Inside the waning medium's mad Humboldt hustle



Give your radio dial a spin or push the digital tuning button and take note of all the radio stations available locally: talk shows, country stations, Christian stations, hits and oldies stations targeted at various demographic slices, all vying for a piece of the listening pie.

You might think broadcast radio in a rural area like ours would be contracting in the face of new technologic advances -- the radio medium is, after all, a technology that grew up in the first half of the 20th century. As the 21st century dawned, new technologies were coming into play that threatened to make so-called "terrestrial radio" obsolete. Two satellite radio companies, XM and Sirius launched dueling commercial-free subscription services in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Around the same time Apple introduced a digital media player, the iPod, capable of holding thousands of songs.

Meanwhile broadband Internet was becoming relatively ubiquitous, making the way for streaming audio, and with it, Internet radio and podcasting. (It's worth noting that one of the top streaming media service companies in the world, StreamGuys, was founded in 2000 in Humboldt County and still has headquarters here. See "Streamers," Aug. 26, 2004.)

Despite the techno-shift, there are new radio stations entering the marketplace every time you turn around. And even with the competition, radio listenership is (slightly) up, nationally. According to reports by the audience research company Arbitron, 235 million Americans listened to the radio in a given a week in 2008, versus 232 million in 2007.

At the same time, ad revenue is down, although more so in urban areas than in small markets like ours. And the decline has more to do with the economy as a whole: Businesses that are having trouble making payroll are cutting marketing budgets across the board.

Satellite radio is not doing well either. XM and Sirius have never turned a profit. Two years ago they merged into Sirius XM Radio. As we go to press, the combined company is on the verge of bankruptcy.

Is this the right time to make a leap into radio? Perhaps not, but that hasn't stopped new stations from popping up like mushrooms locally.

The Journal staff fanned out this week to explore a few aspects of the Humboldt radio landscape. We examine the local FM dial, tuning in on a recent entrant, "all new, all hits 95.5, KZCC," and the game of FM musical chairs its entry precipitated. We pay a visit to "Old Glory Radio," a local low-power AM station with a conservative political bent that also podcasts with a live video feed. We check into Eureka's new Catholic radio station, KIHH 1400 AM, and the growth of Christian noncommercial radio locally. And we get an insider's view of KRFH, Humboldt State's training ground for young broadcasters of the future.

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