First of all, I'd like to thank all the many people who wrote to me about a recent Take of mine, "The Death of Radio," which pondered the future of terrestrial radio after a Washington, D.C.-based casualty: WHFS. In mid-January, this historic and iconic station disappeared from the FM airwaves after what many fans considered years of malaise.
Of the many emails I received, I would describe the lion's share as touching, helpful, and poignant. Perhaps most striking was the air of commiseration throughout the messages. Only a mere handful of folks really hated what I had to say. There were also a few thoughtful arguments (these being much preferred to the hateful ones, of course) for why radio is not dead.
However, several weeks later, more emails came in, and one type in particular made me pause. "Hey!" these messages exclaimed. "WHFS is not dead yet!" Apparently, it lives on -- and, in all places I wouldn't have suspected, it's on AOL.com.
Once a Rule Breaker.
Rick also recently penned a follow-up, called "Saving America Online." I've also thought that at this point in the game, AOL has to ramp up its content and services to give its subscribers good reason to pay up. Otherwise, the search giants like Google
If there's any kind of content that people feel passionate about, it's music. You know the drill -- there's "your music" and "my music." That's how people define genres; they take it that personally. Sold-out concert tours, band T-shirts identifying one as a loyal fan, and bumper stickers revealing musical tribes and tastes are all part of the passion for music that's gone on throughout the ages. (One of my favorite stories is of the riot over the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring back in 1913.)
Given this very truth, people are signing up for satellite radio from XM Satellite Radio
With all the options available, AOL may be poised to capitalize on another trend surfacing in the often deep-seated disappointment in terrestrial radio, by creating a virtual hub for Internet radio that far exceeds choices on the FM dial.
Internet killed the radio star?
I would say about a third of the sizable stack of emails I received were from people who proclaimed that radio's not quite dead -- "here's a radio station streaming on the Internet that's great," many of them said, suggesting their favorite. And more than one person surmised that even though the current environment that I described in the Take exists, maybe the power of Internet radio is underestimated at the moment.
Despite the outpouring, my feelings on HFS's rise from the dead were mixed. I had already opined that WHFS had been dying a rather slow death over the past decade, what with its having gone from cutting-edge to dull, "hits"-based programming, a malaise that ails so many radio stations these days as they play the corporate game of trying to appease advertisers and music-industry execs at the expense of originality.
Whether WHFS.com on AOL Radio is still ignoring decades' worth of great, underappreciated music that could be played might not even be the point. Next to the link for the WHFS.com stream were other related streaming music channels: Punk U, for example, or '90s Indie, or Alternative Mix, and more. (Hey, I think I might be in heaven!)
Interestingly, though, AOL didn't just go and relaunch HFS on its own. It actually teamed up with Viacom's
Further, HFS is apparently Viacom's first Internet-only radio station. I suspect that somebody at Infinity realized that despite HFS's flagging popularity over recent years, the company had greatly underestimated the station's iconic value (and, perhaps, some listeners' hopes that one day it might return to its former programming glory). Talk about an "oops."
Same bat time, same bat channel? Not.
Regardless, it seems obvious that traditional radio has changed irreversibly and that more and more people feel marginalized. There's no excuse for a radio station to be playing the same song every time you get in the car -- or for you to switch stations and hear the same song on a competing station. (There are, of course, exceptions, like NPR, or some stations that provide local programming like news, weather, or traffic.)
On the other hand, evolution is obviously in the works, as I suggested in my Take when I discussed the concept that our society is decreasingly a "hits-based" culture. And that, of course, makes services like Sirius and XM Satellite Radio increasingly coveted -- as well as, apparently, Internet radio.
Indeed, this seems a great example of the kind of content that may just help AOL save its skin. With the 200-plus "stations" that it touts on its site -- not only my music of choice, or yours (one reader did accuse me of being arrogant and narrow-minded in my Take, and another chastised me for my denigration of the band Kansas), but also genres like Neo-Soul, Pop Remixes, Country Mix, and so forth -- it seems that AOL may have discovered niches of musical content that people feel passionate about and is giving them an avenue with which to enjoy it.
I contacted the people at AOL Radio to find out more about this offering. It turns out that for now, it's a members-only content offering; a non-members' version is expected to debut in the spring.
I stick by my thesis in my original "Death of Radio" piece about the slow, painful fadeout of traditional radio. It's unable to see what its listeners really want, and it sticks with formulaic fare that, given the changing tastes of the average consumer, will no longer work, sooner or later.
However, maybe this goes to show that disruptive shifts are taking place in the industry; one of the tenets of a Rule Breaker company, according to David Gardner, is to create a new solution to an old problem. Whether you jam out to "your" music using your iPod, fire up your satellite radio, or stream music through your Internet connection, whether through AOL or one of many other sources, you're enjoying the options that technology -- and Rule Breaking companies -- have afforded you. It's enough to make you say: Radio is dead. Long live radio.
For related Foolishness, see:
- The Death of Radio
- AOL, Road Runner Make Fast Friends
- When AOL Was a Rule Breaker
- Saving America Online