Radio, web battling for listenership

by KEITH VASS, Nanaimo News Bulletin

In Nanaimo, BC, Mike Olson and Steve Beasley are turning off local radio and tuning in to digital media.

Olson, 23, takes in about two hours a day. The Malaspina business student listens a bit in the morning waking up, but most of his radio listening is done in the car.

“The main reason is that I don’t have the connector cable for my iPod in my car,” he said.

Beasley, also a MalU student, doesn’t have that problem, his car stereo plays MP3 files. He does listen to some radio – but he does it over the computer, streaming signals from his favourite station back home in Toronto.

Their listening habits could be bad news for local broadcasters, but they’re typical of a trend across the country.

A recent study from Statistics Canada shows younger people are listening less than they did a decade ago.

At 14 hours a week, Olson’s radio listening is on par for 20-somethings across the country.

The national survey found teenagers across the country listened to 7.6 hours of radio a week, down from 8.6 hours in 2005 and 11.3 a decade ago.

Statistics Canada credits the rise of the MP3 player and online music services for radio’s sagging appeal for younger listeners.

But that might not be the only factor.

Radio itself could shoulder some of the blame, said James Booker, program director at Radio Malaspina, the campus and community station based at Malaspina University-College.

Though his own station has slowly gathered a following in six years on the air, he thinks stale formats could be boring young listeners away.

“They seem to have come up with this formula maybe 20 years or so ago when radio became more automated, just to play the hits of the day sandwiched with quite a lot of commercials.”

He also thinks radio programmers have been slow to see the Internet as real competetion.

But Booker sees big potential for radio to fill a void. The Internet might be good at providing an endless stream of news and entertainment from around the planet, but not at connecting people to their own community.

That’s where he sees opportunity for radio.

“Instead of just saying we’ve got to have more blocks of music and less commercials, which isn’t the answer, we’ve got to have more community interaction.”

“That’s one of the things our listeners tell us they value about community radio ... that it’s the community talking to the community.”

Malaspina University-College media studies professor Marian van der Zon also sees the need for more community interaction. She’s worked on several micro-radio projects and thinks the Internet can open opportunities for people to have their voices heard, even if it’s not on AM or FM.

“Audio has had quite a boost in terms of its interest probably across generations, and mostly it’s because of the accessibility of the technology. It can be really easy to get into it at low cost,” she said.

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