Kyle James

journalist/writer/media development consultant

Radio is hip again, take a listen

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(photo: flickr/Bent Kure CC:BY-NC-SA)

(photo: flickr/Bent Kure CC:BY-NC-SA)

Published on onMedia on 21 Nov. 2014

The death of radio has been predicted many times in the past decades but guess what? Radio still isn’t dead. On the contrary, it’s booming. It’s true people may not own as many radios as they used to but on the other hand, they are carrying this century’s version of a transistor radio – their smartphones – around with them in their pockets. And these magical listening devices give people the chance to hear a huge variety of radio shows and podcasts when and where they want to.

But besides new convenience, it’s also the extraordinary quality of many new radio programs that’s causing people to tune in to radio again. onMedia’s Kyle James takes a look what is being considered a new golden age of radio.

In the United States these days, something’s going on in the world of audio that I’ve never experienced before. People are waiting with baited breath for Thursday to roll around. No, it’s not for the next episode of some hit TV show like “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black.” They’re waiting for a radio program to be uploaded. Yes, you read that correctly – a RADIO program. serial-social-logoEvery Thursday, the latest installment of Serial is released and it’s being gobbled up by the masses. Hard numbers are hard to come by but the program has topped the iTunes podcast charts since it debuted October 3.

Serial is a long-form radio investigative journalism show during which Sarah Koenig, a producer of the acclaimed radio programThis American Life, brings listeners along as she investigates a 15-year-old murder. She wants to know if the young man who was convicted, and who is now serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison, is the one who really killed his ex-girlfriend. She explains in this very first part of Episode 1. And since then, radio listeners across the country have tuned in to listen to Koenig go through the case with a fine-tooth comb and talk to people involved. She accesses original police interviews with suspects and witnesses, tries to recreate the sequence of events around the crime, tracks down old schoolmates of the victim and the convicted murderer, and speaks at length with the man convicted of the crime.

But what makes Serial different to other kinds of documentary is largely its tone, which is similar to that used in other innovative radio shows popping up across dials and on podcast feeds; it’s casual, first person and sometimes a little uncertain. Gone is the authoritative, distant, neutral narrator normally associated with radio documentaries. It’s been replaced by a voice that reveals emotion and even insecurity. Listen to Koenig question herself in the following clip. Similarly, in the third episode of the podcast StartUp, which follows a man who knows nothing about business as he starts one up, host Alex Blumberg has kind of a breakdown on mic. “I’m about to quit my job!” he says to his wife. “I’m just one guy with this stupid little plan, and there’s a gazillion people out there with better plans that are going to make more money.” These kinds of characteristics have led some media observers to comment that radio is having its own “New Journalism” moment. New Journalism was a style in the 1960s and 70s that relied on solid reporting mixed with more dramatic literary techniques and a generous dash of subjectivity.

And Serial is not afraid of drama – obviously a murder case can be pretty dramatic but the producers milk it for all it’s worth by teasing out the information, building up suspense and then leaving listeners dangling at the edge of a cliff at the end, waiting for the next installment. Although, truth be told, it’s come in for some criticism for just that from some corners of the journalism community; is it a manipulative drama or is it is investigative journalism? It’s kind of both, actually.

TAL publicradioexchange BY-SASerial and StartUp are just two of the relative newcomers in this new wave of high-quality radio. Others include Love + Radio, a prize-winning interview-driven show; Strangers, true tales about the good, bad and ugly ways people relate to one another; and the upcoming Invisibilia, which weaves brain science together with personal stories.

As Slate magazine wrote: “Just like New Journalism in its early days, the shows are sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating and self indulgent, but always exciting and fun.” In a sense, these latest programs are piggy-backing on the success of older siblings, namely shows such as This American Life or RadioLab, which laid new radio ground, moving away from the traditional acts-and-tracks story model and taking more chances with topics, presentation and the use of sound.

Easy listening

But also what’s helped these shows get produced in the first place is the new ways of distributing audio, especially podcasting. Although podcasting has been around for more than a decade, and growth in listenership was stagnant for a while, it’s now experiencing a comeback.

According to Apple, subscriptions to podcasts through its iTunes platform reached 1 billion last year and the numbers are still growing. Many believe the future of radio listening is moving firmly from the radio set to the smartphone, especially as the devices have become ubiquitous and people get used to on-demand media consumption. More people are listening as they commute, work out at the gym or do household chores.

(photo: flickr/Doug CC:BY-NC-SA)

In addition, podcasts can be cheap to produce. There are fewer administrative issues to deal with, and they can get by with a smaller staff and a smaller budget. Plus, producers are finding that podcasts create strong bonds with their audience, which makes them attractive to sponsors and advertisers. With its combination of easy distribution, flexible formats, and what seems like a thirst for long-form reporting and good storytelling, radio is back in fashion. And this isn’t just the case in the US – look at what Radio Ambulante is doing across Latin America.

Once again, all those rumors of radio’s impending demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated.

Written by Kyle James, edited by Kate Hairsine

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