Public Radio The radio industry also has a noncommercial sector, known broadly as public broadcasting. Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in
1967 as a vehicle to channel federal dollars into noncommercial radio as an alternative to for-profit stations. Although the noncommercial segment had existed for decades, it was barely noticed and hardly played by mainstream radio audience. With the CPB’s funding, National Public Radio was established as a network to serve noncommercial stations.
Public radio had been a growing part of the industry, especially with in-depth news, arts, and features programs. NPR’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, had been a major competitor with commercial stations in evening commuting periods. In the period between 2012 and 2015, though, public radio listenership, and in particular, the audiences for these shows, dropped dramatically. Overall, there has been a drop in listenership across all age groups. Since 2010, morning listening has declined 11%, while afternoon programs have lost 6% of listeners. Most significantly, for Morning Edition, the drop was about 20% in the under-55 age group. For the same period, listening to All Things Considered dropped approximately 25% in the 45–54 age group. This is critical because not only does NPR receive a minimum amount of its total funding from the government, but it relies on donations from its listeners. If mainstream NPR listening declines as audiences opt for streaming and podcasts, the pressure to get donations from those remaining listeners is more intense. It results in frequent on-air membership drives that interrupt regular programming.
The Dominance of On-Demand Radio Nielson’s 2015 U.S. Music End-of-Year Report highlights the migration from terrestrial radio to online on-demands, particularly streaming and podcasts. Nielsen identified its online music streams, including “audio and video data from AOL, Beats, Cricket, Google Play, Medianet, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, Xbox Music, YouTube/VEVO (in billions).” The strongest message from the report is that from 2014 to 2015, on-demand streaming has increased 92.8% overall. This is broken down into an increase of 83.1% for audio and 101.9% for video. In billions, this represents an increase, in one year only, from 79.1 to 144.9 in audio streaming and 85.4 to 172.4 for video. This demonstrates the power grip that online, on-demand streaming has on the listening (and viewing) audiences.
Shifting Radio Audience The backbone of the radio industry, locally licensed terrestrial, analogue stations, is
being squeezed of listeners by new media technologies. SiriusXM transmits directly to listeners from orbiting satellites with 140-plus channels, some commercial-free. Then there are handheld MP3 players, epitomized by the Apple iPod, which has been siphoning listeners from over-air local radio stations for years. With these devices, listeners download music and create their own. The new technologies can do all this without resorting to small talk, commercials, or the obligation to play bad music in order to secure hits. It’s like radio on-demand. Pandora allows listeners to tailor playlists that, so to speak, are individual jukeboxes. Aggregator services like news- oriented Stitcher allow listeners to tap into specific programs, and have also contributed to the drain on local stations. Spotify is another highly successful streaming service. It stores a list of songs to be played in a variety of devices.
Most local terrestrial stations have created websites to simulcast their over-air transmissions, but on the Web, the stations are smaller players than ever in the worldwide pool of available options. It might have been assumed when the new technologies and streaming options came to bear that terrestrial radio might be soon defunct, but that does not appear to be the case.
Terrestrial radio has had the greatest penetration and reach of any medium—and it is free. Historically, some of its first and most important functions were not for entertainment but for safety and security; it was used to share information about agriculture, public health, government policies, important cultural events, and even to provide medical care in geographically remote areas. Although local over-air stations may appear to be surviving against all odds, they continue to glean strong support from the NAB, and globally, radio is still going strong.
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