional radio and more modern mediums focus on gaining more listeners, which is a goal that can never be accomplished, as the more listeners someone gets just leads them to want more listeners than that in the future, and any number less than it is a failure. This is compared to alternative radio, which stations’ mission statements strive to provide alternative perspectives and music, which is achievable regardless of the number of listeners.

Recently, in pop culture there has been a massive resurgence of alternative culture, potentially to the point where it has become the mainstream social norm, which has similarly followed the radio medium. What began as teenagers being drawn to the unconvential ‘scene’ outfit aesthetics, led to a generation of many who strive to be quirky and interested in unique and uncommon things. This has impacted the radio medium through increasing interest and awareness in the medium, and similarly adding a motivation for listening to local community radio, as now people wanted to engage with content that focused on alternativism, regardless of if it was conversations or music. Similarly, the alternative aspect of local community radio itself has gathered appeal, through the viewers’ expectation of a hole-in-the-wall, artsy, and edgy studio, as well as the allure some people have of letting others know that they are listening to radio. This is especially true with WTUL, which actually meets the expectation of the hole-in-the-wall, artsy, and edgy looking studio, matched with creative and open-minded individuals working there, which is something Nick mentioned, “Many of the friends I have at WTUL I made outside of the station, at events like an art gallery or parade, where we just ended up bonding before even realizing we both work at WTUL.” This was said in tandem with Nick describing working for WTUL as being a part of something bigger, where everyone would do their individual job, like one gear running in a much larger mechanism.  

It is important to differentiate between types of radio, as it is not all the same. Just as there are distinct genres of television and film, there are classifications for radio styles, notably, local community radio and college radio stations. These types of shows typically play music made by local or underrated artists, which play an important role in their exposure to the community. In my interview with WTUL, Nick, the interview coordinator for the station, detailed the criteria for playing music on air, as there are a variety of measures WTUL uses to make those decisions, which he explains, saying, “There are requirements for playing music on the station, called merits, which encourage recently reviewed new and local music.” Notably, WTUL strives to avoid playing popular music, as to give people seeking alternatives to the mainstream a place to belong, with Nick saying, “One of the goals of the station is to provide a unique selection of music to the airwaves that you can’t find anywhere else. A rule of thumb that many in the station use is ‘if it’s been on a top 40 chart, it shouldn’t be played.” This was significant to me personally, as someone who grew up only seeing radio as a medium for SiriusXM or other commercial, top pop hits, and the like, so understanding this important and impressive local and community aspect was impactful.

College radio stations are significant to the cultural landscape of colleges, as they connect the school to local artists, and present an open-minded outlook in an increasingly closed-minded time. When asked about the changing definition of radio, and what that means for their success, Nick said, “The medium of radio has changed a lot, especially in the past decade. I think it’s sort of a bubble in itself, where the people who listen to WTUL know they’re listening to weirdos playing weird music, but I think that the mission of the station has always been to play progressive music to expand people’s experiences of music, so the narrative of the station has only been confirmed by the changing landscape of radio, because we’re still doing the same thing that we always have been, and it still seems to be working”, which goes to show how predictive and ‘before its time’ this medium was. Moreover, there is even more growth left to be had in the station, as when asked about the stereotypical college radio station tradition of students submitting their own music to be played on air, he said, “I think the powers at be at the station are very interested in adding student art and music to the station, and there are a lot of students in that too.” This happens on the station occasionally already, but it seems that there are plans to create a streamlined process of this, which will add another layer of connectivity and interactivity between the station and the community.

While it is initially unclear why people would choose to listen to radio, which essentially takes control of the choice of music out of the hands of the listener, after considering the technological era that we live in, it begins to make sense in the context of consumer choice and the difficulty of decision-making in a situation with many choices. For Nick, “Every piece of music gets reviewed, so there’s sort of a personal touch on every item like you can read what somebody has to say about this record, like when it was added to the stacks, which is really cool.” As described by the American Psychological Association, “Although an explosion of consumer choices may mean we sometimes get exactly what we want, too many choices can also overwhelm us to the point where we choose nothing at all”, which carries over to a consumer’s choice of media, with many different apps, and an infinite number of YouTube music videos and podcasts, it becomes difficult to simply and easily pick something out. Nick reasons that this is because, in the context of WTUL at least, “I think people are looking for curated music, with Spotify playlists and app algorithms, WTUL offers another way of doing that, potentially a better way.” This explains why people are leaning back into alternative radio, instead of having to choose a collection of songs to listen to, you can now choose a station to listen to, and trust that the music they play is what you’ll want to hear, as the fast-forward button has become that of a daily use for most people, which makes radio interesting without the feature.

What makes local community radio even more exciting for local readers of this magazine, is how connected alternative radio is to the city of New Orleans, as it has a vibrant alternative radio scene, with interesting and engaging content being produced by different hosts every hour, all contributing to the cultural significance of how much radio has impacted the city. WHIV is a perfect example of this, due to their extensive history of service to the city. Founded as an outlet for public health announcements and PSAs, it continued to critically assist in the fallout of hurricane Katrina, as one of the most affordable and only communication forms unaffected by lack of electricity experienced during the days after the disaster. The importance of PSA’s in their mission is notable, as that is similar to WTUL, “as PSAs definitely contribute to what we’re about… I think that the station recognizes our duty to serve the public good, which we try to do through the PSAs.” Many of the radio stations see public service announcements as a powerful way to highlight a cause, illustrate a concept, or educate on an issue, and in doing so, it performs a public service, reinforcing their mission. As WHIV states on their website, “We are not a radio station with a mission – We are a mission with a radio station”, which is meant to signify how much their service to the community means to the purpose of the station.

One of the things yet to be covered is why people create for these stations, since it isn’t very profitable or glamorous, one might wonder what the individual motivation to serve the community is. One possible explanation for this intrinsic motivation is found from Nick, “I think it’s that anyone can go onto Spotify and listen to the top ten pop songs, but I’ve found music in the station that I haven’t found anywhere else.” The effects of college and community radio on the surrounding neighborhoods is evident, but this shows there is personal growth to be gained through this kind of service. This makes sense, as the positive impact that radio is bringing is spread from not only the listeners, but also the host of the show themselves, which is just another reason why community and college radio stations won’t be going anywhere any time soon.


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