“Pioneer” is not a word to be used loosely. It denotes longevity along with leadership. As well as change.
Julian “Pete” Booker is a man for whom “pioneer” was invented, perhaps one of just three or four in the last half century of Delaware broadcasting.
In Delaware, those might include Bob Taylor, Booker’s mentor at Delmarva Broadcasting; Ewing and Sally Hawkins across town at the competition WILM; and Delmarva Broadcasting’s own national news leader Allan Loudell, who came to Delaware in the late 1980s under Mrs. Hawkins.
A 1969 graduate of Delaware’s Thomas McKean High School, with an earlier stint at The Tatnall School, Booker retired in mid-July as president of Delmarva Broadcasting Co., which operated a half-dozen Delaware-based radio stations.
People don’t realize that I’ve really had three stints at Delmarva Broadcasting, out of college, again a bit later, and finally, 1989 until I retired this year, Booker said in a recent interview. “I’d gotten started with the old WHEN, a five-watt transmitter station, and then WNRK, before Delmarva.”
Among some of the changes in broadcasting of which he was part, which he helped lead in Delaware:
• Movement of FM radio into dominance over the AM band.
• Arrival of talk radio on the AM band
• Changes in the ownership structures of broadcasting.
“Probably the biggest change? Progression of channels through which content is delivered,” he noted, observing the increased role of the web, including web-delivery of news, often with video, and alternative programming, such as running the Phillies on-air while talk is on the web.
“The availability of platforms in digital media to a specific audience really is changing the landscape,” Booker added. “When I talk to my kids, I hear that my daughter, who’s 32, gets most of her news from Twitter. She learned about the shooting in Lafayette, La., from Twitter.”
In the legacy radio market, Booker said, WDEL averages a weekly audience of 60,000, some of whom stay only for a minute, some for an hour, or a day, or who return a few times a week. In contrast, he said, WDEL.com averages 700,000 unique visits a month. The “streaming” WDEL legacy radio signal by its website averages less than 20 percent of those visits.
On the horizon, Booker sees:
• The demise of AM radio, which he says “has 10 more years of viability,” particularly an issue because of its electromagnetic signal, “given the clutter from every cell phone, alarm system, garage door opener, all of which creates more ‘noise’ for AM.”
• The demise of FM, “perhaps 20 more years,” where the “noise floor is that much higher.
• Growth in HD Radio, the digital encoding of the radio signal, which has existed since the 1990s and which uses the S-band.
While it was the Internet that accelerated the decline of the legacy media, both print and broadcast, the radio market was initially thrown into its turbulence by the flip-flopping of listener choice in the 1970s from AM to FM.
“FM always had the inherently better signal, but people listened to AM because it was in their cars. By the mid-1970s, cars had to have FM radios. Accompanying that came an avalanche of FM stations from out of nowhere and it relegated AM to a secondary status. That was the first change you saw.
“Fast forward that to the late 1980s, and the deregulation of broadcasting changing the landscape. Big public companies like Clear Channel and CBS began to make big money through radio. Market limitations gave way, and companies could own seven AMs, seven FMs and seven TV stations. With the ‘duopoly rule’ in 1992 they could begin to own 14 stations. That opened the floodgates, and it became more about market share.”
AM moved from its beautiful music, Top 40 and related formats in the 1970s and 1980s, rather than compete with FM (“we couldn’t make money with music on AM”), giving way to AM news-talk radio formats, and that created the market for Rush Limbaughs who could command a national audience and appear on dozens, if not hundreds, of radio stations simultaneously, occurring by the late 1980s and early 1990s.
That brought to Delaware in the late 1980s one of radio’s “best kept secrets” as a news anchor and correspondent, Allan Loudell, a Chicago native who had been in Memphis. He joined WILM and Sally Hawkins about 1988, and then moved to WDEL about a dozen years later when its format moved to news-talk.
“Most of us think that Allan has the greatest Rolodex in radio,” said an admiring Booker of the award-winning Loudell’s ability to pick up the phone and talk with newsmakers, correspondents and reporters virtually anywhere in the world for the benefit of his audience.
So, what’s in the future?
“All media will end up in the same place, a personal electronic device 15 years from now, controlling that screen from your personal electronic device, that’s true convergence,” Booker said. “Of the legacy media, the longest-surviving will be magazines. They provide readers a tactile warm quality of experience, with a good high quality experience,” Booker said.
Jeff Boden joins Delmarva Broadcasting from Washington D.C., to succeed Booker.
Is there anything else that would have appealed to Booker as a career? “I would have loved to have been a Major League baseball pitcher,” he said, smiling.
The Phillies could use some help. Plus, they’re on Delmarva Broadcasting’s WDEL!