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The Death of Radio

By Alyce Lomax (TMF Lomax)
January 13, 2005

When I was about 12 years old, growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, a spot on the FM dial changed my life forever. It was a radio station called WHFS (or, to many, "HFS," which originally stood for "High Fidelity Stereo"), and it specialized in underground, progressive, alternative music -- whatever name you want to give it -- under the auspices of a lineup of memorable, quirky DJs with names like Damian and Weasel. Yesterday, with little fanfare (heck, no fanfare), that venerated radio station died.

Within a five-minute timeframe around noon yesterday, the station, which is owned by Viacom's (NYSE: VIA) Infinity Broadcasting, switched to a Spanish-language format, and it will now be called El Zol. I get it; the media covets the growing Hispanic demographic. However, it still seemed rather shocking that a station with such historical value -- it's been around for about 30 years -- would simply sign off.

On the other hand, when you consider its pioneering roots, HFS has been in the process of dying for a very long time. It had changed a lot from the radio station that, starting about 30 years ago, played true cutting-edge music -- I took up with it in the early '80s, when it made clear that there was more to music than Top 40 drivel like Journey, Kansas, or Loverboy.

For anyone who considers himself or herself a true "alternative music" aficionado, though, WHFS lost its edge a little more than 10 years ago, when it started playing the corporate-radio game with a series of owners, the last of which was Infinity. It played music that was marketed as "alternative" but was really watered-down hits with a flimsy buzz phrase to appease advertisers. Slowly, the old stalwart DJs who had made HFS an icon were fired, pushed out, or otherwise let go, replaced with frat-boy Howard Stern knockoffs. (And while I have a lot of respect for Howard and his loyal fan base, let me just say: Accept no imitations. There only needs to be one Howard Stern.)

In the words of my friend Dave as he took in the news about HFS, "The wages of sucking is death." Indeed. HFS hasn't taken a musical chance in years, although maybe many of its listeners were holding onto that glimmer of hope (as well as the reality that D.C. terrestrial radio has few alternatives -- no pun intended). My favorite time to listen to it was during its "Flashback Caf�" segments on Sundays, the only time the station played anything even remotely interesting (in the form of nostalgia, of course).

So you're wondering, what does the death of a venerated radio station that slowly faded after a painful, decade-long case of the borings have to do with investing? Well, it reminds me that the writing is on the wall when it comes to certain media businesses. What HFS once was -- and should have been to this day -- is currently in the realm of satellite radio providers like XM Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: XMSR) and Sirius (Nasdaq: SIRI), both of which provide specific, genre-oriented stations for music lovers of many divergent tastes.

Meanwhile, certain changes are under way that are opening consumers up to much, much more than "top hits" or "blockbusters," or other such mass-released pablum, for that matter. A Wired magazine article recently described it as "The Long Tail" effect. That's when popular Internet sites like Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN), Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX), and many others offer users intuitive recommendations: "If you like X, you'll also like Z." It's changing the whole landscape in terms of giving people what they want, based on their tastes -- and giving terrestrial radio, for one, one more thing to worry about since it so often insists on serving up packaged "hits" where listeners are offered the same irritating, overplayed dross, hour after tiresome hour.

Radio, as we've known it, is dead. The news about HFS obviously struck a chord with me, but with satellite radio, Internet radio, and things like Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iTunes (or even the iPod Shuffle!) revolutionizing music and giving listeners more options than ever before, chances are it won't be missed. 

For more on satellite radio, check out these pieces by longtime Fool Rick Munarriz:

Love music? Do you ignore terrestrial radio? Talk to people on the XM or Sirius discussion boards, or share your iTunes playlists on our iTunes Music Store Playlists discussion board.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned, although she has long thought the banality of terrestrial radio would translate into good things for satellite radio companies.