"Bang, Bang, Bang": Whether It's on Your Favorite Top-40 Station or NPR, Radio News Is a Much Faster-Paced Affair Than It Was in the Past

By Wenner, Kathryn S. | American Journalism Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

"Bang, Bang, Bang": Whether It's on Your Favorite Top-40 Station or NPR, Radio News Is a Much Faster-Paced Affair Than It Was in the Past


Wenner, Kathryn S., American Journalism Review


Radio news sure doesn't sound like it used to.

Twenty-five years ago, every station did news. Every station had to, if it wanted its FCC license renewed. Listeners knew when the news came on, because the regular programming stopped, and the sound of the voice changed. News delivery was formal, serious. Just like the stories. You didn't have to go looking for the news by switching away from your favorite music station, The news came to you, for three to five minutes at the top and bottom of the hour in morning and afternoon drive, and at noon, on small- and medium-market stations especially, for a good 10 to 15 minutes.

Those days are gone. These days, what's considered news on a music station could be a country star's visit to Moscow or the latest in the life of a sports hero, information delivered by a disc jockey speaking in chatty bullet points. Even if an anchor delivers what sounds like a local newscast, she could be hundreds or thousands of miles away, and her newscast no longer than a brisk 60 seconds. Only on an all-news or news/talk station are you likely to find a network newscast, and they sound different, too. Faster. Shorter stories. Lots of actualities, or sound bites, of only a few words each.

Of course, it all sounds a lot better. In the old days, a network feed sounded sort of hollow, since, after all, it came over copper telephone wires. And you could tell overseas correspondents were really, really far away Now, the voices in a newscast are clear, thanks to digital technology You no longer have to strain to understand what they're saying.

Ask the survivors, the guys who run the big network and local news operations (and most of them are guys), to name the most significant changes that have affected radio news over the last quarter century, and they generally cite three: the evolution of computers and satellite technology; the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which got rid of the cap on how many stations a company could own nationwide and raised the number one could own in a single market; and deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission, which in the early 1980s scrapped the requirement that stations had to air a certain amount of news and public affairs programming.

The news requirement disappeared when the FM dial was burgeoning with music stations. Spurred by the success of what had begun as "underground" rock stations in the late '60s and early '70s, the radio marketplace became increasingly competitive. To attract specific audiences, stations began to narrow their playlists, giving birth to niche programming. To save money, many station owners trimmed their news staffs; others got rid of them completely.

"It was at that time [in the late '70's] where we tried to focus on how to get news on these kinds of radio stations, because in fact program directors, and many to this day, do not believe that there should be news on their music radio stations," says Harvey Nagler, vice president, CBS News, Radio, who was then managing editor at RKO Radio Networks.

"We tried--very successfully, with over 500 radio stations--to convince them that news did deserve a place on their stations," Nagler says. "We tried to keep the news to a format, to a style that fit in with the presentation on their music radio station. And the delivery, even on all-news and news/talk, was more conversational. Twenty-five years ago and before, it was this booming radio voice that you heard coming out of the radio."

Nagler credits RKO with leading the way on another enormous change. In the late '70s, "the definition of news was more, 'What did the New York Times print?' and, 'What's going on in Washington?'" It became, he says, "'What are people talking about, what's of interest to people, and what affects them?'"

So to stay in the radio business, the networks expanded their offerings under a broadened definition of news. …

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