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Have We Reached the End of the FM Dial? (Guest Post)

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Scott "DJ Skee" Keeney is a longtime producer, curator, DJ, television host and veteran terrestrial and satellite radio personality, as well as the founder of digital broadcast network Dash Radio, which he debuted in 2014.

On May 10, the news broke that Emmis Communications was planning to sell Los Angeles hip-hop mainstay Power 106 for almost $83 million. While that number might seem impressive at first glance, it pales in comparison to Radio One’s acquisition of 92.3 FM for nearly $500 million in 2000, or the 2008 sale of 100.3 FM for $137 million. Add to this a bevy of well-publicized problems at iHeartRadio, and the future doesn’t look very bright for traditional AM and FM stations.

Certainly, plenty of people still listen to the radio -- it is still the No. 1 source of audio consumption -- and in certain genres it remains the most important way to get in front of a potential audience. Country radio, for instance, has a unique relationship with the artist community, but consolidation in the space has tightened playlists and the audience is now beginning to push back. But in genres like hip-hop, the most powerful tastemaker is no longer the program director at a big station; instead, labels now focus on courting playlist curators at streaming services, and many stations have taken to following their lead. FM radio has lost its foundation of introducing artists to the world and turned into a follower instead of a leader in breaking music, often not playing songs that have peaked digitally until months later.

There is also more competition for listeners than ever before. The rise of podcasting means that many people are simply tuning out talk radio and listening to programs like “S-Town” or “Pod Save America” while they commute. Streaming radio stations and interactive services offer much richer alternatives in terms of content, and cars are increasingly offering those apps directly in the dashboard, so a driver doesn't even need to worry about plugging in a phone or draining the battery. Long gone are the days when you had to lug around cassettes or CDs in order to have an alternative to whatever was on the dial.

The other reasons to listen to radio have largely shifted to the phone as well. Who needs a traffic report from the other side of town when Waze and Google Maps can tell you exactly where to go? Who needs local news headlines when you just download a podcast every morning, or get the news you want sent directly to you? There are hundreds of weather apps and entertainment news sources, and plenty of comedy podcasts if you need some witty banter.

And terrestrial radio simply hasn’t kept up with the times. Tight rotations, syndicated shows, force-fed music, and long commercial breaks feel stale at this point, especially for a generation raised on ad-free streaming they control. Even ads on streaming services are shorter and more customized, and on podcasts, it’s much more integrated and fairly easy to fast-forward through if you desire. FM stations now find themselves in the same place as old taxi companies when faced with Uber and Lyft -- rather than competing to get better, they simply dug in and doubled down, focusing on simulcasting FM feeds digitally in apps, and it’s not working well for either party.

Paradoxically, the thing that once made old-school radio great -- the localization -- is now evident online. After a wave of consolidation in the nineties, terrestrial radio lost its community; now, micro-stations online are focusing on discovering new music and sub-genres. There are still plenty of people for whom flipping on the radio is the path of least resistance -- but those numbers are ever-dwindling. 

With Tesla not including an AM antenna in its new vehicles like the Model X, instead opting for apps, and the connected car finally coming of age, it’s not a question of if FM radio disappears -- but when. Combine this with users shifting away to more robust options that are becoming easily available, the internet -- not video -- may have finally killed the radio star for good.

All this being said, radio definitely has a place in the ecosystem. It still accounts for more than half of all audio listening, and is cited as the No. 1 source of music discovery. But FM seems headed in the direction of the tape deck and the CD player as it transforms digitally into a much better format for users, and for artists as well. In the future, station ownership won’t be limited to massive companies who only focus on the bottom line, but will be open to those who want to build great products from the ground up.