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As Industry Gathers, Radio Is Still Negotiating the Audio World

I came out of Radio Show 2013 in Orlando with optimism and many questions. I was excited about broadcasters’ new spirit of candor that didn’t get lost under the usual talking points. There was a group head admitting that radio had a spotload issue. There was Cumulus’ Lew Dickey announcing his deal with Rdio and suddenly declaring that “it’s all audio.” Suddenly the concept of on-demand music was something that every major group needed in its portfolio. And it was no longer a discussion that ended at the RAIN Summit on the day before the Radio Show.

But if broadcasters were now in the “audio” business, that raised issues as well. Audio was broadcasters’ core competency, but they were no longer alone. Apple and Google were in the audio business as well. Broadcasters worried if they were “telling their story” enough, but their rivals’ every foray into audio generated press. Beyond that, I wondered about the survival of radio culture. If there was no AM/FM dial to define the community, and organize things for the consumer, who and what were we?

Those questions led to a 2014 presentation for broadcasters’ groups called “Radio in an Audio World.” The charge to radio was to identify and preserve their strengths, but also to look beyond the transmitter and to offer as much audio to as many different listeners as we could, because our audio would be better programmed than that of our rivals. If broadcasters could not solve the spotload issue on-air, certainly we could create more appropriate products for digital. Finally, it called for broadcasters to better organize the infinite dial—making our audio easier to use and worth seeking out.

The best thing about “Radio in an Audio World” is that I had to keep updating it throughout the year. I had barely walked off a dais in Hilton Head, S.C., when the press release about the then-Journal Broadcast Group’s Radio League app showed up in my inbox. Radio League was a dozen or so custom radio stations created specially to compete with the pureplays’ lower spotloads. Even through last summer, I was seeing the announcement of encouraging initiatives like Emmis’ “Where Hip Hop Lives” app.

Some of the energy of Radio Show 2013 was Orlando itself, a destination that encouraged attendance. I’m expecting some of that same energy when broadcasters gather in Nashville on Sept. 21-23 for Radio Show 2016. I’ve always loved Nashville, but a town that was once my secret among Northeasterners is now a booming testament to growth and reinvention. I hope that spirit carries broadcasters through meaningful discussions of the following:

Spotload has been acknowledged, but not tackled. I don’t want broadcasters to throw their hands up on offering continuous music to those who want mostly that from radio. We do it well, and we’ve spent forty years researching music preference. The good news is that the quantity of music we offer listeners is becoming an issue at radio again. But that discussion still feels more likely to manifest itself as a commercial-free 90-minute workday kickoff than a consistently lower spotload throughout.

Spot Quality has been acknowledged, but not tackled. I had several experiences earlier this year that left me convinced that spot quality makes a difference. Frequently, broadcasters stare into the abyss of spotload and determine that they can at least do something about spot quality, but I don’t always hear it. And I’m still waiting for somebody to make a policy statement out of “no downer or explicit spots.”

The Infinite Dial is Still Not Sufficiently Organized. The Cumulus/Rdio deal that almost teamed on-demand streaming and a broadcast portal was never fully realized. Then, Rdio’s assets went to Pandora, which is now on the cusp of allowing listeners to “type a song, and get a song,” rather than merely a radio station inspired by a song or artist. And this morning, it was the Pandora Plus press-release that came across the transom as I was writing. Pureplays are becoming increasingly full-service—including Apple’s foray into produced/hosted radio with Beats 1—while broadcast streaming remains a largely unsatisfying experience. Beyond that…

We Cannot Count on Consumers Knowing How to Consume Us. My first experience with a cab driver who did not know how to turn on his car radio was 2007, well before the specter of the digital dashboard became an ongoing discussion. Earlier this year, I recommended broadcast streams to two different friends who asked “can I get those in Pandora”? Radio’s much publicized 93% weekly reach shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the 21% of Infinite Dial 2016 respondents who do not have an AM/FM radio at home. Or the teenager in the car who hears the radio only because an adult turns it on. We are headed for a potential collision between teens who don’t venture into analog (and may not always know how) and adults who find other services’ digital offerings easier and sufficient.

That Which Does Not Kill Us, Sometimes Makes Us Chillax. When Edison Research released its first Share of Ear numbers, I wondered if the half of all listening that AM/FM radio received represented the tail end of broadcast radio’s hegemony. Broadcast’s share of ear number is 54% now, but neither that or the travails of competitors should be allowed to obscure actual declines in listening. I will grant you that the reports of radio’s demise have been somewhat exaggerated. Now, what else do we aspire to?

The Radio League custom stations, some of them very innovative, are gone now, and that portal is primarily broadcast signals now. But there was an announcement this week that once again crystalized all these issues. Rather than finally stream its broadcast signal, WRME-LP (Me-TV-FM) Chicago instead partnered with AccuRadio to launch a custom service based on its distinctive mix of ‘60s oldies and ‘70s soft AC. Add in that WRME broadcasts on 87.7 FM on a frequency not typically populated by FM radio, and no radio station more typifies today’s issues.

There’s a part of me that’s disappointed about not having the real Me-TV-FM signal available. But that’s the radio geek speaking. Me-TV-FM’s announcement is exactly what I encouraged radio to do—create additional products for the infinite dial. And while one could argue that Me-TV-FM’s deliberately low-key on-air product was essentially an internet radio niche playlist itself, the week also brought a second announcement that the over-the-air station was partnering with rival WGN for news and services.

When I wrote about Me-TV-FM a few months ago, I heard from a number of Chicago broadcasters bemoaning the station’s often willful depth musically. But it’s clear from context that Me-TV-FM isn’t doing what it does because those involved don’t know how to “play the hits,” but because it wants to offer something different to a niche audience. And that audience is probably not so niche when you’re thinking nationally. And for all the places to hear deep oldies and broad AC online, there is still more critical mass and a different imprimatur when you offer that mix in conjunction with a broadcast radio outlet.

So this week, an independent broadcaster, competing in a large market with an atypical signal against all of our biggest group broadcasters:

  • Added an online service that addresses the specific opportunities of online;
  • Added on-air elements that take advantage of being over-the-air
  • Continued to provide a unique service.

I’m looking forward to Nashville to see what RAIN and Radio Show 2016 bring. It certainly seems likely that it will include at least one discussion of how radio tells its own story. For 2017, it is for us as broadcasters to continue to write that story as well.

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Profile photo of Sean Ross
Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.


  1. Profile photo of leecornell

    Hi SEAN,
    It’s been awhile!… Couldn’t help but smile reading your header “…Radio is Still Negotiating the Audio World”.

    Have to say, sitting outside in the digital engagement world, it seems more like a litany of opportunities lost, for “radio” to lead from the front, as the talk rolls on from one NAB to another around pushing the boundaries into new audio frontiers.
    For radio, that “infinite dial” is looking more finite by the day as GEN Y and MILLENIALS use radio less, preferring a much more engaging mobile and digital content platform array; while GEN Z now into their teen years on a diet of “what they want when they want it”, don’t really have “U.S. mainstream radio” anywhere near “must have”, on their radar.
    “Radio” seems still bound to the “broadcast” idea of “broadly casting out” push-content in a one way conversation.

    With Audio the core competency and medium for “radio”, it’s staggering it isn’t by now, collectively at the epicenter of forging new innovation and diversity; particularly at the cross-roads where social meets audio.

    It’s an under-developed front in a visually pre-occupied digital landscape. As Futurist, Kevin Kelly notes, “The future happens very slowly, and then all at once.”
    Radio has big “lean-in” opportunities out there right now, if they want them.

    It’s a great leveller, when driving home down the 405 from L.A. yesterday I’m greeted by pretty ordinary looking billboard hoardings proclaiming “Ryan Pays Your Bills”; and when I tune KISS 102.7 I hear a “wall of spots” off the top-of-hour, followed by a “90 minute non-stop” (well sort-of) music block… and I have to wonder is this the best radio can do in 2016, on one of U.S.’s radio’s biggest stations, in the biggest city in the country.

  2. Profile photo of dmr_andrew

    Great column and checklist. One more thing to add to the 2017 checklist, develop an industry framework for radio’s role not in a connected car, but in a driverless car. It’s fitting that the Feds are set to issue their first substantial guidelines as the Radio Show gets set to begin in Nashville.

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