One of my favorite volunteer gigs is serving on the board of the Wisconsin Public Radio Association. I’m a big fan of public radio — and have become an ardent supporter in recent years since it has become clear that public radio appears to be the only media source that is even vaguely interested in journalism any more. But I digress. The point of bringing up public radio is that at this meeting the question of social media came up — as it does at most of the community organizations I work with. But as a broadcast media organization, public radio has more to be concerned with than just social media as a marketing tool. Newspapers are dying. Journalists are losing their jobs, and unlike those being shipped overseas, broadcast jobs aren’t going elsewhere — they’re just disappearing, being replaced by edu-tainment or, as Mike Crane, the interim director of Wisconsin Public Radio puts it, “argue-tainment.”
Does social media, with its decreased emphasis on expert commentary and increased opportunity for anyone with a computer and an ax to grind, threaten to replace traditional forms of media? Many say no — after all, radio didn’t die when television was invented, and television didn’t die when the internet was invented.
Still, things are changing, and fast.
According to Erik Qualman (Socialnomics), it took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million users. Television took 13 years to reach the same benchmark, and 4 years for the internet. Facebook added 200 million users in less than a year. Socialnomics also created an impressive YouTube video that lays out some amazing facts:
No, social media is not replacing broadcast media (although it may well be replacing print media). But as happens with pretty much any product in the marketplace, broadcast media have had to adapt to keep up. Television looks very different than it did when I was a child and had to get up, cross the room and change to another one of 4 different channels. And radio still exists because there are some things that radio can do that nobody else can do. There may be more options, but there are also times when a radio program is just the ticket.
Mike Crane tells a story about the very early days of radio, when the station received the weather report from the National Weather Service in Morse Code with instructions to post the information in a prominent place in town (bringing to mind images of people trying to make it to the town square in the middle of a storm to find out if a storm was coming). Today, the radio may broadcast the emergency signal; may provide a forum to local political candidates to air their views; may be the station you leave on at work to hear classical music all day. Yeah, we love Facebook, but we still need WPR.
In related news, I have the opportunity this week to perform in a live, face-to-face, in person play. It’s called The Laramie Project-Ten Years Later, and is the epilogue to the famous play about the murder of Matthew Shepherd in Laramie, Wyoming that was also made into a successful HBO movie. I show the movie in my classes, and we talk about why making a play out of a complex issue like the Matthew Shepherd murder allows us to talk about things in a very different way than we are able to on “argue-tainment.” I am honored to be playing the role of Judy Shepherd, Matthew’s mother, who has turned her son’s horrific murder into a lifelong cause for justice and human rights. Seeing the play, hearing voices of real people come out of other real people…well, that just does something to you that watching something on a 2-inch screen on an iPod can never do.
It’s important to remember that with so many choices, your audiences will have a variety of ways to encounter your message. We can’t get so enamored of the latest toy that we lose sight of the fact that old school is sometimes the best way to communicate. Especially if a storm is coming.