Charlie Meyerson and John MacLeod
Charlie Meyerson and John MacLeod Credit: Lila M. Stromer (Meyerson); courtesy of John MacLeod (MacLeod)

Radio communication has come a long way since World War I, when the tactic of sending infantry forward shielded by an artillery barrage was confounded by the inability of the advancing infantry to tell the distant cannoneers exactly where they were.

By World War II the problem was solved, and a staple
of the Hollywood movies of that era is the scene where a crouching radioman whispers coordinates. Today there’s not much radio can’t do: we hop in the car, punch a button on the dash, and settle into the music that puts our minds at ease or the news that tells us what’s going on all over the world and our city. During rush hours, radio reports incessantly on the state of the expressways, allowing us to plan our routes accordingly.

The current state of radio is captured nicely by an award that Ron Gleason, director of news and programming at CBS-owned WBBM-AM, told me about the other day. The Web Marketing Association had just named CBS’s app the year’s best radio mobile application. “Our audience,” said the CBS entry, “is anyone that wants access to their favorite radio stations, whether it is sports, news, talk, rock, country or any of our other formats, any time of day no matter where they are.” Say you were in Minneapolis last Sunday, and wanted to hear the Bears-Vikings game as called by your hometown’s Newsradio 780 announcers. A couple of clicks on your smartphone and you were in business.

But apps keep coming and bragging rights are never long settled. HearHere Radio, a Chicago-based start-up, will grant its Bears game; but let’s say you’re back home in Hinsdale, it’s Monday morning, and you’re facing the long drive to work in the Loop. Let’s also say HearHere’s Rivet News Radio app works the way it’s supposed to. It’s divided greater Chicago (from the Loop 40 miles out in all directions) into five zones and, thanks to GIS, it knows you’re starting out in the zone it calls “west suburbs.” It gives you the state of the expressways through your zone but spares you all the others, and when your car passes into the “Chicago” zone, its traffic report changes accordingly. Rivet is leading you—in sort of the way field radios let the artillery lead the ground troops pushing west through France.

As I write, the date isn’t certain yet, but HearHere wants the Rivet app available at the iTunes Store in early December. Apps for other devices will follow.

Rivet—a late-in-the-game name change from H2 Radio—is intended to be about a lot more than traffic reports. “Giving listeners unprecedented control over what kinds of news they hear and when they hear it, and customized for wherever a listener happens to be,” boasted a mid-November news release. In other words, none of the news you’d rather not know—which, like it or not, is how the public has selectively skipped through newspapers for decades.

Charlie Meyerson runs the Rivet newsroom (now hiring). Fifteen months ago he pretty much laid out the idea of Rivet News Radio in a visionary application to the Knight News Challenge (that didn’t win anything).

“Traditional news radio is constrained by format, unable to provide on-demand access to expanded coverage, wastes time on weather and traffic information irrelevant to any one user at a given time and isn’t customizable,” said Meyerson’s pitch to Knight. “The Smartphone News Network will give users a multichannel, customizable and time-shiftable news experience, created from the ground up for smartphones.”

As he sees it, the plague of radio stations that take news seriously, be they all-news stations like WBBM or public radio stations like WBEZ, is redundancy. “If you listen to them any period of time you’ll hear the same story time and again,” he tells me. And some of those stories won’t interest you any more than expressway conditions two counties over will. “There’s tremendous clutter from the listener’s point of view.”

So Rivet slices and dices: the region’s traffic into zones; its own programming into categories (government and politics, business, sports, entertainment, technology and science, lifestyle) that you can program your smartphone or Internet-enabled dashboard to receive or ignore. Most of these stories will be generated by the Rivet newsroom; some will be curated (with NPR stories in the mix). When a story comes along you don’t care about, you can fast-forward through it. Or you can rewind to hear it again. And you won’t have to wait for Rivet to cycle through to traffic: if you wish, when you turn on Rivet it’ll be the first thing you hear. The journalists in the Rivet newsroom “will be free of the tyranny of the clock,” says Meyerson. “Any story can be as long as it is interesting, with the understanding that listeners who become impatient can fast-forward to the next item.”

Getting out from under the clock is a value Meyerson says he took with him from his last big job, bureau chief and City Hall reporter for FM News 101.1, an experiment in tony all-news broadcasting launched in August 2011 by Randy Michaels, who went back to broadcasting after being bounced as CEO of the Tribune Company. FM News 101.1 lasted only 11 months, but before the plug was pulled it won several awards for its coverage of the sentencing of Rod Blagojevich, a story to which Meyerson says his station dedicated almost three hours of commercial-free coverage.

At this stage, HearHere Radio is two key people. The other is its founder and CEO, John MacLeod, a former executive vice president at Navteq who has three patents in his name for breakthroughs in the purveying of personalized traffic reports. “Today the majority of mapping and routing is done with digital maps embedded in cars, or via smartphones,” says MacLeod. “I see Internet radio [in cars] happening even faster. My estimate is that within five years the majority of audio listening will happen through Internet radio, and a significant portion will be in cars.” MacLeod’s backed by surveys that show the radio news audience collapsing about as rapidly as the newspaper-reading audience, while the online news audience soars. One recent Pew study found that the number of cell phone owners who have streamed online radio through their car stereos has almost tripled in the past three years, from 6 percent to 17 percent. I called Ron Gleason, news boss of Newsradio 780, because I wanted his thoughts on Rivet Radio.

“Charlie and others were involved in the start-up of the all-news FM station against us but it lasted less than a full year,” Gleason reminded me by way of preamble. “The idea of that programming was to be something brand-new and totally different, but the people spoke, and the people like what we do. Our ratings are as high as they’ve been for a couple of years.

“Our radio station is set up in a way that’s easy to use. If you want to hear the top stories, you know exactly when you can do that. Traffic and weather is on the eights, the network news is the top of the hour. Sports are at 15 and 45 past the hour, business reports at 25 and 55. Our listeners are very trained to what we do.”

This, of course, is what Meyerson calls the tyranny of the clock, afflicting news producers and listeners alike. I reminded Gleason of the ability the Rivet audience will have to fast-forward and rewind to the news it wants.

“OK, I’ll give you that,” he said. “I don’t have a DVR for radio available for you at the moment. That’s fair. But I don’t know how many people are willing to fast-forward or rewind when listening to news.” Radio is different from television, he argued. The audience comes and goes. The subject matter isn’t favorite shows preserved to enjoy at a later date. It’s news—volatile and ephemeral. As for those traffic reports—if they’re personalized, that means they have to be recorded, Gleason said. “If it’s recorded, it’s not up-to-date. Traffic changes constantly.” His reports are live.

Live on the eights, that is. Rivet’s reports may not be live but they’ll be “fresh,” MacLeod promises. “If there’s an accident we can push out an alert to listeners—we’re not waiting for time on the eights.”

When I think of radio traffic reports I think first of tone-deaf absurdity. (“And on the Stevenson,” the racing voice intones, “debris from that collision between the school bus and the molasses truck has finally been cleared away, and traffic’s running smoothly again.”) Do frequent drivers think of how they deserve better? If Rivet gives them better, will they notice?