San Francisco — Radio -- the ''other'' broadcast medium -- is big and getting bigger. But is it getting better? Michael Toms and his associates are determined to make it so.
Mr. Toms is executive director of Audio Independents Inc. (AI), a nonprofit organization founded three years ago to promote the efforts and interests of independent producers of radio programming material -- some of the best listening on the airwaves today.
Radio is expanding right along with television in the United States; if anything, more explosively. Already there are 88,000 FM channels available on US-launched communications satellites, and cable radio is reaching more communities every month.
Toms says that one way to make the best use of all those radio outlets and to provide quality programming of all types is to utilize the talents of independent producers. One of the most successful of the breed himself, Toms became executive director of AI last June and moved the organization's main office from New York City to San Francisco, his home base.
He's a member of the generation that can remember when the only picture projected by the broadcast medium was in the mind's eye of the listener. Millions of Americans tuned in nightly for comedy, drama, and information provided by such standouts as Fred Allen and Jack Benny, Lux Radio Theater, and Edward R. Murrow with his stunning World War II coverage from London.
Shouldered aside as the primary broadcast medium by television in the 1950s, radio nevertheless has retained a large audience with varied tastes. But it might be said that it lost some of its respectability as well as glamour to the upstart ''tube.''
Public radio, national and local, has regained some of that luster in recent years - with a lot of help, Toms notes, from the independent producers whose interests he represents.
Now Toms and others see a great opportunity to utilize the talent they know is available for the next great surge of radio's comeback.
AI grew out of a 1978 meeting in New York of various broadcast interests, including network representatives and independent producers. The independents decided they needed a central organization to promote their efforts and increase their earnings.
With a three-year grant from the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, AI was established in 1979 to ''assist and support independent radio producers and audio artists with distribution, marketing, access, fund raising, professional development . . . and, by doing so, to make available and foster diverse, high quality, and innovative programming for the public.''
Toms and the two other members of his staff work out of a modest, cluttered suite of offices near the San Francisco Civic Center. He says AI is not a syndicator of independent programs or an agent, but more of a ''connector.'' AI ''tries to get independent producers a better deal than they would get working through syndicates - to encourage the creativity of these people, who do this for the sheer love of it.''
Toms should know. Before taking over at AI, he was the producer of two much-praised and widely distributed discussion shows - ''New Dimensions'' and ''Voices and Visions.'' He says the shows, now produced by his wife, present impartially the views of people ''on the leading edge of change '' who have solution-oriented ''ways of looking at the world.''
Other examples of the kind of independent programming AI is trying to foster:
* ''You're Hearing America,'' a series of two-minute stereo ''sound portraits'' produced for commercial stations by Jim Metzner of San Francisco and underwritten by Maxell, a major audio equipment manufacturer. These features will air in five major US radio markets beginning next April.
* ''The Odyssey of Homer,'' an eight-part dramatization of the Greek classic - first of a 26-program series of radio dramas produced by the Chicago-based National Radio Theater.
Other titles in the series include: ''The Outcast of Poker Flat'' by Bret Harte, ''The Emperor Jones'' by Eugene O'Neill, ''The Dark Tower'' by Louis MacNeice and Benjamin Britten, and ''The Sea Wolf'' by Jack London. Well-known actors are featured.
Toms and others say this ambitious series of productions marks a ''major breakthrough'' in the backing of independent radio production by a major corporation. Electronic giant TRW has underwritten the production with a $1 million grant, plus $775,000 for promotion. Commercial stations that air the National Radio Theater series will not be permitted to interrupt the dramas with ads.
The TRW-National Radio Theater collaboration, says Toms, is ''only the first of many such grants. It only takes one and then the floodgates are open.''