1. The title of your book is Radio's Digital Dilemma. Can you sum up for us what this dilemma is?
U.S. radio broadcasters are encountering significant problems with their digital transition. Television moved from analog to digital transmission in the '00s, after spending more than two decades developing a suitable technology and working with lawmakers and regulators to find spectrum on which to deploy their new HDTV signals. Radio's digital transition was not so well-planned: the industry basically hacked together a system that does more harm than good for the medium, as they were more worried about blocking new competition from the digital radio world than they were about meaningfully expanding the communicative potential of radio itself. The system the U.S. has adopted, called HD Radio, is also the product of the nation's largest broadcast conglomerates, and embodies their corporate values—which puts them in opposition to the majority of station-owners, who are not part of the conglomerates. Now U.S. broadcasters are saddled with a hackneyed, underwhelming technology, and the digital transition has effectively stalled as a result. Meanwhile, new forms of "radio," such as streaming services and satellite broadcasts, are siphoning listeners away from traditional broadcasters, who just now seem to be waking up to the fact that they no longer have a monopoly on radio. How this all plays out, and whether or not the digital transition can be salvaged or improved, is the dilemma.
2. You are a former radio journalist, could you tells us how you got into this field in the first place?
I started working as a professional broadcast journalist in the early 1990s, while I was still in college as an undergrad. I graduated in 1996—the same year that the U.S. Congress passed a sweeping update to the Telecommunications Act. This legislation radically deregulated the radio industry, allowing large conglomerates to buy up thousands of stations. One of the first things these conglomerates did when they bought a station was conduct a cost-benefit analysis of each department. News is generally a money-losing department because it takes real time and actual humans to do journalism (unlike local radio DJs who've been replaced by automation and syndicated programming). So one of the first things decimated by radio's consolidation was radio journalism. Furthermore, as I moved my way up in market-size I discovered that station managers were more interested in how you sounded than the substance of your news—you become more of an entertainer and less of a journalist. So I went back to graduate school primarily to understand how and why my chosen vocation was decimated. The study of media policy and history was thus a natural fit for me.
3. A manuscript is a large undertaking. What was your vision upon starting Radio's Digital Dilemma and do you believe you have achieved your goals?
The book started out as my doctoral dissertation, but I went into that process knowing that I wanted to eventually publish a book on the subject. A dissertation is a much different animal than a book: it's laborious, pedantic, and primarily written for an audience of four people so that they will bestow you with the title of "Dr." The book itself reads more like an act of muckraking, and I'm happy it turned out that way. But radio's digital transition is ongoing, so it's tough to articulate goals for the research. If anything, I've chronicled a troubling moment in the history of U.S. broadcasting and media policy, hopefully opening some minds among broadcasters and policymakers along the way...and in 10 years or so I expect I'll either look like a genius or a fool. But that's the risk you take when you write on a subject still in flux, and also opens up the potential to write a second edition down the road.
4. What makes this title stand out from similar ones on the market?
Believe it or not, there are no other books like Radio's Digital Dilemma. All scholars aspire to explore virgin ground, and I got lucky with the subject. I think this is due in part to the popular notion that the Internet is gradually subsuming all other media technologies, including all forms of the "legacy" analog mass media, and as such most scholars believe that this convergence phenomenon is where all the action is. I think that's silly, because the act of free, over-the-air broadcasting is wholly unique and there's no sign that the Internet can or will ever fully replace it. Radio studies more broadly has been grossly neglected by scholars, but there's been a resurgence of interest in recent years. I'm hoping that my work may spark some debate and perhaps inspire others to take a closer look at broadcasting, its structure, and its values.
5. What do you believe is the future for the broadcasting industry?
I'll tell you the same thing I tell my students when they ask about the future of journalism: it's complicated, nobody has clear answers, and anybody who says they do is either ignorant or trying to sell you some bill of goods. That said, I don't see a bright future for the U.S. broadcasting industry—sure, it'll remain a big business for the foreseeable future, but at what cost to the integrity of the medium? Consolidation, syndication, and automation have already decimated many of the qualities which made radio unique and valuable, such as program diversity and local (community) service. This doesn't mean that broadcasting doesn't have a bright future, and perhaps if we start thinking about it as something more than an industry we might be able to rejuvenate the medium and innovate with it again.
Thank you John for taking the time to speak to us.