By: Mike Austerman
Our family returned home yesterday following a nearly two week vacation in Pennsylvania. We drove over 1,700 miles and spent a total of zero minutes listening to local radio during that journey. The kids, ages 8 and nearly 6, were either watching DVD's, finding different license plates (we found 43 states, 2 provinces, and Washington DC), or just listening to XM Satellite Radio's XM Kids channel. My wife and I listened to various XM channels exclusively and didn't miss FM or AM radio.
It used to be that a radio fan like myself would drive the other passengers crazy turning the radio knob to try and listen to as much local flavor via the radio as possible. But in recent times, much of that is gone, replaced by a sound that is about the same no matter if you're in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, or many of the smaller towns in between. Although some of those similarities are no doubt because of programming strategies that are much more national in structure than ever before, I think a lot of it also has to do with the way national chain stores have taken over our shopping malls.
Get off the interstate nearly anywhere and those plazas are filled with the same stores and restaurants as at home. So instead of hearing ads from local stores on the radio when you're out of town, it's the same jingles and voices pitching the same things. While it might be comforting to know that your favorite big box retailer is always just down the street, knowing I'd pretty much be hearing the same stuff in between the same songs didn't inspire me enough to check out broadcast radio. While it's still fun to surf the radio dial, it's just a lot easier now to do it via the Internet from home instead of bugging the family with constantly changing stations and dealing with reception problems. Family harmony is a good thing when you're spending countless hours together in a vehicle.
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One of the biggest highlights of our trip was a visit to Washington DC where we toured XM's headquarters/studios. It was the first time either of my boys had been invited to see a radio station, so it was pretty cool to be able to see several of them at one time. All of the gadgets and rows of studios left an impression on the kids, but it was the people that they met that really made the biggest impact. Our boys really got a kick out of meeting personalities Absolutely Mindy and Kenny Curtis from XM Kids and now understand that there are real people behind those voices that come out of the radio and just how much work it is to create an entertaining broadcast.
While we were in the studio of the 60's on 6 channel, morning host Phlash Phelps played his alphabet game on the air with my oldest son Everett, much to his pleasure. Youngest son Daniel now loves to sing the station's top of the hour jingle featuring "The Beatles". But what struck me the most was that the attitude around the place was friendly and fun, despite the looming uncertainty of the pending merger with Sirius. It was amazing to witness everything that has been invested in the creation of XM - and although the delivery mechanism is different than traditional FM/AM, it clearly still is radio if only because of the people that work there.
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It used to be that going away on vacation during the beginning of July would mean some kind of surprising change in Detroit radio. Sometimes it'd be a format switch or maybe just a big change in a station's on-air lineup. This year, it was almost disappointing to return home and discover that the only big media news was happening on TV with the controversy involving Channel 2's Fanchon Stinger.
While it's never fun to see anyone lose their job for whatever reason, the uncertainty of radio is kind of what makes it interesting to those on the outside looking in.
It's really hard these days for radio stations to pull off a really big surprise. With the popularity of Internet message boards, the news of a change is often leaked by either insiders at the station or by someone with connections to a big advertiser and it doesn't take long for the news to travel and get repeated either in a newspaper or in the trade publications.
So now, the most fun seems to be trying to determine which rumors are legitimate and which ones are nothing more than pure speculation. Kinda makes me wish for the old days when you never had a clue what was going to come out of your speakers when you returned back from up north and frantically scanned the radio dial to see if you missed another big switch.
Maybe next year.
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Mike Austerman covered radio for the Oakland Press from September 2001 through April 2008 and can be reached at email@example.com or at PO Box 99392, Troy MI 48099.