It’s The Rest Of The World … And We Don’t Know It

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“So I’m guessing we’ll see something about Australia in the column soon?”

That was one of my hosts in Melbourne driving me back to the airport. I’d been in the country for six days, the result of an invitation to present my “Radio in an Audio World” at the Commercial Radio Australia conference – their version of the NAB/RAB Radio Show. But I wasn’t sure I was going to write about my trip.

I wanted to. Australia is an impressive radio landscape. But over the last decade of “Ross on Radio” as a standalone newsletter, there are a few topics that seem to make readers glaze over, judging from the response. One is anything having to do with digital. The other is international radio.

Eighteen months ago, I came back from the British Columbia Assn. of Broadcasters conference, wrote about the three-way Vancouver CHR battle and heard crickets, not clicks. I have plenty of readers who would normally appreciate a good three-way top 40 race, but not that one, apparently.

Six months ago, I wrote about two radio veterans who happened to be Canadian: CKLW Detroit’s Rosalie Trombley and CFNY Toronto’s Liz Janik. Trombley, like CKLW itself, left a footprint across North America. Janik went on to work extensively in the U.S., including launching WKQX (Q101) Chicago. And the article was about the lack of music curation today, not about anything specific to Canadian radio.

I blasted the column the first time with the CFNY logo and the response (other than from readers with a direct connection to those saluted) was minimal. I tried again with different artwork and a blurb that emphasized the topic instead of the stations. This time the response was better. James Cridland and I wrote a column together that was a dialogue on music taste both here and on his home turf, where he is managing director of the U.K.-based Media.info site. Cridland is an immensely smart person who looks at the worldwide radio landscape in a similar way. That column drew modest response as well – at least from the readers on my list.

The list goes on. I wrote an article citing German radio as part of a larger trend. Somebody reading the first draft warned me that it would immediately make U.S. programmers tune out. (I worked in a few mentions anyway.)

I know where the reticence on digital comes from. Only a few broadcasters would really claim that, say, Spotify has no relevance in our world anymore. But there were always plenty of people who made a point of never monitoring their direct FM competition. While I understand wanting to focus on the product you do control, I don’t accept that in any way acknowledging the other guy is somehow a sign of weakness.

The indifference to foreign radio, especially among a readership that usually shares my appetite for radio adventure, is harder to parse. My affection for Canadian radio and music is well documented by now, but even if you grimace at any discussion of my Cancon faves, Canadian radio remains profitable and successful, and far less tumultuous than radio here. TSL loss is half of what America has experienced. Digital is taking hold more slowly (possibly because satellite radio is particularly entrenched). Broadcasters can still invest in the product and still do. Why shouldn’t broadcasters be interested in this healthy radio ecosystem?

Australian radio shares that robustness. To monitor large-market radio in middays is to hear every station running a cash contest – something Americans haven’t heard for a long time. Morning drive and afternoon drive hosts are usually multi-media stars. When Sydney morning team Kyle & Jackie O switched stations, the result was the sort of ratings transplant that hasn’t happened here on a regular basis since the ‘90s. There’s also a willingness to target 45-54 that’s absent here, and TSL in that demo has grown as a result.

Australia also has a more viable digital radio tier. I’ve heard very different things from different people about how successful the country’s “Digital Radio Plus” has been. Some regard it as just as finicky in use as HD Radio (although the interface is far simpler). Some feel that its imminent inclusion in ratings will finally ratify its success. Australian DAB is, in any event, a far more fully realized effort at being one’s own competition and providing listeners with more choice than U.S. broadcasters have mustered.

Australian radio is not immune from radio’s existential issues. TSL loss is somewhere between Canada and America – down two hours a week there by several estimates. Discussions of the broadcast industry usually begin with a mention of being in “rude health” but usually include the admission a few minutes in that the speaker’s kids don’t listen to radio. Spotload is close to ours (10-14 minutes, when I monitor). And a royalty dispute with the Australian music industry keeps all but major-market stations from streaming.

But Australian radio still manages the 30% profit margins that used to make U.S. radio the envy of many other businesses. Broadcasters have been buoyed by a consistently healthy economy and a relatively small number of rated stations – the sort of closed shop that hasn’t existed here for decades. But even there lies a lesson at a time when U.S. broadcasters are flooding their market with low-power translators whose aim, in many cases, is primarily to inconvenience a rival.

One of the central tenets of “Radio in an Audio World” is that with broadcasters so overwhelmed at the individual station level, their best chance of moving forward – providing more listener choice and being their own competition – can only happen at the national and organizational level. Cridland goes further—radio needs to demonstrate its worldwide strength for people to realize just how effective it is.

So there’s encouragement in iHeart Media and NextRadio being among those partnering with the BBC (and Commercial Radio Australia) on an integrated tuner for smartphones. That effort has been reported in some places as an international push for activation of the FM chip in smartphones, but it goes beyond that and should. Radio needs more FM listening on smartphones. Broadcast radio also needs more listening on IP, which is not going away, no matter how successful the FM cellphone campaign is.

And radio needs an international effort. Broadcast’s big-name competitors – Pandora, iTunes, Spotify – aren’t available everywhere yet, but they are all multi-national brands and all, as it happens, available in Australia. The health of radio in other markets is continued proof of what remains possible here, and if only for that reason U.S. broadcasters should not be indifferent.

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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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