Radio is Reborn in the Internet Age

Laura Fedele, new media manager at WFUV, in WFUV recording studio. Photo Credit: Curtis Brodner

by Curtis Brodner

Andres Cordoba doesn’t own a radio. There was a time though, when radio was the centerpiece of a sacred ritual for him, steeped in the warm glow of childhood remembered.

Cordoba comes from a lower-middle class family and his dad was a salesman. As soon as school let out he would hit the road with dad to make sales calls until night fell, when they would pick his mom up from work. “We had this one station,” Cordoba says smiling wistfully, “Magic 106.7… and we would just drive through Boston because no one wanted to go home, because we didn’t really want to go to the place where we lived at and we would just listen for hours to soft rock and he’d just be talking over the radio every so often like ‘this one’s for Caroline, have a nice sleep Caroline.’ It was such a comfort, such a soul-wrapping comfort and I really miss that. I wish I had it still.”

Times have changed and Cordoba, who co-hosts two radio shows on WPSR, Purchase’s student-run radio station, doesn’t listen to the radio on the radio anymore. He’s not alone.

Radio reaches an impressive 93.36 percent of Americans, according to a 2017 study by Nielsen Audio, but the ways in which Americans are consuming audio content are changing. Digital radio listenership for Americans 12 and older grew from 12 percent in 2007 to 53 percent in 2017, according to Nielsen.

Podcasts are another growing alternative to traditional broadcast radio. Monthly podcast listening amongst Americans is up from 12 percent in 2013 to 24 percent in 2017, according to a study from Edison Research.

As the radio landscape changes, stations are forced to adapt or be left behind. WPSR switched from broadcasting over airwaves to online streaming five years ago. The broadcast antenna still sits in the hallway outside the studio — a skeletal relic from a dead era. Lauren Ruggiero, the WPSR manager, says “the biggest reason for the transition was nobody had radios.”

For WPSR, freedom from Federal Communications Commission regulations is an added bonus. “I love being able to curse on the show,” says Loisa Fenichell, a WPSR host. “I don’t curse very often by any means, but just knowing that I can and knowing that I don’t have to think about what I say [is helpful].” Her show, “In Flux,” is loosely modeled on therapy and relies on candor and lack of inhibition.

WPSR records every show to give hosts the option of putting out their work as a podcast.

“I’ve always enjoyed the process of relistening to a podcast you do and editing it together, because you know when it goes flat you can cut that,” says Cordoba. “You can cut bits that don’t work, extend bits that did work. That whole process is awesome.” Fenichell agrees, but recognizes that there’s a tradeoff. “I feel a little bit torn… I think it could be cool if we were to sit down and plan it out a little bit more, but at the same time… it’s very cathartic, very therapeutic, and that element wouldn’t be there anymore, and I would miss that.”

Anyone with a computer and the know-how can make a podcast. Apple reported 250,000 unique podcasts on iTunes in 2013, when American podcast listenership was half of what it is now. “It used to be more of a Wild West-type format,” says Ruggiero. “I think even four years ago you could be an independent podcaster and get quite a base, but now you have to be a part of NPR or Feral Audio, or all those other networks to have a listener base.”

Radio shows with built-in fan bases are in a unique position to capitalize on the podcast format. The Podcast “This American Life,” which sits at No. 11 on the iTunes charts, started airing on NPR in 1995. “Radiolab,” No. 25 on iTunes, began as a WNYC radio show in 2003.

Fordham University’s WFUV is the largest university station in the New York metropolitan area, with 345,000 broadcast listeners and 108,000 online listeners. WFUV was an early adopter of online streaming and began broadcasting online in 1998. Unlike WPSR, though, they still broadcast on good, old-fashioned air waves as well.

“We just try to make sure that we are available everywhere we can be,” says Laura Fedele, the new media director at WFUV. “That, yes, we have our own app, but if you like Tunein, we’re on Tunein. If you listen to iHeartRadio, we’re on there. We’re an NPR member station—if you have the NPR app, you can listen to us through that. We’re just trying to make it easy and convenient.”

WPSR has shunned radio streaming apps in order to maintain its high level of independence. “We get approached a lot about becoming part of apps,” says Ruggiero. “But they regulate content a lot of the time, and they want to monetize on students’ original content, and we don’t want to have to tell our DJ’s what to do and what not to do.”

WPSR is relatively small and funded by Purchase College, so it can afford to ignore radio apps as a source of income and accessibility. Only 4 percent of WFUV’s roughly $6 million budget is underwritten by Fordham University, though. The commercial-free radio station uses the internet as means for both convenience and monetization.

When you consider that almost half of WFUV’s budget comes from listener support, it becomes evident why maximizing access is so imperative. Being able to access WFUV in the most convenient way possible keeps veterans coming back and let’s new listeners turn to addicts with ease. More listeners means more donors.

Social media is another powerful tool that radio stations use to connect with current listeners and reach new fans. “The digital realm gives us a really great way to connect with our listeners, and it’s really been an advantage,” says Fedele. “Whether we’re having conversations on Facebook or whether we’re going in depth about certain artists on the website… it means that we can have a tighter relationship and a more direct personal relationship with our listeners.”

WFUV pays for targeted Facebook ads that use keywords to find the right audience. If WFUV has an artist like Kurt Vile performing live on air, then a Facebook ad might be shown to users who “like” Kurt Vile around the world. “There’s a billion people on Facebook and we do great things that nobody else does,” says Fedele. “So I don’t care if you’re in Spokane or Cincinnati… if they happen to like what we do, you can listen from anywhere.”

Before the internet, local radio stations were confined to the reach of their signal. Now even small shows can form global communities through the web. “There are people in other countries and little random parts of Middle America who are scrolling through podcast websites and looking for anything that catches their eye,” says Cordoba. “You’ll one day realize that you have a little group of fans in Kansas from this one little town who listen to every one of your shows… it’s cool when you touch people like that.”

WPSR isn’t paying for targeted ads, but Facebook is still one of the strongest promotional tools at its disposal. Fans are updated through the dedicated Facebook page, live shows are promoted through Facebook events and some shows, like the social justice program PUSH Radio, have taken to video streaming their broadcasts on the platform.

Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr are all used by WPSR to remind listeners to listen, but Elizabeth Kaiser, public relations chair at WPSR, is focused on making physical promotions like zines, T-shirts, patches and posters to supplement students non-stop diet of social media. “I think the physical promotion is a little bit more tangible,” she says. “It’s not every day that you get a zine, but you get invited to Facebook pages and events every day…The flip side of that is that these are limited, whereas the stuff we do online can be shared an infinite amount of times.”

Fedele works with many elements of WFUV’s internet presence. Her “new media” moniker is purposefully vague, in order to grow alongside the ever-morphing whims of the internet. “We don’t know what’s next,” she says.

Her current project is to teach Amazon’s AI assistant Alexa to navigate WFUV’s arrangement of streams, archived shows and parallel broadcasts when prompted by voice command. It’s probably far from what she expected when she was hired as an HTML coder in 2000.

When Fedele was young, she would make mixtapes off of vinyl albums and the radio and she would listen back to them in the cassette player in her parents’ car. Today, revenue from music streaming is six times what it was in 2011, according to an RIAA survey, and only hobbyists listen to cassettes and vinyl. But Fedele isn’t threatened. “We really have a very human curation process, and it’s one of the things that separates us from Pandora or Apple Music or anything else you might want to listen to,” says Fedele. “We say it’s curation, context and community. You don’t get those things from an algorithm.”