The Days of Miracle and Wonder

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I love almost every song on the new Miranda Lambert album, Platinum. The one I don’t like, the first single, “Automatic,” is one of those paeans to the good old days — before GPS, power windows, online shopping and other modern irritants (or so they’re made to seem). It’s the equivalent of the comedian’s rant about having survived childhood in the ‘70s without a car-seat or bicycle helmet, which is a reliable laugh until you stop to consider that somebody else did not.

Broadcast radio lends itself to lots of sentences that begin with “remember when we had to . . . ?” You used to have to wait to hear the new superstar single until it played again three hours later. Or sit through a song you didn’t like. Or find a station the whole office could agree on. Or beg a receptionist to tell you what song you just heard.

I’m not so nostalgic about those things. But to be in any way optimistic about radio these days is often to risk sounding similarly reactionary. After giving back those advances, would I also give back Uber? Shazam? Streaming Netflix? Paying through the Dunkin Donuts app? Movie times at my fingertips?

No.

I appreciate what Paul Simon once characterized, mostly admiringly, as “the days of miracle and wonder.”

And now I want broadcast radio to participate more fully in them.

There are people who already regard Pandora (or other pureplays) as the best way to listen to radio. Broadcast radio has 14 minutes of commercials each hour. Pandora, when monitored recently, had just slightly over two minutes. And it has a skip button.

I’m not entirely willing to concede that one yet. Broadcasters still know a lot more about serving the audience with music than most pureplays. The spotload issue might still be addressed if broadcasters do it now, and some stations like KNDD (the End) Seattle are trying with lower spotloads and shorter breaks. But I cannot deny that for a certain, significant number of listeners, that question is already decided.

What I might allow, if pressed, is that Pandora is a better way for many people to listen to continuous music. For a lot of listeners, that’s what radio is. Continuous music – more music, less talk, fewer interruptions — is certainly a lot of what radio has been offering people in the era of PPM ratings measurement. And broadcasters’ claims that continuous music by itself is not radio hardly matters to those listeners.

But what about those listeners who like everything else that radio does, when radio is done to its full potential? The shared experience? The companionship? The sense of place? Sharing music discovery with a friend? Feeling like you are plugged in to the world around you – even when there is not a natural disaster taking place?

As an industry, we are still in search of a better way to do that kind of radio. Nobody has truly combined all the things that radio can do with the things it is not yet able to do on AM/FM. In many cases, we have relocated the AM/FM experience, but the challenge is now to go beyond it.

Aggregators like TuneIn and iHeart Radio are good ways to listen to a lot of different radio. For those interested in radio outside the market, they are clearly the better way to DX. But the better way to do radio is still up for grabs.

With the exception of music discovery, most pureplays have not aspired to further developing the full radio experience on the Infinite Dial. But neither have many broadcasters. For many, NPR One is closest with its ability to mix and match local and national content. On the music side, there have been efforts at adding a skip button by streaming provider Abacast. James Cridland cites the Netherlands’ MyRadio, which already has the feel of produced radio, but with a skip button. Australia’s Omny app combines personalized music and station between-the-records content. JacAPPS is promising more social/audience engagement features in its new V4 app, set for release in a few days.

Who wants these things? If you suggest that the list of things that separate full-service radio listening may sound like they are primarily of interest to a few tenacious radio junkies and industry people, you would be ignoring the 51% of listening that still goes to broadcast radio. Those listeners still choose the current broadcast experience.

But we shouldn’t fool ourselves about whether listeners are open to an enhanced experience. In pitch meetings, “Netflix for . . . “ has long been a cliché and “Uber for . . . ” has quickly become one. But somebody will develop their equivalent for radio. And it will be devastating if the days of miracle and wonder are brought to “radio” by someone other than broadcasters.

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

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