Reinventing media for the future
Many of us remember the “Golden Days” of radio—the drama shows, the great comedy hours, the detective shows, the mystery theater, the variety shows, and music programs ranging from the “Lawrence Welk Show to classical music.
Decades ago, entire families sat in front of a single household radio for entertainment and news. Imagination was the central appeal and listening was an absorbing, often intense experience.
Then, TV appeared, which left little to the imagination, mainly passive viewing of news and entertainment.
Today, the visual screens are HD in the living room, laptop between home and work or school, and smart phones to tune into the world wherever an individual happens to be.
Public radio is reinventing itself, transforming into a multi-platform media in many areas. NPR is no longer limited to local stations, improving access in rural landscapes, where the limited range of FM never provided great reach for reception. Now a great shift is happening, toward programming that one can access on an iPhone, reaching listeners by using modern mobile devices.
Because the market is changing, the radio as a product is likewise changing. In Norway, a new-styled, battery-powered, hand-held radio has hit the international market. Called the “Pinell Explorer,” the radio has a menu for FM, internet radio, music (iTunes), DAB (Web-broadcasting), and auxiliary inputs. Last year, $10 million dollars worth of these new radios sold in European markets. Although the product is not available yet in the U.S., it is the sign of the times of what is to come.
In California I’ve recently listened to NPR throughout the day while recovering from surgery. For me, the listening experience was a storytelling “dream” to hear these entertaining programs, like award-winning “This American Life,” “Fresh Air” in interviews with famous people, and “The Moth Hour” where ordinary people tell their stories in front of a live audience. The new-style programming drew me back to the “Golden Days” of radio when sound effects, background music and a story-telling narrative captured my imagination for hours on end.
The trend in programming is variety, more in-depth stories, and a touch of humor in the “back story” of news. The multi-platform approach is achieved by partnering with iTunes, internet radio, podcasts, and web-styled productions. About half of the listeners in areas where the new model of NPR is in full play use iPhones to tune in with an app.
The entire business model of public radio is transitioning from periodic membership fund-raising to include sponsors for each program and to artfully integrate local programming with National Public Radio (NPR), International (PRI), and interdependently-produced programs played on NPR, such as “Car Talk” and “This American Life.”
The business model supports local programs like “Morning Edition” to play earlier for traditional listeners, and then follow-on with the nationally produced program for extended coverage for mobile listeners.
Radio scripts today are more and more written for a web audience, using audio narration, video or visual clips, historic clips or recordings, and narration of a story by either original people or reenactments by staff actors like in the “old days” to create compelling drama.
In fact, digital storytelling is a core of re-training for 450 NPR editorial staffs, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Knight Foundation. The transition hasn’t been easy for experienced professional radio writers who must re-tool to script writing for digital productions.
If you favor listening intently or deeply to new radio media, tune into how radio, like all media, is migrating to social media, where the goal is to integrate words (print), voice (narration), and visual (web) so that all three impact readers, listeners, and viewers with stories that have meaning and impact.
At the Norwegian American Weekly, the editorial direction is to enter “participatory media” in the social media market by its Facebook page, Twitter, and digital edition. Major American newspapers, like the New York Times, have survived the shift to new media, while many traditional papers relying on print alone have struggled.
The challenge for the future, in my estimation, is that major feature stories will be written in multi-format styles—words, voice, and visual—so that stories in the digital edition will open with a visual story, followed by the print story and a link to a social media site for listening, like iTunes or an internet radio site, where imagination, as in “old fashioned” radio, comes full circle across generations.
Smart phones today connect grandparents with grandchildren, often seeing the faces of each other in real time on the hand-held screen, or viewing updates on a family’s Facebook page. NAW, likewise, is patterning its future on a presence in new media that bridges the generations to connect Norwegian American heritage to modern Norway.
This article originally appeared in the March 27, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.