Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Local Radio Provides More Than One Kind of Rhythm

(From the May 10, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

I have always been fascinated with radio. As I kid, I remember working with my brother to build our own radio in the basement. I was thrilled when it worked. We turned the dial and shouted with glee when we heard broadcasts. It was astonishing to think that this sound just came through the air all around us, like magic.

As I grew up, my interest in radio continued. I was more particularly concerned with content, such as finding out about new music to staying informed with news reports. As a media communication scholar, I am again fascinated with the technology of radio, ranging from iTunes, podcasts and MP3 players to satellite and high definition (HD) radio. But as complicated as radio becomes, there is one thing I will never take for granted: the local radio station.

That’s why I was particularly interested to read that WGHN, our local station, will potentially be sold to a man from outside the community. My heart sank a bit as I pondered the possibility that WGHN would become like a fast food franchise, offering the same menu of content as countless other stations belonging to some giant conglomerate owner. WGHN would cease to be “the rhythm of the lakeshore” and become merely an economic interest for someone from far outside the station’s broadcast signal.

But things don’t look so bad. Will Tieman, a Lansing man who founded the Spartan Sports Network, is not a conglomerate. If the Federal Communications Commission approves the sale of WGHN, it will be the first and only station he owns, according to local news reports. He has also indicated he wants to keep WGHN a local station, including maintaining the staff and programming. He plans to visit leaders and residents of WGHN’s coverage area, which also is a sign that the station will continue to reflect the uniqueness of the area.

Having a radio station that is responsive to and in touch with the local community is important for a variety of reasons. WGHN itself has a section on its Web site proclaiming “the importance of local radio.” It cites a study by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters in which a large majority of Michigan residents surveyed indicated they continue to listen to local radio in spite of the emergence of satellite and Internet radio.

Other national studies indicate why so many of us still are loyal to local radio. A 2000 study by the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) revealed that 90 percent of national survey respondents think an important function of radio is to inform people about community events. Additionally, three-fourths said that radio should identify community problems, and a majority said local news is very important as compared with national news. A 2005 study by Arbitron, a company that measures radio station audiences, said that even those with iPods and satellite radio listen to “terrestrial” radio only 15 minutes less per day.

The federal government has long been concerned about the “public interest” of local radio as well. The government has authority to regulate the radio and television business because they use ‘public property”—the air around us—to broadcast on a limited spectrum of frequencies or channels. That’s why way back in 1941 it established rules about local radio ownership. These rules are reconsidered regularly, and changed in 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act. The FCC is currently studying how station ownership in the current market affects programming and radio station audiences. But the current rules still limit the number of stations a single entity can own in a given market, depending on market size. Part of the reason for this limit is to create a level playing field for business, that no one owner could monopolize a radio market. But there’s also the concern that local communities have local programming.

Everyone has different musical tastes and preferences for news sources. But local radio still has an important niche that no one else can beat—local information and flavor. WGHN has been filling that niche for years, and we’re lucky that it appears they will continue to do so with new owners.

Consider what WGHN offers to the Tri-Cities area. First of all, there’s the local news. You can’t hear local election results on satellite radio or some station that’s programmed from out of state. WGHN even won two awards for news last year—from the Associated Press and the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. They also give local weather with a local insight. At times I’ve heard a host comment on the view of the channel from the studios at One South Harbor. That’s specific local information!

WGHN also provides a host of local information no other station can provide. There have been times I’ve lingered in the locker room at the YMCA to hear the closing minutes of a local high school sports contest. The proprietors of the Bookman, a locally owned bookstore, come on the air to recommend new books. The station does live remote broadcasts with other local businesses, such as City Farmer. The station profiles local nonprofit organizations and broadcasts local church services.

I’m still fascinated with radio, including the rapidly changing technology. But, perhaps because of the explosion of radio and other media technology, the thing I appreciate about local radio more than anything else is the sense of community it provides. When WGHN offers us the “rhythm of the lakeshore,” they are not only providing a musical backdrop for our daily lives. The station and all that they broadcast reflect and contribute to rhythm of life itself for all of us fortunate enough to live on the lakeshore.