We're In The Golden Age Of Television. So Why Aren't We In The Golden Age Of Radio?
May 26, 2015
The consensus among television critics is that we are witnessing the medium's second Golden Age (the first began in the late 40s and ran through the early 60s). As a notorious binge-watcher who can quote freely from The Wire, The West Wing, and Lost, I revel in our current embarrassment of riches. But it leaves me asking, "Why aren't we also in the Golden Age of Radio?"
Here are a few theories:
1. More companies are producing television content, while fewer are producing radio content.
One could make the argument that there's more good television programming out there simply because there's more television programming out there. Another way of saying this is that while there are more high quality shows, there are also a lot more low-quality shows. For every Mad Men or Louie, there's a Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Sweet 16.
The reason that there is so much good (and bad) television is because there are more companies than ever producing it. Once upon a time, there were just three networks. Then Fox, the WB, and UPN entered the scene. Cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and FX began investing serious money into original shows. And now Netflix, Amazon, and Yahoo! have entered the arena.
Meanwhile, the radio industry deregulated, allowing companies to buy up more stations. Instead of more content creators, we now have fewer. And with the introduction of PPM, less and less of the content on radio station airwaves is original content created by in-house on-air personalities. Tighter breaks, tighter rotations, tighter playlists. While TV has been creating more, radio is creating less.
Of course, technology is what allowed more content creators to enter the television space. Cable television was a new way to deliver video content, as is on-demand streaming. This allowed new players to enter the television space and create original, compelling content. Radio, on the other hand, has been using the same technology to deliver its content for decades: the AM and FM bands. This method limits the number of content creators that can enter the marketplace. While that protects the status quo companies in the short run, it also drives the quality of the content down in the long run. That may be why the most interesting experiments in audio content are happening elsewhere, like on Sirius or in podcasts.
2. TV invests in talent. Radio doesn't.
There was a time when big-name movie stars wouldn't be caught dead doing television. But as the medium has increased its quality, it has also attracted major talent. Martin Sheen, Kevin Spacey, Keifer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon...the list goes on and on.
Meanwhile, radio isn't attracting -- or even retaining -- talent in the same way. Sure, there are plenty of celebrities who launched their careers in radio -- Dr. Drew, Sean Hannity, Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly -- but radio often lets its talent escape to television or other mediums. Howard Stern abandoned terrestrial radio for Sirius. And many of the most successful podcasters, like Adam Carolla and Marc Maron, are former radio personalities who have left radio for good.
Radio isn't just letting talent escape from the top of the ladder; it's also failing to train those at the bottom. Creativity is discouraged in favor of tight, boring, PPM-friendly breaks. Ultimately, this encourages creative talent to pursue other channels. If you're a teenager who wants to be the next Jimmy Kimmel or Ira Glass, it's much easier to launch a YouTube channel than to try to get your foot in the door at a radio station.
3. TV has been let off the leash. Radio hasn't.
Over the years, television has been allowed to deal with more and more complicated subjects. The boundaries of broadcast television have been pushed by shows like NYPD Blue and Will & Grace, while cable channels and streaming providers have had an even freer hand. Shows like Transparent and American Horror Story simply wouldn't have existed years ago.
Radio, on the other hand, has grown more tame. While shock jocks like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony once pushed the edge of the envelope, they have now been relegated to non-terrestrial outlets.
But this isn't just about shock value; it's about a variety of subject matter. While television has channels dedicated to everything from food to travel to science fiction to children's shows, radio is limited to news, sports, religion, conservative politics, and a handful of music formats. We really can't find enough people who are interested in listening to stand-up comedy or game shows or horror?
4. TV writes. Radio doesn't.
I am a huge fan of TV writers. From Joss Whedon to Aaron Sorkin to Dan Harmon, I pay close attention to the person turning out the scripts. And the writers and the showrunners make a huge difference.
But radio doesn't use them. Morning show producers have fallen victim to budget cuts. And as every jock has been asked to voicetrack their show so they can pull double-duty on Selector or in the production studio, the emphasis on show prep has diminished.
5. TV repackages its content. Radio doesn't.
Some of my favorite TV shows didn't make it, including Freaks and Geeks, Better Off Ted, and Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23. But increasingly, great television shows have found homes by transferring to other mediums. There are classic cases, like the original Star Trek, which was canceled but found life in syndication, eventually spawning several hit feature films and many more television series. Strong DVD sales led to the resurrection of Family Guy, and brought Firefly back to life as a movie. Kickstarter enabled Veronica Mars to return as a feature film. Netflix revived Arrested Development. And thanks to Yahoo!, Community may in fact live to see "six seasons and a movie."
Radio doesn't offer alternative channels where its content can entertain a passionate-if-not-massive audience. It offers only one option: on the airwaves or not at all. Radio might be able to develop more compelling content if it had a place where it could nurture concepts and let them find an audience.
6. Maybe we are in the Golden Age of Audio Content. Maybe it's just not on the radio.
There's a lot of great audio content being produced out there. Have you heard Serial? Or WTF? Or This Week in Tech? Or Grammar Girl? Or The Slate Political Gabfest? Or Invisibilia? Or Entrepreneur on Fire?
Plenty of other people have. They just haven't heard them on the radio.
Got a theory about the Golden Age of Radio? Leave it in the comments.