I’ve been a loyal listener to terrestrial radio all my life. (That’s the industry term for regular over-the-air broadcasting.) Many of my best moments with terrestrial radio have taken place in cars. In high school, we drove around in cars listening to Top 40 hits. In college, I caught the tail end of FM radio’s glory years, when DJs bound to no format played whatever caught their free-form stoner fancy.
As a young adult, I was in a long-distance relationship with the woman who became my wife. She was in Colorado, I was in Minnesota. I used to make the 1,000-mile drive to Denver straight through in my dad’s pickup. I’d get off the interstate and take the two-lane highways, listening to whatever local radio station I could pick up until its signal faded, then catching the next one. I’d hear the farm reports, whatever music they were playing and a lot of unique local programming.
In recent years, I’ve been a regular listener to sports talk on KFAN, news talk on MPR, local programming on WCCO and 24/7 holiday season music on KOOL 108.
But last month I got a new car. And it had an important feature I’ve been lusting after: satellite radio. I know I could plug in my iPod and have my own mix, but I like the serendipity of not knowing what’s coming — hearing a gem you haven’t heard in a long time, or haven’t heard at all. And the chance of that happening on terrestrial radio is increasingly remote.
Terrestrial radio is also increasingly homogenized, as corporate ownership and syndicated programming have destroyed the local autonomy of hundreds of radio stations nationwide. Now, if I made that drive to Denver, I’d likely hear the same handful of national talk shows on every AM station. There’d be few local DJs, local news reporters or local programming. Music choices would also be homogenized — beamed to the broadcast station via satellite from the mother ship, ironically, but without the variety that true satellite radio offers.
The industry has only its own greed and shortsighted creative decisions to blame. Federal deregulation in the ’90s set off a rush to consolidate that led to the rapid growth of Clear Channel, Cumulus and other radio conglomerates. Borrowing heavily to expand their empires, they overextended. Then the Great Recession cost them advertising dollars, and the appearance of iPods and satellite radio gave listeners options other than the increasingly bland and standardized fare pumped over the airwaves.
Now several of the conglomerates are hurting financially, going through round after round of layoffs, like the one that recently cost popular KFAN morning host “Superstar” Mike Morris his job at the Clear Channel-owned station.
I doubt if I’ve given up terrestrial radio for good. After the novelty of my new satellite-equipped ride has worn off, I’m sure I’ll want to check in on Kerri Miller, Dan Barreiro and other favorite local voices. And I’m not ready to say goodbye to my Saturday NPR favorites: “Car Talk,” “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and “American Routes.”
But terrestrial radio is losing me. And if they’re losing me, they’re losing the war.