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Often Pronounced Dead, U.S. Domestic Radio Lives On


In 1897, the gifted American humorist Mark Twain dashed off a note to the New York Herald newspaper. The recent rumor of his death, he wrote, was an exaggeration.

Can the same be said for the death knells that are ringing for American radio? Let's look back.

Television was absolutely going to kill off radio when TV boomed in the 1950s. Instead, radio flourished as the transistor brought perky music and disc jockeys into cars and portable radios. Then, medium-wave radio was pronounced dead as FM stations offered rich, static-free sound. But medium wave lives on as a lively source of news and conversation.

When Congress relaxed ownership rules in the 1990s, big corporations gobbled up radio stations by the hundreds. They installed computerized formats, jacked up the number of commercials, and raked in fat profits. But radio started to sound the same from coast to coast.

Now, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, domestic radio is "bleeding." New satellite services are stealing listeners with imaginative music mixes -- often without a single commercial. And people are building their own playlists of tunes they love on hand-held devices called i-Pods. So dramatic is radio's decline that the two biggest conglomerates have had to lower the value of their assets by $23 billion between them.

Desperate to halt the erosion, they've told their stations to reduce the number of irritating commercials, bring back live disc jockeys, and make the music less predictable.

The end result may be a return of radio's endearing values. And reports of its death may prove to be, to quote Mark Twain, an exaggeration.

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