Elgan: Why global is the new 'local'

The real reason newspapers and radio stations are hurting -- and how they can thrive

If you have an iPhone, tap the App Store button, and search for "radio." Choose "iHeart radio" and then click on the Clear Channel Broadcasting app called "iHeart radio." Install it.

There you go! Now you can listen to local radio stations based in cities across the country. There are many similar apps (for example, Public Radio Tuner gives you nearly all local public radio stations) and comparable software for other phones.

Cars now have a jack for you to plug in your phone to listen over the car radio.

It's a vastly superior way to listen to radio. You can sort by city, genre, or radio "personalities." The iHeart radio app even includes a "Shake It" feature that spins two wheels -- genre and city -- like a slot machine and then lets you click for a random result. It's a great way to discover new stations.

The majority of radio listeners still do it the old fashioned way: They turn on the radio in the car, for example, and just listen to whatever is playing locally. But over time, more people will discover and use cell-phone-streamed radio. And the cars themselves will grow that capability.

All of this raises a serious question: When Joe in Nashville is listening to New York City's Z100, when Carla in New York is listening to Miami's MEGA 94.9, and when Paul in Miami is listening to Nashville's Big 98 WSIX, what does the "local" in "local radio" mean?

"Local" radio stations are going national, and even international. That sounds like an opportunity for the stations -- they can now reach a larger potential audience for advertisers. But in reality, it's a problem. The whole radio business model is built around pandering to local community groups, small businesses, area schools and, above all, local listeners. So how do you pander to the old audience without alienating the new one?

The "death of local" problem is even more immediate with newspapers.

Why newspapers are dying

The conventional wisdom holds that newspapers are being forced into layoffs, cutbacks and closures because people are getting their news for free on the Internet. But that's at best a naive oversimplification, and it completely misses the real dynamic behind the crisis in the newspaper industry.

One of the unusual things about the U.S. has been that each major city, minor city, even small town has its own newspaper, or several newspapers, and people tend to read that local paper -- or they used to.

A typical local newspaper leads with local news, followed by county, state, national and international news. This was a sensible arrangement before the Internet. It meant that you could subscribe to the local paper to get all your news.

In addition to learning what international figures, such as the president, the pope and the queen of England were up to, you could also learn how the local high school did in a game last week, when the Kiwanis club's pancake breakfast is scheduled, and how the city council voted on the new parking lot proposal. And local advertising has been affordable.

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