In August 2017, Larry Miller, director of the Steinhardt Music Business Program at New York University, presented a 30-page report titled, “Paradigm Shift: Why Radio Must Adapt to the Rise Of Digital.”
The report painted a dismal picture for the future of commercial radio. It said Generation Z (those born after 1995), which grew up with digital media, isn’t listening to traditional radio. “Unless the industry is set to make peace with a long and inevitable decline, radio needs to invest in strong and compelling digital services,” Miller wrote.
According to Miller’s report, “Radio, and music radio in particular, is now falling behind as audiences have begun to move on and listen to music on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and other digital services.”
But like Mark Twain’s comments concerning erroneous reports of his death, radio officials in Vermont say commercial radio is alive and well, and predictions otherwise are wrong.
“More people are listening to radio than ever,” said Steve Cormier, general manager of the Vermont Radio Group in Waterbury, which broadcasts WDEV, WLVB and The One. WDEV, which offers talk, news and sports, is as relevant now as it was in 1931 when the station started broadcasting, he said.
The key, Cormier said, is the local focus of the station. “We have a special status that nobody else has, local news and local sports. High school basketball is alive and well at DEV.” WDEV streams its programs. The largest audience ever was two years ago with the broadcast of the Norwich men’s hockey game for the national championship.
“There are Norwich alumni all over the country, and they tuned in,” he said.
Ed Flanagan, general manager of The Point in Montpelier, agrees with Cormier that to survive in the digital world, a radio station must be locally focused.
“Our roots are local, everything we do is locally driven,” Flanagan said. Although the station is owned by Northeast Broadcasting, Inc., based in Bedford, New Hampshire, which also owns several other stations including WSKI in Montpelier, The River in Boston, and stations in New Hampshire and Wyoming, Flanagan said all programing is done locally and reflects what local listeners want.
“Live and local, absolutely, local is the key to success,” said Glenda Hawley, the general manager of Catamount Radio, which runs five stations in Rutland County — WSYB, news, talk and sports; Rock 94.5, classic rock and New England Patriots; Z97.1, pop, urban, alternative and rock; WJJR, contemporary music; and Cat Country, country, music.
Programing for all five stations is based on what the local listeners want, Hawley said.
“Traditional radio has always focused on being local, but now I think we make a bigger deal about drawing attention to it. You can’t get a local weather forecast, avoid traffic delays, hear high school sport scores or know what to do in an emergency by listening to satellite radio or a podcast,” said Wendy Mays, executive director of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters.
Radio in Vermont is big business. According to a 2017 Woods & Poole Economics survey, radio had a $770 million economic impact in the state and produced 1,770 jobs. There are 97 radio stations licensed in Vermont, 19 AM stations and 81 FM stations. Of the 97 stations, 66 are commercial radio stations and the rest are not-for-profit, such as public radio, Christian radio and college stations.
To survive, radio stations can’t just compete with the internet, they must embrace it, Flanagan said. “The internet is just a delivery service.” The Point streams its programs, as do most Vermont stations. Last month, WDEV unveiled a station app, and it podcasts the David Graham news and talk show, and a flower and gardening show.
“Because the internet has become part of people’s daily routine, traditional radio has been forced to evolve and reinvent itself. The radio industry embraces new technology that allows people to listen at home via smart speakers, at work via streaming and on the go via their smartphones,” Mays said.
JoAnn Cyr, general manager for the four Vox AM/FM stations in Burlington (Star 92.9, Hot 96.7, 101.3 The Game; and 960, The Zone), said the internet has been a plus for Vox. “We’ve actually seen an uptick in listeners with the introduction of smart speakers and smartphones.” Before internet streaming, radio listening was dominated by car-based radios. “The internet has expanded the listener base,” she said.
Cormier agreed that the internet has expanded the station’s base. “It’s given us the opportunity to expand out to a national audience,” he said.
Also part of the local commitment is community involvement. The Point supports National Life’s annual Do Good Fest to benefit Branches of Hope, the cancer patient fund at Central Vermont Medical Center, and other nonprofits, and works with the Vermont State Employees Credit Union on the Point-to-Point cycling and foot race to raise funds and awareness for the Vermont Foodbank.
In 2017, WJJR’s Stuff A Bus raised $5,000 in cash and collected 18,760 pounds of food for the food shelves of the Salvation Army, BROC-Community Action of Southern Vermont, and the Rutland Community Cupboard. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the charity event. WSYB runs a Christmas Fund and has worked with the Gift of Life Blood Drive Marathon.
Also common in Vermont radio is the operation of multiple stations by one company, which lowers operating costs through economies of scale. Vox operates five Vermont stations, as do Hall Communications and Catamount Radio.
According to Flanagan, the low point for his station and for most radio stations and other businesses in Vermont was the recession of 2008.
“We took a hit in 2008, as everyone did, but it’s been a steady increase since then,” he said.