For those of us whose lives depend on the creation of radio and TV spots, there’s been a fair amount of nervous foot tapping over the past few years as we all wonder where traditional broadcast advertising is going. Bluntly put, will free over the air radio and TV remain viable? And, if they do, who’ll be listening and watching?

To wit, the iPod and Satellite radio have done what they can to push terrestrial radio over the cliff, while Cable and Direct TV have bloodied up free over the air television. If that weren’t enough, there are commercial killing devices like TiVo and, for radio, a brand new software application called Snaptune which, according to its inventor, is “the greatest innovation for radio listeners since the invention of the cassette recorder.”

Oy vey.

Now, after reading all that you might assume that I’ve got a weird and unhealthy attachment to TV and radio ads. Funny, but no. However, I do have a great affinity for free over the air programming – even if what’s on isn’t really my thing. And I understand the necessary role that ads must play in this peculiar barter arrangement. Additionally, in defense of advertising, I think it’s fair to say that creative, well executed ads have the potential to engage us, ask questions of us, and even play a role in shaping our culture and opinions. Of course, (and I’m completely with you on this one), there’s an abundance of insipidly stupid and crappy ads out there that should never get aired. “Ad Noiseum” is my term for them.

There’s a broader question that needs to be asked here though – especially as it pertains to radio. If we’re all left having to pay for it aren’t we tacitly fostering a system where John Q Public is beholding to XM or Sirius for things like local severe weather alerts? Sound alarmist? Hey, there’s actually legislation being proposed to address aspects of this issue. (you can read the bill, here) Think about it; who’s gonna carry your local Emergency Broadcast System if terrestrial radio tanks? I mean, I don’t like that annoying tone when it comes blaring outta the box either but I’m relieved not to be paying a fee to find out when “The tornado that’ll squash Minneapolis” is coming. Just look at what free local radio was able to do in the wake of Katrina. I’ll grudgingly suffer a Denny Hecker ad to get my peace of mind.

The silver lining for those of us who create ads and/or programming content is that the threatened loss of ad revenue is forcing free over the air broadcasters, particularly radio, to improve and repackage their offerings. To quote Mark Kaline, Global Media Manger at Ford Motor Company,“Radio is at a critical moment in its history, on the verge of tremendous growth and poised for transformation.”

What’s fostering this optimism? Well, the potential to put local radio on cell phones and across the web for starters and, in markets like Detroit and Tampa, (two great articles, by the way) it’s HD Radio; digital radio stations with near CD quality sound that can broadcast more than one channel at at a time along with text. Plus, as much as I hate to admit it, Clear Channel’s heavily flawed “Less Is More” campaign, which emphasizes thirty second ads over sixty seconds ads, appears to be drawing listeners back to the fold. And, there’s podcasting – no, not the shabbily produced amateur shite that’s all the rage right now, but innovative shows created in concert with broadcasters for their specific audiences, produced with commercials and available from their websites – Time shifted local content that’s relevant and free. What a country!

Granted, (and this needs to be stated), terrestrial broadcasters have had a long, strong steady hand in creating a large part of this mess they’re in right now. They strayed away from local talent, issues and music in favor of generic cut and paste formats with plastic over the counter hosts. Over-saturating their audiences with poorly executed ads hasn’t helped them either. However, at least for now, it would appear they’re getting the message – to stay viable, they know they need to be innovative, have a local focus and cultivate a creative approach to the ads that they’re airing. If they don’t, they’ll truly be echoing Nietzsche – “To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.”