February 3, 2009:
A U.S. military tradition is about to be killed off by the iPod. Since World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces Radio (AFR) has broadcast to the troops, no matter where they are, using local transmitters and troops as announcers. But declining ratings, caused by iPods and changing tastes, has resulted in massive changes in what will be heard. Surveys and focus groups were conducted among the military audience, and it was found that a lot of the current programming was not well liked, or listened to. Troops would tune in for the news, and then go back to their MP3 players for music and podcasts. Another change that has sort of crept up on everyone is the fact that over half the troops are married, and most have kids. There are more families overseas, who are also AFR listeners, and they have different preferences than the troops..
Three years ago, troop surveys indicated that talk radio and country music should be cut back. The country music has been a staple of AFR for over half a century, partly in recognition of the fact that troops from the south and west have always been overrepresented. But rap music has spread far beyond its original urban (black and Hispanic) market and now dominates the pop charts. In fact, the new playlists followed the pop charts more closely. Also out were local DJs, with professional (and more widely known) DJs being used. Since much of the programming is delivered to local stations by satellite feed, this will not be a problem. Local military announcers will still handle local news, military alerts and information and some special programming.
Also gone were most of the talk radio (NPR, as well as some more conservative shows). Talk just never caught on big with the troops, and many were turned off by the strident anti-war attitudes found on many NPR shows. Broadcasts of sporting events also got cut back. The troops rarely listened. In areas where there are multiple frequencies available, some of the older programming was still be available on the second and third channels.
While AFR has been losing a lot of its American military listeners, the stations are still enormously popular with the locals. AFR has often been the first exposure, especially for youngsters, to American radio. Many who later migrated to the U.S., or simply came to visit, noted that they learned a lot of their English listening to AFR. But even that isn't what it used to be, because with podcasts and radio stations streaming their content on the Internet, foreigners have more ways to listen to American style programming.
When the reforms of three years ago didn't work out, more surveys were conducted and it was found that the biggest fans of country music were older officers and NCOs, and they were more inclined to listen to AFR than a playlist on an iPod. They also liked the talk shows, although not NPR. This audience also liked sports broadcasts, so they will come back as well.
AFR has learned what every other radio professional in the West (where there are lots of iPods and Internet users) knows; the market is changing fast. You have to constantly adapt. Commercial radio is only about 80 years old, and it has gone through many major changes in that time. AFR has not been as quick to change, mainly because it had a captive audience. But as the younger, iPod generation, gets older, AFR will have fewer listeners. There will probably be more call for some kind of "all news" format, with more talk radio. These are two formats that the iPod cannot compete with as well with, although as more radio shows provide podcasts of their content, and browser equipped cell phones become more popular, the radio will lose people from that as well. AFR itself is not likely to disappear anytime soon. Even with the presence of cell phones and the Internet, the radio is still one of the quick ways to get important news out. Long term, AFR will mutate into AFN (Armed Forces Network), that will live on cell phones and the Internet, not via radio broadcasts. AFR will become a fond memory, like the base newspaper and many other military customs that have disappeared the last half century.