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Do-It-Yourself Radio

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

If you're a devotee of this radio station, or of National Public Radio in general, you probably don't spend a lot of time listening to other radio stations.

Any yet the whole landscape of broadcasting is changing, and everyone, including NPR, is being affected. In its 80 years of existence, over-the-air radio has fended off broadcast television, records, cassettes, 8-tracks, cable TV and the early days of the Internet. But it's having a much tougher time competing with hand-held digital music players like iPods, of which there are at least 20 million.

Radio stations are also up against music download services, Internet radio stations streaming music via cell phones and various other gadgets and programs that allow people to pick and choose what they want to listen to, and when.

Even CD players, now installed in all new cars, have had an impact. I certainly prefer to choose what music I hear and play it through crystal-clear speakers rather than listen to yet another nine-minute block of shrieking car commercials. Never mind the yammering and guffawing that passes for morning radio on most AM stations.

These days, young people sick of repetitive playlists and moronic promotions disguised as contests are opting for do-it-yourself programming. A study by the Knowledge Agency found that the iPod is fast becoming a replacement for radios, especially portable ones.

"Eighteen-to-30-year-old radio listeners now want content that is more personalized and more directly relevant to their own tastes and needs," the Knowledge Agency said, according to OnlineReporter.com.

Traditional broadcasters are also up against satellite radio. A recent report said it will be the fastest growing medium in the next five years, even if it means that, to listen to it, you have to buy a special receiver and pay about $13 a month.

This Friday, Howard Stern plans to leave his current employer, Infinity Broadcasting, to take up a new job next month on Sirius Satellite Radio, where his particular brand of vulgarity won't be subject to censorship by the Federal Communications Commission. And a lot of people may be listening.

Sirius and its main competitor, XM, have spent $750 million on promotion for their offerings, and some analysts predict that satellite radio will capture 50 million listeners by the end of the decade.

In contrast, the traditional radio industry "appears to be mired in economic doldrums," according to a report last month by the Dickstein Shapiro law firm.

Adi Kishore, director of the media team at the Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston, said by phone that it is "incumbent on the radio stations to expand their product offerings and increase their value to the consumer."

And that's just what the broadcast radio industry is finally doing. Last week, several U.S. radio companies announced an industry alliance to promote new high definition radio broadcasts, the Reuters news agency said. Eight companies will devote about $200 million in airtime to promote HD radio, which delivers much higher quality sound and may eventually allow listeners to either pause, rewind or possibly buy digital songs over the air at the touch of a button. The new stations, dubbed HD2, will initially contain no commercials and will be free.

About 600 radio stations in the U.S. are already broadcasting in high-definition quality, including this one and dozens of other NPR stations. The digital technology allows the stations to split their signals, meaning that they can offer several programs simultaneously where before they could offer only one.

In their announcement last week, the commercial radio executives said they would re-focus on their local markets, with a premium on local talk, sports, weather and traffic. Returning to their roots seems like a good idea.

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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