• Stan Smith

The State of Jamaican Radio in Diaspora, Survive or Adapt?

Updated: May 8

Programming on Jamaica radio in the diaspora connects Jamaican immigrants to their homeland. Radio programming in advanced markets like New York City, Florida, and Washington DC remains the essential link for the Jamaican immigrant community. Is radio programming meeting the community's needs, or is radio even relevant?

Veteran broadcaster Dermot Hussey and former Music Director and Program Director, XM Satellite Radio, argues radio is supposed to provide the community avenues of expression and how people are socialised through society's give and take.

In the previous generation of the 60s, 70s, and 90s, the Jamaican community consumed news via radio and newspaper. The current generations have seen a paradigm shift in how information is gathered and disseminated. The rapid changes in the news industry, both structurally and technologically, have seen a paradigm shift in news gathering and dissemination. Music is the easiest way to engage the community.

According to Milford Edwards, owner of Radio 1400 Am, Jamaican radio in the New York tri-state is a 'dance hall hooked up to a transmitter,'. These programs lack trained, qualified professionals who are competent at delivering relevant content to inform the Jamaican diaspora. Milford, aka Ras Imel, argues Jamaican radio programmers have "no desire to make a difference–"dem nuh ready yet" They forced the Jamaican listeners to turn to mainstream media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC for serious news.

93.1, WVIP FM Groovin' Radio's Ras Clem argues Jamaican radio programming in tri-state New York is in "chaos." They lost it in the music and not enough intelligent programming relevant to engage the listenership in conversation. Groovin' Radio provides relevant programming but is limited to a few hours on weekends.

Sydney White, former NPR Radio Program Director, Broadcast Consultant, and Digital Station owner of Kingston 12, argues that Caribbean radio in the USA today is still grounded in the 70s & 80s. Most on-air talents are still doing what they did in the 1980s. They have not transitioned to today's completely new broadcast industry. Today, every radio set available for sale in super-electronic stores provides the user with 15,000 to 20,000 options (channels/stations). The primary sources of radio content in the USA today are either Google and Alexa (Amazon) enabled devices (together, they are owned by 86% of American households) or via cell phones, iPad, or other devices.

This means the days of 'appointment radio' are over. Today's listeners no longer have to wait a week for a reggae show (most after 10 PM) when they can tune in to a reggae station 24/7 from Jamaica or any of the 400 reggae channels worldwide. Suppose a Caribbean radio personality goes into the studio to do an hour or two or even three hours per week. In that case, they are wasting precious air time (if this station is not a 24/7 Caribbean format station). With the abundance of channels from around the world complemented by YouTube and social media, listeners can get what they want, when they want it. As a result, they have graduated from using individual programs to full formats.

This has forced the radio industry to move from or de-emphasise measurement to measure Time Spent Listening (TSL). Today's savvy advertiser is more interested in how long a listener tuned in than how many tuned in and tuned out after a few minutes. TSL is the new currency on Madison Avenue. Hence the reason News-Talk stations earn so much more than other formats.

We see this in places like Washington DC, where a Caribbean program that has served the market for almost 40 years is no longer on the station's main channel. They moved it to one of the HD channels, where it is still available, but only for listeners who are savvy enough to understand the HD structure of their radio channels. This is a new day for radio and television, and those stuck in the traditional mindset can no longer 'play this game. Let me be clear here.

This applies not only to Caribbean programmers. The last time I looked at Clear Channel Inc. – the largest radio owner in the US, was 23 billion dollars in the red. This occurred because they overspent on their acquisitions, and they were very slow to embrace the new reality that legacy radio was on its way out and digital was about to take over. They have since made a major correction by building I-Heart radio which has become a major digital asset for the company.

The abundance of channels ushered in by the digital age is forcing radio to revert to what we did well–provide listeners with timely information, provide excellent companionship, provide opportunities for discovery, and provide the instrument for connecting to and engaging local audiences. Caribbean shows on US stations have always been the 'stepchild' of the format and thus hardly ever had the opportunity or time to do any of the above. The great blessing of this digital age is that it has lowered both the cost and regulatory barriers to entry. Today one can build a small digital station for a fraction of the cost to build a legacy station. With the proper promotion (both paid and social media), that station can accumulate a much larger audience than most local legacy stations.

Caribbean Programming on radio internationally lies in using the digital space. Thus, digital stations like New York's Soundchatradio.com are vital as a community resource.

The 24/7 format allows it to do many things legacy radio has done, primarily in engagement and local connection. Eighty per cent of the new cars at this year's Consumer Electronics Show came with voice-activated or phone-connected digital radios that are Apple, Google, or Alexa (Amazon) based. This means Sound Chat Radio can access all the platforms that were the traditional domain of legacy stations. Dr. White argues that as the function of legacy transmitters becomes less important to the transmission of content, Caribbean programmers should be prepared to transition simultaneously or play catch-up.

He warns that the availability of so many channels (including social media) in the digital space will force Jamaican radio programmers to shift focus from talent to the listeners, content, and engagement.