In February 2014, a church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, called Iglesia De Restauraction, El Monte De Los Olivos opened a radio station. Just four years later, the FCC cancelled its license to operate KHVJ-LP, a low-power FM station, because it had stopped broadcasting. The radio station had gone completely silent at some point prior to October 2016.
Some, like Larry S. Miller, would say that the story of KHVJ-LP is a clear sign that traditional radio is dying.
In 2017, just a year after KHVJ-LP shut its doors, Musonomics, a provider of strategy consulting and analytics for and about the music industry founded by Miller, released a report titled Paradigm Shift: Why Radio Must Adapt To The Rise Of Digital. In it, Miller, who is also director of the Steinhardt Music Business Program at New York University, offers a bleak prediction about what will become of the radio industry in the 2020s.
“While it was able to survive and adapt to the introduction of television, new digital services are beginning to change the way people listen to music, endangering radio once again,” he writes. “Radio is declining as a source to discover new music. Younger music fans are increasingly turning to sites like YouTube to find new artists and songs, leaving radio in the lurch.”
In 2007, upwards of 70% of teens reported that they’d listened to the radio at least once during a three-month period. By 2013, that number had dropped to 56%. And it’s still going down.
“As teens continue to be presented with more digital options and grow increasingly literate in using online music services, we can expect this number to drop even further,” Miller concludes. “Having grown up as true digital natives, this generation is uninterested in AM/FM radio and prefers the interactivity and personalization of digital services.”
Radio holds a special place in the collective historic consciousness of Americans, colored with a nostalgic tinge of sentimental sociability, of retro bonhomie, as families and friends are pictured gathering together to listen to the news, a baseball game or the Top 40.
But that image is from another era that’s become known as the Golden Age of Radio. It lasted for just three decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Then came the era of television, and the first big threat to radio’s cultural dominance.
Still, radio soldiered on through the end of the 20th century, with stations constantly narrowing and shifting their formats to all music, all news, all sports, and ever-more niche topics like conservative talk and the religious programming of KHVJ-LP.
In the 21st century, it’s digital that’s threatening the hegemony of radio. From podcasts to Spotify to YouTube, just about every radio format has been replicated on myriad digital platforms. And the traditional places we’ve listened to radio — at home and in the car — are being digitized.
Smart speakers, like the Google Home and Amazon Echo, are being added to homes in increasing numbers. And they aren’t radio-friendly.
“Unlike cars and traditional home audio receivers, smart speakers access wi-fi networks and don’t have an AM/FM antenna at all,” Miller notes.
But it’s the new cars coming on the market that radio broadcasters should be worried about.
Writes Miller, “The connected car and its multiple audio offerings may be the greatest threat to AM/FM radio broadcasting, with 75% of new cars expected to be connected by 2020.”
“Growth in the number of radio listeners was flat at about 1 percent a year from 2016 to 2017,” Judann Pollack reported in Ad Age in 2018. “While time spent with radio is in a slow-drip decline of 0.5 to 1 percent a year.”
Meanwhile, radio ad spending dropped by $3.2 billion over a 10-year period starting in 2006.
“Indications are that radio’s favor with local advertisers and local audiences is declining, as mobile and digital options are better able to deliver accurately within local markets,” Miller reports.
Even so, the FCC’s own records seem to tell a different story about the impending demise of radio.
The year KHVJ-LP shut down, the FCC reported there were 15,516 radio stations in operation around the U.S. Twenty years earlier, in 1996, there were just 12,140. Right now, 2,171 low-power FM stations like KHVJ-LP are up and running throughout the country, a 30% jump from the 1,678 stations that were broadcasting the year the Oklahoma-based church decided to get into the radio game.
But digital still may triumph over radio. Not because of listeners or advertisers.
Because of record labels.
“Broadcast stations pay no royalties to record labels for the use of master recordings — the U.S. is the only country with developed intellectual-property laws where this is the case. Digital services do, which makes them more valuable to labels,” Jem Aswad noted in Variety. “Streaming is now playing an important part in determining which songs are played on radio rather than the other way around.”