Jefferson Smith: Questing for radio that’s more than nostalgia

By Eric Howald, June 29, 2014


6a00d8341c86d053ef0168e9439892970c-450wiIt would be easy to label Jefferson Smith a politician.

He’s the founder of The Bus Project, a former Oregon state representative and a former candidate for Portland mayor. These days, he hosts a radio show, titled Thank You Democracy, on the Portland-based radio station KXRY 91.1. It might appear difficult to find the thread connecting his past pursuits to the current one, but Smith has no such difficulties.

“My underlying passion is not a communications medium, it’s democracy. How do you get a group of people to make decisions together and live alongside each other? How things are communicated to you is an important aspect of that,” Smith said.

Smith will be talking about his latest pursuit and some of the challenges he and his collaborators ran into while setting up the new station, which went live in March, for his TEDxSalem talk in September. It’s titled The Next Golden Age of … Radio?

Smith hopes to counter the idea that radio is a dying medium.

“People do listen, radio shows are getting more and more creative and, because the means of production are getting cheaper, it’s easier for listeners to become creatives in the process,” Smith said.

The medium’s great strength is still the ease with which listeners can tap into it.

“You could distribute hand-held radios all over the world for $5 a pop. You don’t need a $300 phone and $150-a-month service plan. At the same time, radio signals are supposed to be owned by the people, but a full-power signal might sell for $5 million in a major market,” Smith said.

After getting through the red tape of simply obtaining the signal, Smith said the challenge of launching KXRY turned into answering the question of what role people play in making radio – especially at a time when Spotify, iTunes and Pandora algorithms can play matchmaker between listeners and content.

“What’s happened with commercial radio is that it’s become disconnected from the community, and that’s what its strength should be,” Smith said. “The curation role is important. It’s not just picking things you love, but helping you find the things you might love next.”

While music remains the dominant content in radio, Smith said that radio can and should be a place where listeners can find the ideas they’ll fall in love with next as well.

“The one thing that radio still does better than anything else is the realtime call-in. The station can bring together the right curators to bring them all the best stuff,” he said.

Smith and KXRY might well be part of a new golden age of radio, but he’s also aware there’s still a big question yet to be answered.

“For radio to be successful, I think it has to answer the question of audience engagement better,” Smith said. “What we want to work on is allowing the audience to create things, like stories or sound clips, that the station sends out to a wider audience.”

He’s hoping the TEDxSalem attendees will be part of the answer.

Buy tickets here.