What’s the fastest-changing landscape in the USA? You might be forgiven for thinking the answer is politics, but it’s actually radio. In a country renowned for the moving image, whether it be film or television, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that radio is at the forefront of broadcasting across the US. Radio listenership, both terrestrial and digital, has been rising steadily over the past two years, according to 2017 Nielsen figures, with news and talk radio leading what people are listening to over music. Figures issued in June this year by the Federal Communications Commission show there are more than 15,500 radio stations across the USA.  In 2016, 91 per cent of Americans aged 12 or over listened to terrestrial radio in a given week.

In 2017, 61 per cent of those from the same group listened to online radio in the last month, representing steady year-on-year growth. So, what’s bending US ears? Terrestrial radio still looms large, especially in many remote areas unreached by high-speed Internet, but digital platforms are romping away from the pack, thanks to the popularity of podcasting.

“Radio is available in so many more ways than before,” said Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association. “It’s also the most intimate of media, present in your car, on your phone, in your bedroom, your bathroom, just about anywhere.”

Nathan Lawrence, digital content director at National Public Radio member station KBIA, based in Columbia, Missouri, agrees that radio has a special role: “It feels like someone whispering in your ear; you feel connected, like a friend is talking to you in a way no other medium does.”

Lawrence, 24, has been with the station for three years. “Even in that short time, I’ve seen how the radio landscape has changed dramatically. Radio is flourishing because it’s faster to adapt to that changing landscape than TV,” he said. “In TV, everyone has to get retrained to deal with the digital platforms and reshape content from its original broadcast form. A radio reporter does everything from start to finish, so we are welded to the Internet environment already.”

One of the big advantages in the digital explosion in recent years is how cheap and easy it is to set up radio. “In theory, you could start out in digital for free, though a lot of digital initiatives out there must also involve terrestrial radio in order to get funded. But you could run a very small station for $15,000 to $20,000 a year,” said Lawrence.

“Podcasting, on the other hand, is totally free. I can podcast from my couch using my phone and earbuds, run it through an app like Anchor, start a feed and submit it to iTunes. That’s it.”

Andy Bowers, chief content officer and co-founder of podcast network Panoply, part of the Slate Group, was a radio reporter with NPR for 20 years: “When I left, people thought I was crazy to jump into podcasting, but now public radio people are leaving in droves to be in it. It’s bringing much more professionalism to podcasting, though the amateur can still have a voice.”

Podcasts are re-invigorating journalism in a medium familiar to young audiences, says Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association. “They stand out as examples of responsible, fair and fact-based journalism told in a clear-cut way. They have opened up ideas of journalism on audio to an entirely new sector, speaking to millennials who are critical to engage with,” he said. “It almost doesn’t matter if it’s the drama or the depth of journalism that attracts them initially. What matters is that they are captivated by it and continue to listen. It’s refreshing because too many people in the US today are conflating opinion media—which has seen explosive growth since (US conservative political commentator) Rush Limbaugh started his show some years ago—with journalism. It muddies the water if the public don’t know the difference… so the likes of Serial, with its deep investigative journalism, are welcome if they help turn that tide,” added Shelley.Nathan Lawrence, digital content director at National Public Radio Missouri-based member station KBIA, noted that the storytelling format popular in podcasting appeals to those weary of “basic, surface-level” news coverage. “Serial put people at the centre of the storytelling —the audience were hungry for that. In the podcast world, stories that take a human approach are successful. It feels personal… for millennials like me who have already been told we are special, and now we feel even more so,” he said.Andy Bowers, chief content officer and co-founder of podcast network Panoply, said audiences are turning the tables on soundbite news and reviving more thoughtful and in-depth journalism by demand: “It’s very notable that internet video and YouTube styles are short—one or two minutes—but podcasts are long-form and… our audiences want even more length. We had Political Gabfest which was 10 or 15 minutes, but audiences wanted it longer so we made it longer.”A 2016 study by podcast network Wondery found respondents felt more “connected, intelligent and energised” after listening to podcasts, which may bode well for the future of in-depth journalism. NPR podcasts alone were downloaded and streamed uniquely a whopping 97.18 million times in June 2017, according to Statista figures on leading podcast publishers worldwide. The choice is staggering. “There are at least 300,000 podcasts available and Apple now say they have 400,000,” Bowers said.

Not everyone is able to take advantage of the digital revolution, however. Native American radio is a lifeline to communities in remote reservations, many of whom still predominantly rely on terrestrial radio. Loris Taylor is president and CEO of Native Public Media, which represents the media interests of 567 federally recognised tribes and nations. She also serves on the board of the Free Press Action Fund, an advocacy group committed to reforming media and telecommunications policy in the public interest.

“Radio is extremely important in ‘Indian Country’. In 2004, we had 30 radio stations. Today we have 60, which is a step in the right direction because for decades we have been under-represented, invisible and unserved by mass media. Anecdotally, because there are no actual surveys, we found in 2004 that only around 10 per cent of ‘Indian Country’ was served by broadband. It’s now climbed to 30 per cent, so still short of the access afforded to much of the US population,” said Taylor.

“The radio stations play a vital role in serving the communities in terms of emergency information like flash floods and tornados, but also in connecting communities with local issues and maintaining cultural heritage thereby giving native nations a voice.”

Taylor was raised on a Hopi reservation with no running water, TV or radio. In the 1960s, she recalls a visiting tourist gave her grandfather a small transistor radio with one set of batteries in it.

“At night, my grandfather would lay on the bed with the radio on his belly and we kids would dance around to Patsy Cline and Elvis coming out of a station in Oklahoma.We had to make that battery last because we couldn’t just go to a shop and buy another one easily, so we only played two songs a night—five minutes and then it was over. But even as a child I used to wonder why I could only hear this music on the radio and not the songs of my own people,” said Taylor.

Radio, said Taylor, is a medium that is very compatible with the oral traditions of Native Americans, but the fight for inclusivity goes on: “We want to increase access to radio and the internet but we want control over our own narrative, to strip away the stereotypes that are still pervasive in movies and history books. The person who has control over the pen writes history.”

It’s not only Native Americans who depend on radio. In Murray, a town of 600 deep in the heart of southern Iowa, Joe Hynek’s KSOI FM radio pumps out music, local news and events via a radio transmitter tower in a local farmer’s field. The station’s studio is tucked away in a Victorian home Hynek restored. He has one staff member and many volunteers including station celebrity Grandma Perry, Hynek’s 98-year-old grandmother, who provides daily bulletins she records on her iPad seated in her recliner at home.

“Everyone loves her and she pulls in good sponsorship money,” said Hynek, 38. The station went on air in 2012. Working in computers most of his life, Hynek has closely followed Internet trends and growth, and knows that not everyone has enjoyed its benefits. “I was aware that here in remote southern Iowa, we are not going to have access to high-speed Internet and be able to listen to radio on all those great devices everyone else has for a long, long time. It’s not just the remoteness; this is a relatively poor area and jobs are often hard to come by, so people can’t afford broadband even if it’s available.

“Here, people drive older cars with basic radios in them. They work in barns farming, and so terrestrial FM radio is what works. Your exposure to radio is increased tenfold in rural areas. A lot of your life is spent in cars getting to places; I spent three hours a day in the car as a kid just going to school and back, and I listened to a lot of radio. But there was a limited number of stations and you get tired of listening to the same old thing, so I wanted to start my own to promote our community and our culture.”

Hynek relies on sponsorship from local businesses, farm groups, non-profit organisations and individuals to stay on the air. Unlike podcasters who eye global reach, his sights are firmly on the grassroots. “We hope we’re making a positive contribution to our own community and others within our 160-mile (257-kilometre) radius,” he said. Many broadcasters face an uncertain future as the federal government plans cuts to public radio funding. Every other year, the federal government gives about $445 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes it to non-commercial TV and radio stations and their programmes. The proposed cuts could spell radio silence for fledgling regional stations dependent on funds to survive.

Rebecca Landsberry of the Native American Journalists Association said: “It would have a pretty devastating effect on tribal radio as around 35 native radio stations rely on CPB funding or a mix of public and tribal funding.” Lawrence though is hopeful radio will overcome these obstacles and continue to appeal to his and future generations: “Innovations like Hearken (a public-interest journalism start-up), which came out of Chicago’s public radio’s Curious City, are great. It’s an interactive experience for reporters and listeners, where the public can really get involved and engaged at a deep level. Radio is a synchronised experience. You just need a voice, something to say and a listener—that’s why radio will exist forever.”

(This essay is from the Index on Censorship magazine, the only global magazine covering free expression. To buy a copy: www.exacteditions.com/indexoncensorship.)

This story is from the November 2017 issue.