Radio is desperate to avoid the tragic grave of traditional print media. Though it still boasts impressive statistics and high listening numbers, the platform’s executives and managers are hesitant to grow complicit. Rather, the industry seems to acknowledge that, in the 21st century, any given station needs to innovate and expand into other mediums by incorporating the internet into their business model and advertising. That is to say, in today’s climate, radio can’t just be radio.
Mark Pinski of Chicago’s own Newsweb Radio was willing to sit down with me and talk in-depth about staying relevant in today’s media environment. Introduced through the most tangential of career fair connections, Pinski currently works as the general manager of five radio stations out of the Chicagoland area, including as the host of “Chicago’s Progressive Talk” WCPT 820. Originally from the Chicago suburbs himself, Pinski graduated from Columbia University with a degree in broadcasts communications in 1985, bouncing around a number of sportscasting-media jobs before breaking into a career in radio management at Chicago’s WSBC radio in 2000. In the nearly two decades since, Pinski has expanded into managing five stations and, more than anything, has been careful to note the rapid digitization of his industry and its competition, whatever form it may take.
Radio stations are supposed to have their own Soundclouds nowadays, or so a conversation with Pinski about his business would have any listener believing. The amount of other media that any given product has to compete against is staggering, especially compared to 20 years ago. While there have always been other things to do than listen to the radio — whether that choice is good or not is irrelevant here — the number of those alternatives has skyrocketed, with all those additional choices scrambling for the same amount of the customer’s time as before.
One of Pinski’s stations, WCPT 820-am, remedies this by making itself as available and outwardly appealing as possible through social media outreach, streaming, and a well-designed and well-maintained website. A listener can catch certain shows on Facebook Live, or just play back shows and programs from earlier in the day on their site, or even on the station’s Soundcloud. A radio station without these resources would simply lose 100% of those customers to Netflix, music streaming, podcasts with fewer censorship restrictions, niche YouTube content, or heaven-forbid other radio stations, the worst-case scenario.
Pinski’s WCPT 820-am remains proud of its status as Chicago’s only progressive talk radio station, as well as its ability to maintain an interested and unique base of listeners. According to the station’s manager, Chicago is a unique city and deserves to have the news media to match just that — finding it noteworthy that only seven progressive radio stations exist in the entire country, including his own. The city’s unique situations, especially those of Chicago’s marginalized communities, definitely deserve to be heard and benefit from the platform. However, Pinski rebukes hard labels like “leftist,” “right,” “socialist,” “republican,” “democrat,” or “conservative” when possible, adopting “progressive” as the least divisive label for the station's content.
Pragmatically, over half of WCPT 820-am's listeners are out-of-state and listening online, and there exists a real chance many of those are moderates or undecided voters looking for a new viewpoints that aren’t unnecessarily intimidating, or even Republicans seeking out differing views. Even if the label would be accurate, calling your platform Radical Vegan Marxist Radio has the potential to scare away more neutral listeners.
On a more principled stand, rather, WCPT 820-am refuses to be divisive because Pinski misses a “world [which was] a lot nicer place when I was a kid… or so it seems,” categorically opposing the state of this country’s executive branch. On U.S. President Donald Trump, he recalled curtly that “he’s divided the nation, and I think it’s a shame.” Pinski, then, seeks to do the exact opposite of just that with the platform, uniting rather than separating.
Radio still boasts the statistic that 90 percent of U.S. adults listen to AM/FM radio at least once a week, which speaks to one of Pinski’s fundamental beliefs: radio still matters. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)'s fireside chats over radio helped to calm the nation during the grips of the Great Depression, and emergency radio is still an absolute staple during severe storms and power outages. Thanks to portables and car radios.
Pinski shared an important and surprisingly relevant story from his childhood with me, concerning the time when, during a high school football game, he was concussed so thoroughly that he was rushed to the hospital for a brain damage assessment. His parents started to worry if he was okay, or in the case that if he truly did have brain damage whether or not he would ever be "the same” again. As the doctors ran their tests and waited on their results, the young Pinski woke up, turned to his parents, and asked them “Can you bring a radio over and turn on the Bulls game? I’m trying to listen.” With that, even before the tests came back, such an overbearingly normal and commonplace request convinced his parents that their kid’s brain was the same as ever, as the acute fears of brain damage faded away. Their son’s brain, as it turns out, did absolutely fine.
With this case study of modern radio, the importance for media companies to adapt to their changing environments is drawn into sharp focus. Any outreach campaign is going to need a social media presence, just as any content producer is going to need as many outlets as possible to stay competitive. So, as a reminder, if you’re managing a company that depends on public engagement, never allows yourself to grow complicit or stubborn in adopting new technologies, and please don’t forget to follow TechNews on Instagram (@technewsiit) — social media outreach is important!