ADULT RADIO AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST
by Mike McCauley and Ken Loomis
School of Journalism
and Mass Communication
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Vilas Communication Hall
821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706
"All the hits, all the time." "Your information station."
"We play less commercials, and more music." "You give us 22
minutes, we'll give you the world." These are just a few of the
catchy slogans that American radio stations have used in the last
ten years to sell their product to listeners. Whether a station
programs music, talk or information, you can be sure that its
program director will declare long and loud that his/her station
serves its particular audience better than any other can.
There are problems with this line of thinking. For one
thing, certain groups of listeners are not always served well by
the mix of radio formats in a given market. Hurwitz (1988) notes
that contemporary programmers -- and their colleagues in
advertising and audience research -- conceptualize listeners as
middle class subjects who are bound to interact with the media in
a scheme of managed product marketing (pp. 238, 239). Hamel and
Schreiner (1989) contend that "90 percent of all radio dollars
spent are geared to people under 45," even though audience
members in the 50 to 55 year old range have considerably greater
spending power (pp. 54, 56). In these examples we may note that
some potential audience members -- low income and elderly people
in particular -- are not served well by radio.
It's also not uncommon to hear complaints about the lack of
creativity and diversity in radio programming; complaints that
"every station sounds like every other station." Listeners
certainly make these comments and one radio consultant wrote
recently that "the audience has seen and heard it all before"
(see Dorsie, 1993, p. 1). Bagdikian (1992) says this lack of
diverse programming stems from deregulation, highly competitive
radio markets and the "hedging of bets" to maximize appeal and
profit. Aufderheide (1990) adds that broadcasters no longer have
much incentive to air challenging or controversial news and
public affairs programs, since the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) suspended its Fairness Doctrine in August of
1987. In spite of the claims of program directors, then, it
seems that listener complaints about the blandness of much
contemporary radio programming have a strong basis in fact.
Why do radio stations program as they do... and how do
audiences use and evaluate the programs they consume? These
questions have become increasingly important since the FCC
deregulated the radio industry in 1981. With deregulation, the
marketplace alone determines whether radio stations adequately
serve the public interest. Listener perceptions seem strangely
absent from the process, and our study is designed to explore
this apparent omission.
In the following pages we examine the state of "adult radio"
programming in a medium-sized Midwestern city; programming
targeted toward listeners 35 and older. In terms of data, we
offer transcripts of interviews with radio program directors and
focus group sessions conducted with local radio listeners. By
comparing and contrasting these two sets of data, we hope to
answer the following questions:
- What do radio programmers claim to offer to adult listeners?
- What do adult listeners expect from radio stations and
- How well do adult listeners feel they're being served by
- How well do the claims of programmers and audience members
- In cases where these claims do not match, what can be done
to resolve the disagreement?
THE CONSTRUCTIONIST APPROACH: THEORY AND METHOD
We'll attempt to answer these questions by subjecting
transcripts of interviews and focus group sessions to a detailed
qualitative content analysis -- a constructionist analysis
(Gamson, 1989; Gamson and Lasch, 1983; Gamson and Modigliani,
1989). Instead of pondering the meaning of aggregations of
words or phrases, we will probe for the presence of packages
(Gamson and Modigliani, 1989, p. 3). These packages are schemes
that people use to construct meanings in messages they send, and
to interpret meanings in messages they receive. Packages contain
core frames, or central organizing ideas that help the speaker to
convey "what's at issue." They also contain condensing symbols
-- linguistic and rhetorical devices that tie discrete bits of
content together and situate them within an emerging context
(Gamson, 1989, p. 158). There are two types of condensing
symbols: framing devices and reasoning devices.
The structural features of packages can be summarized in a
table that Gamson and Modigliani call the signature matrix. In
this paper we present two signature matrices -- one to describe
the discourse of radio program directors, and one to represent
the discourse of audience members. These matrices are
supplemented by excerpts from a close analysis of our interview
and focus group transcripts.
Analysts using the constructionist approach can identify
"package parts" (core frames and condensing symbols) and
aggregate them into a coherent whole -- the package itself. In
so doing, they explore the richness and complexity of texts in a
way that conventional content analysts cannot.
We conducted in-depth interviews with the persons
responsible for programming eight adult-oriented radio stations
in the market where the study was conducted. Total population in
this market is about 313,000, and more than 96 percent of these
people listen to at least one radio program during a typical
The stations selected for this study may be described
briefly as follows:
Station A: Public radio, classical music/information
Station B: Public radio, talk/information format (AM)
Station C: Soft adult contemporary/full service (AM)
Station D: Soft adult contemporary (FM)
Station E: Talk/information (AM)
Station F: Easy listening (FM)
Station G: Country/full service (AM)
Station H: Oldies (FM)
In total, these stations garner a 58.3 share of the Average
Quarter Hour (AQH) audience (Monday through Sunday, 6 am to
midnight) for persons between the ages of 35 and 64 (60.3 share
for all persons over 35). Other stations service adults in
this market, but none are targeted specifically at adult
Our second source of data is two focus groups conducted with
adults who listen to local radio at least once per day. One
group consisted of an "intact" work team of six people (three men
and three women) recruited from a federally funded research
organization. These people know each other well and interact on
a daily basis. The other group consisted of nine people (six men
and three women) who, for the most part, didn't know each other
prior to the study.
Our focus group participants fit into the following age
Age Number Percentage of Group
25-35 1 6%
36-45 8 53%
46-55 2 13%
56-65 1 6%
65+ 1 6%
We found this distribution satisfying, since a large number
of people in the local radio market -- 20.3% -- are between 35
and 44 years of age.
The demographic characteristics of our focus groups
coincide, in a general way, with the sort of audience
demographics that our radio station managers build their
programming around. The age and income figures correspond
nicely, while our focus group members tend to be better educated
than the "average" local adult radio listener.
By using focus groups to study audience perceptions, we
sought to create a "level playing field;" a space where a diverse
group of previously unorganized listeners could talk about radio
in a collective setting. Radio programmers, by way of
comparison, have a discursive advantage; they belong to a pre-
existing group of fellow programmers -- a group whose members
share a set of common professional practices and perceptions.
PACKAGES, CORE FRAMES AND CONDENSING SYMBOLS
IN THE DISCOURSE OF LOCAL ADULT RADIO
All interviews and focus group sessions were tape recorded
and transcribed. We identified six packages in the interactive
discourse between radio programmers and adult radio
listeners. The following is a brief description of these
ENTERTAINMENT: Statements about radio's role as a
companion, therapist or source of aesthetic fulfillment.
INFORMATION: Descriptions of radio's role as a provider of
timely and important information (ex., news and weather
SOCIAL INTEGRATION: Statements about radio's potential as
an agent of cohesion or social integration within American
PUBLIC SERVICE: Statements about radio station involvement
in various community-oriented projects and promotions.
BUSINESS: Comments about the business aspects of radio,
and the ways in which they affect programming decisions.
LISTENER EXPECTATIONS: Specific comments from both
listeners and programmers on the ways that radio stations
serve adult audiences. Within this package, we find a wide
range of perceptions about how well listener needs are met.
We analyzed the data by comparing programmer and listener
responses across the six packages. The discourse of program
directors, distilled from the transcripts of in-depth interviews,
is summarized in a signature matrix (Table 1). We use another
signature matrix (Table 2) to represent the discourse of audience
members. Information for this matrix was culled from the
transcripts of the two focus group sessions.
In most cases, our package-by-package comparison yielded
interesting results. The pages that follow contain a detailed
summary of this comparison.
The program director of Station H (oldies format) told us
that entertainment is one of the prime things adult listeners
want from radio. They use the medium to relax, or as
accompaniment during the performance of some tedious task. Radio
can be used as a mood-enhancer, and radio music can bring back
pleasant memories of a time and place associated with a favorite
Two programmers made statements about a decline in the
creativity of local radio and a consequent drop in its
entertainment value. The programmer at Station C (soft AC/full
service) laments the loss of many "full service" radio stations
in recent years; stations where you could get news, sports,
weather, a wide variety of music and entertaining dialogue.
Audience members agreed, in large measure, with programmers'
statements about the entertainment value of radio.
Americans have traditionally turned to radio for the timely
delivery of news and other information. One listener recalled a
time when radio was the first medium to break a major national
...I'll never forget hearing about Kent State on WLS
(Chicago) when I was in college. And that was something we
were intensely concerned about, and that almost
spontaneous -- not simultaneous -- but almost instant
report. And those who have TV stations couldn't just pack
up and run out there and do an on-the-spot report. And so
usually, radio was your first source of information on
something that just happened.
In general, programmers and listeners think radio continues
to perform well as an information medium. However, both groups
think that radio stations can do a better job of delivering local
news. This point was certainly not lost on the operations
manager of Station D (soft AC).
...60 to 65 percent of our information ...news ...is
local[ly] oriented. ...[Through research,] we found [that
there] was a great deal of dissatisfaction with public
radio, in that it's "coming off the bird" (satellite)
somewhere. Especially in your drive-time hours with "All
Things Considered." As well put together as that is, it's
...they don't get into what's going on in [our city] a great
Both programmers and audience members say that radio has
great potential as an integrating force in society. This
sentiment came through strongly in an interview with the director
of two public radio stations (Stations A and B). This programmer
notes that many of his listeners are highly educated, socially
conscious people. When his stations broadcast programs that
capture the imagination of these people, he gains a loyal
[There's] this sense that you are part of a community of
people who view the world kind of as you do. And public
radio people do tend to think nationally and
internationally. And so the fact that it is linked from
Boston to San Francisco and everything in-between is
important; that the idea of people thinking of themselves as
public radio listeners and almost defining themselves that
way is important to the quality of life of those particular
people, I suppose.
People who listen to talk programs on commercial radio
stations may also form communities of listeners. The owner of
Station E (talk/information) mentioned a group of people who
listen to a popular conservative talk show.
More and more young people are listening to Rush Limbaugh.
First of all, I believe the younger people -- 24 and under
-- are more conservative than they were ten or fifteen years
ago. Second, they bond with him because he speaks like they
do -- outrageously. He tells it like he feels it... like
kids today, young people today.
Two listeners agreed that talk radio can help foster a sense
PERSON 1: You get a feeling for the consensus of the
community, you know. Like ..."am I the only one who thinks
the mayor was nuts for doing this?"
PERSON 2: There are certain ways in which the call-in
programs create a sense of community, because you can hear
your State Representative on the radio... and you can hear
people asking him questions ...and hear the answer. And I
think that's closer [to real dialogue] than reading about it
in a newspaper or perhaps seeing in on television.
The people who program talk and information formats say
listeners crave the new ideas their programs offer -- and not
simply for the purpose of "getting ahead" financially or
careerwise. Many of these programs are locally oriented and
others -- because of their interactive nature -- "sound local."
They make audience members feel involved in ongoing conversations
about a variety of topics.
Program directors claim they can "do good things" by
sponsoring and publicizing community events.
We can bring awareness to a particular problem. "...They
need clothes, they need food. Here's where you drop them
off. (program director of Station C)
Did you see the bumper sticker [that says] "Think globally,
act locally?" Well, if you get "x" number of people to act
locally, even if it is nothing more than going to the
"Walktoberfest" and meeting their neighbors and doing
something, helping to raise money for diabetes research...
Does that make them better citizens? You're damn right it
does! (operations manager of Station D)
Implicit in this approach is the notion that such "public
service" campaigns will also boost listenership in some way.
Audience members have a very different perspective about
public service. In specific, they talked about a lack of
programming on controversial public affairs topics; the kind of
programming formerly covered by the FCC's "Fairness Doctrine."
This doctrine, suspended in 1987, required broadcasters to
address all sides of a public controversy in the course of
overall programming and -- in the case of PSAs and purchased air
time -- to offer free air time to groups with an opposing opinion
who could not pay (Aufderheide, 1990, pp. 47-48).
Some listeners called for a renewal of the Fairness Doctrine
or some similar regulation.
I think that it should be a requirement... a certain amount
[of air time] for public service. And they (stations) may
think of public service in different ways. ...If [a program
host] wants to do it with a public forum on what happened at
the [City] Council, OK... that's terrific. Somebody else
wants to do it, you know, with national news ...you know
what I mean. Otherwise, I'm afraid we're 'gonna lose it.
Another audience member said that since radio stations "have
a monopoly on the -- quote, unquote -- public airwaves, ...they
owe us something [more public service programming] for that."
Programmers generally view the business end of radio as a
fight for survival, while listeners think radio stations
emphasize profit above all else, including program quality.
Programmers -- commercial and public -- are businesspeople,
and they treat radio programs as commodities. Consumers choose
radio stations just as they choose hairdressers and restaurants.
The task of the radio programmer, then, is to "get a piece of the
action" -- to compete for a share of listeners' entertainment
Many radio programmers -- like the one at Station C -- try
to get a huge piece of the action.
Everybody wants, you know, men and women 25 to 54... and
...that's where the money is. ...It's a business. And you
have to make the money back.
This philosophy is common among programmers, and it
sometimes leads them to disregard the preferences of adult
listeners who fall outside of the above-mentioned age group. In
practice, it also excludes the interests of many listeners within
the group; in order to maximize listenership, stations often gear
their programs toward people who fall in the middle of the 25-54
bracket. The general manager of Station H follows this strategy,
and targets the 35-44 audience segment. He knows that older
listeners have more money to spend, but says people 35-44 are
more attractive to advertisers...
...because they're still after the influenceable. They're
still after the person who they can change their buying
habits. The problem with those of us who are 51 or 52 is
that we're getting some set ways. ...On the other hand if
you're 35 [to] 44, you're influenced by a lot of things.
You're still making your decisions about how you're going to
live your life. And you're more influenceable.
This explanation is plausible from a business standpoint; if
you influence the core group, you may win over a large portion of
the broader target group (25-54). However, this programming
dogma also helps explain a critical sentiment held by several
focus group participants -- that lots of radio formats sound
alike. If several stations in a market gear their programs
toward the middle of the same broad demographic group, overall
programming in that market can come to sound dull and repetitive.
One audience member lamented the notion that commercial
radio programming is driven solely by the potential for profit
...and said this profit motive is directly linked to a lack of
They're too locked into a kind of minimum common
denominator, as though there's a group of listeners out
there -- that doesn't include me -- that's basically, I
think, the people that spend the most money. Teens and
Indeed young adults -- garner much attention in the market
The owner of Station E offered a different opinion about the
reasons why so many radio stations pursue the 35-44 target group
and, on a larger scale, the "mass audience" of men and women
between the ages of 25 and 54.
A cruel hoax has been foisted upon many people in our
industry by the dominant ratings company, Arbitron. They
(Arbitron and its predecessors) arbitrarily defined these
demographic segments, and arbitrarily defined their buying
This station owner thinks the 25-54 group is more of a
"family reunion" than a naturally-occurring demographic group.
He says the dogmatic pursuit of this broadly defined collection
of listeners leads to bland, generic programming since the 25-54
group includes fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers
and students -- people who often have little or nothing in
common. He says the current system of radio economics -- in
which advertisers use ad agencies to buy air time -- perpetuates
If you spend some time in advertising agencies ...you will
find that the people who actually make the media buys are
those who have the least experience and the least
qualifications to understand the market. A media buyer is
one step up from a secretary in any advertising agency...
[and] is like the teller in a bank -- the lowest form of
life. ...They have no concept of how to buy radio. They
use these numbers; "Arbitron says Station 'x' is number one
among women 25-54, so we'll automatically buy that station."
They're not sophisticated enough to understand the nuances
in every market -- and the nuances in every format -- to buy
it [commercial time].
The owner of Station E says radio programmers -- and
listeners -- would be better served if ratings firms and ad
agencies agreed on other, more sensible target groups for
demographic research; groups such as (1) teens, (2) people in
their 20s, and (3) everyone else. He says these groupings,
broadly defined as they are, represent aggregations of people
that are much more closely in tune with the aggregations of
values, tastes and incomes that exist in the actual marketplace.
It's possible that radio programmers target their products
as they do because they feel "trapped" by the system; that they
must play by advertisers' rules to stay in business. The owner
of Station E is a prime example. Though disenchanted with the
system, he continues to pursue listeners in the broadly conceived
25-54 age group.
When asked about listener needs and expectations, many
programmers choose, instead, to talk about target marketing.
Some of them attract significant audiences through programming
that's highly formulaic. They find an important or underserved
programming niche and "superserve" it; they narrowcast to a
specific audience in a way that "locks them in" to the station.
Other programmers try to demonstrate their grasp of listener
expectations by invoking audience research as a professional
convention. They wrap themselves in the cloak of "research,"
perhaps to lay claim to a sense of professionalism that's not
available to the layman.
Well, we did music research. We spent about 25 grand on
music research. We did auditorium testing. We do it twice
a year. ...I've been operations manager for less than 90
days, so I've had to ingest and figure out more information
in those 90 days than most people should have to. There are
seven notebooks under there [under a table] of the research
project [we just completed], just to get an idea of what the
potential audience thinks.
These comments are instructive. They come from the
operations manager at Station D, a man who says he programs to an
audience of college educated, white collar women -- people who
might otherwise listen to public radio stations. However, recent
ratings data suggest that this station actually reaches an
audience of relatively uneducated blue and white collar men and
The programmer at Station C also described a target
marketing strategy that's fraught with contradictions.
Our audience profile is primarily median-range adult, say,
between 35 and 54 years old. This is our target... They are
primarily more medium income to upscale household income.
Which means ...professional people, I guess.
We also, obviously, program to the masses (emphasis added).
But I think in the presentation and some of the elements
around the station ...we talk to a more informed ...
somebody that would take the time to read the newspaper,
that might watch CNN news... So it turns out to be more of
a professional, upscale type of person.
Once again, a peek at the ratings books points to an
interesting discrepancy. Station C does reach listeners with
medium-to-upscale incomes but, once again, is most popular with
relatively uneducated blue and white collar listeners.
When we compared interview transcripts with ratings data, we
found that these two programmers failed to tell us the whole
truth about the type of listeners they serve; both men failed to
acknowledge that they served the needs of older listeners, and
those with blue collar jobs. Instead, they claimed to serve
important "upscale" segments of the overall 25-54 group, segments
that advertisers would certainly find attractive. In these cases
"research" was cited as justification for programming that seems,
in hindsight, to have been poorly focused.
Programmers also have tacit theories about listener response
to controversial public affairs programming. Though some
stations do carry argumentative talk and information programs,
most shy away from the presentation of opinion in matters of
controversy. The programmer at Station G (country/full service)
explains this tendency by saying that his radio station must
serve a "mass audience."
My perception as a programmer is that it's a mass appeal
business. I try to please as many people as I can. Any
time there's an element on the radio station that is going
out over the airwaves, I try to make sure that it's mass
In contrast, many of the listeners in our focus groups think
mass appeal programming is bland, and that too many stations are
offering it. They long for a diverse collection of programs --
both within stations and across stations. Consider, for example,
these comments about the repetitiveness of classical music
programs on the local FM public radio station.
PERSON 1: I wish they had more variety of things during the
day. They used to have different kinds of ethnic music
shows, but now it's all classical.
PERSON 2: It's real safe classical. They're not playing
anything that's modern -- something that you may not
normally hear. Obviously somebody is making an effort to
keep everything sort of "middle of the road" on a lot of
these stations. You don't get anything new.
One listener thinks the similarity between local radio
formats and those in other cities smacks of conspiracy.
You know, it almost seems like five years ago or seven years
ago someone did a marketing [study], and did a "master
format" for the entire United States. You know ... "so much
of this, and then you pick this"... And there's someone
sitting in L.A. ...that says "these songs are 'gonna make
it." And everyone pulls in. It just wouldn't surprise me.
A man in the same group offered a more focused explanation
for the trend toward bland, "canned" radio formats. He says the
profit motive -- and the advent of computerized formatting -- are
important contributing factors.
The chance of hearing something unique and novel is pretty
slim. ...They figure out ...what sells. And they play the
tunes that sell, are selling the best. And the new artists,
or a little offbeat music, you don't hear.
Some programmers responded to questions about program
diversity by referring, once again, to their audience research.
The musical tastes of mine don't necessarily agree with a
lot of the music we play. But it's researched, and we know
what our listeners will tolerate ...what they're looking
for. And that's what we give them.
The decision has to be made based on facts. ... we sample
more people than a presidential poll, than a rating service.
What we do is we talk to 15 or 16 hundred adults that have
listened to AM ... I mean, it's accurate. They don't lie.
Facts just don't lie. (program director, Station C;
Another programmer (Station D) claimed that intuition plays
an important part in his decisions; later on though, he told a
story that suggests rigid adherence to the dictates of ratings
and audience research. This man says he tries to improve the
quality of listeners' lives by "giving them what they need."
Unfortunately, I need to decide what they need. Or, at
least, they decide whether or not what I decide what they
need is ...what they need or not.
This confusing -- but not inarticulate -- response
demonstrates the lengths to which some programmers will go to
mask their reliance on ratings.
We may summarize our description of the listener
expectations package with two key observations: (1) The comment
made by one listener that radio stations seem to base their
programming decisions on a singular "national research project"
is not entirely far-fetched. Most programmers process a large
amount of data -- generated by Arbitron and other research
firms -- and then treat it as fact. (2) Reliance on narrowly
conceived research leads to programming that's "safe" and
repetitive, and excludes the needs of significant audience sub-
groups. Indeed, listeners tell us that radio stations could do a
better job of satisfying their creative and intellectual needs by
taking an occasional risk -- a risk based on sound research about
the unique characteristics of the local market.
1. Radio has great potential. At its best, it can force
listeners to use their imagination. It can entertain them,
give them vital information and integrate them, in some
measure, into the larger society.
2. Adult radio -- in the market we studied -- does not live up
to its potential. A variety of radio formats are available,
but many listeners say these formats seem "distant" or
"canned". They want stations to develop a stronger focus on
3. The current system of radio ratings -- and the advertising
system that depends on it -- may have serious flaws.
Indeed, the popular 25-54 age group resembles a "family
reunion;" it contains several sub-groups of listeners that
have little or nothing in common. Until this system is
modified to reflect the true diversity of the overall radio
audience, ratings-based programming decisions will continue
to be flawed; they will produce formats -- both within and
across markets -- that sound all too familiar.
THE PROGRAMMERS RESPOND
After completing an early draft of this paper, we asked
three of the radio programmers interviewed earlier (Stations
A & B, E and H) to critique the study. They generally agreed
with two of our contentions. First, they agreed that many
stations program toward an overly broad target audience.
According to Station H's programmer, "too few people have the
patience to stick with a niche and super-serve it." The owner of
Station E added that many programmers don't know who their
audience is, and "pretend it's who their sales department wants
it to be."
Secondly, two of the programmers agreed that the the current
ratings system, driven by advertiser-influenced demographics, has
In the course of their critique, the programmers raised
three main points of contention with our study:
(1) It's not fair to suggest that programmers shape their
formats with little or no concern for listener needs and
expectations. The manager of Stations A and B says any lack of
diversity or creativity in programming is related to economic
factors that are beyond the control of most stations.
(2) Listeners may ask for more variety in programming, but
they don't always listen to the kinds of programs they ask for.
To illustrate this point, the programmers used case histories of
two "eclectic" radio stations in the market we studied. Both
stations were famous for their diverse programming, but one
failed and another has a long history of financial problems.
The owner of Station E believes that true inter-station
diversity already exists in the market, and thinks that listeners
just aren't aware of all the choices available to them.
(3) Many radio stations make public service commitments
that transcend simple "do-gooder" projects. One programmer
regrets that listeners are generally not aware of the major
charity fund-raising events he takes part in.
From the viewpoint of radio professionals, the criticisms
listed above are understandable. However, most of the listeners
who took part in our study feel that local radio stations
generally fail to live up to their potential. Adult listeners
want formats that go some distance beyond the repetition of a
handful of familiar songs. They like provocative programs, along
with local news and information. They don't want stations that
are "everything to everybody," but do expect that each station
will strive for greater creativity within its own format.
Programmers and audience members readily acknowledge the
medium's potential for entertainment, information and social
integration. But listeners think stations are too profit-
oriented, not concerned enough about public service programming
and generally out of touch with audience expectations. It's
interesting to note that the eight radio stations in this study
target adult listeners very much like the people who took part in
our focus groups. If the focus group data is reasonably valid --
and we think it is -- it's possible that our programmers are
seriously underserving the very target audience they claim to
care so much about.
How did this state of affairs come to pass? Two
explanations are plausible:
(1) Flaws in the ratings system. Simply put, the current
system is not capable of rationally sorting stations into piles
of "winners" and "losers." Stations operating in competitive
markets increasingly feel pressure to differentiate themselves by
targeting very specific audiences. However, a ratings system
that steers the greatest rewards to stations that reach the
largest number of people between the ages of 25 and 54 creates a
sense of schizophrenia for programmers.
(2) Deregulation. In the 1980s, the FCC relaxed limits on
radio station ownership, "further reducing diversity and the
opportunity for outsiders [to own and program radio stations]"
(Bagdikian, 1992, p. 488). Bagdikian says this kind of
regulation -- or lack thereof -- is an important source of
unimaginative, "mass appeal" radio programming. Programmers who
adhere to a strict deregulatory doctrine believe that "the
marketplace" should define the public interest. However, our
research calls this logic into question. Strict adherence to the
dictates of the advertiser may have created a morass of
undifferentiated stations; stations formatted so tightly that
much local programming creativity has been purged.
Why do programmers and listeners sometimes talk about radio
in such different ways? Simply put, the two groups don't
communicate in any direct or meaningful way. The nature of the
contemporary radio marketplace dictates that ratings -- not
listener wants and needs -- drive programming decisions and
exacerbate the power imbalance between the two groups. Further,
listeners seldom have a chance to talk among themselves. Members
of any radio audience normally function as atomized individuals
who have little or no direct influence on programming decisions.
To better understand the relationship between programmers,
listeners and the radio marketplace, we turn to the theory of the
"public sphere," developed by Jurgen Habermas (1989/1962). In
gauging whether acts of public communication -- such as radio
programs -- serve the public interest, Habermas measures them
against an ideal standard; a theoretical sphere of public
communication in which all participants have symmetrically equal
chances to participate.
Habermas thought such a public sphere existed among members
of the emerging capitalist class in parts of 18th century Europe.
Kellner (1990) says this sphere of free public debate gradually
declined because of state censorship and corporate media
ownership, among other things. By the late 19th century, the
trappings of "privatized society" encouraged people to withdraw
from the public sphere, and to focus on life as individual
consumers and family members (p. 12). Habermas (1989/1962) says
true public opinion, the kind that flourished in the public
sphere, has been replaced by public relations -- or opinion
management -- as a major force in the creation of legitimacy for
the institutions of capitalist societies (p. 196).
We may draw some parallels between the downfall of the
public sphere and the evolution of the radio industry in
America. When product marketing supplanted listener
satisfaction as radio's primary function, the chance for critical
feedback from listeners was significantly diminished. Today,
mass consumption and advertiser acceptability have become
standard programming idioms (Hurwitz, 1988, p. 238). Narrowly
conceived audience research and a superficial layer of high-
visibility public service campaigns are the sole sources of
legitimacy for many of today's radio stations.
Let's assume for the moment that it's desirable to reverse
this trend, and to work toward the development of a sort of
modern-day public sphere of radio programming. How can we do
this? Jensen (1986) suggests that listeners could interject
their needs and expectations into a public discussion about
programming by developing "critical comprehension" skills (see
ch. 15). At present, radio listeners lack the institutional
cohesion to have much impact on programming decisions. Thus, the
assembly of individuals into focus groups -- much like the groups
used in this study -- may offer an excellent pathway for the
development of listener consciousness and efficacy. We think
focus groups should be used to ask listeners what they want from
radio -- in a general way -- and to let them perform critical
analyses of existing stations and programs. Ultimately,
these groups might be used to generate suggestions for new,
"listener-friendly" radio formats.
In a capitalist society such as the United States, it is
probably naive to think that radio programmers themselves would
conduct the kinds of focus groups we advocate; this technique
would leave programming decisions and practices open to harsh
public criticism. Thus, the task of promoting critical
comprehension falls to the academic. If research shows that the
rhetoric of radio programmers is significantly out of touch with
listener expectations, then academics may feel justified in
organizing listener focus groups to (1) gather additional data
about the state of the radio market, and (2) foster a sense of
consciousness and efficacy among listeners.
Critical comprehension may not develop quickly. And once it
does, there's no guarantee that organized groups of "listener
advocates" will have much luck when they try to convince radio
programmers that audience needs are far more complex than the
safe, repetitive programming that's typically offered. However,
small efforts today may bring dividends in the years and decades
to come. Perhaps one day, radio stations will find ways to
utilize constructive feedback from organized groups of
listeners -- people skilled in the art of critical comprehension.
As Margaret Mead once said, we should "never doubt that a small
group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
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