A Simulcast No Longer

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Streaming of broadcast radio is not growing.

Why would it?

Online simulcasts of broadcast radio are twenty years old now. Because of various royalty issues, they haven’t been consistently available over that time, but most major stations have been simulcasting their on-air product for five to ten years at least.

Streaming of broadcast radio is still, generously, a mediocre experience after a decade. Some stations have escaped the morass of downer PSAs. Some stations have swapped in fill songs for spots. Many, however, have replaced the PSA that plays three times in seven minutes with the O’Riley Auto Parts ad that plays three times in seven minutes. Ad insertion often remains clunky.

Then there’s the matter of those seven minute stopsets. Either of a broadcast radio station’s hourly breaks is typically twice the number of minutes I usually encounter in an entire hour of Pandora. When Songza began to take hold earlier this year, it did so without traditional spots – just pre-rolls, sponsorships, and native advertising. While Songza’s demands are not the same as those on traditional broadcasters, it managed the feat that has most defied radio for decades—selling sponsorships, not spots.

For the last year or so, it has seemed to me that broadcasters’ best alternative was to create new products that could offer the amount of continuous music that listeners have come to expect from online radio. Journal Broadcast Group’s Radio League app did that – offering more than a dozen standalone formats – although it has since revamped the app to include traditional simulcasts. Both CBS Radio and iHeart offer imaginative standalone formats.

But the Web-specific products that most broadcasters create don’t have the other things that listeners appreciate about radio. There is no companionship, no community, no service element. Broadcast radio still does things listeners appreciate. With radio still controlling 52% of all audio listenership, it is unlikely that those who still broadcast radio are doing so only until a better connected car comes along. But broadcasters haven’t found a sufficiently competitive way to do what they do well online

Part of the problem is that there is no budget in today’s radio for ancillary products. And most of what broadcasters do online – simulcast or otherwise – is an ancillary product. Why would you hire an airstaff for a side channel? Why would you reduce your FM spotload to make an ancillary product more viable? And if broadcast radio online is only allowed to matter but so much, how can there not be at least a subliminal difference in the willingness to make it work? If personalized radio is “only a feature” to a broadcast group, but Pandora’s entire reason for existence, who will have a greater stake in its success?

So what if broadcast streaming was not an ancillary product, but the homebase?

What if the AM/FM broadcast was “the simulcast”?

What if every viable well-loved station was available online with all the personalities you love, a competitive number of interruptions, more sponsorships and fewer spots?

What if ad insertion were the thing that happened not online, but on the FM band where, after a barely perceptible pause online, broadcasters added the number of spots that they think over-the-air listeners will still accept?

Clearly, it is easier to fill up seven minutes over the air with spots than it is to fill the equivalent amount of online time with alternate content. So stop trying. Run up to five minutes of spots an hour online if you can get your premium rate for them. But no dire PSAs. No vignettes. No extraneous promos. If anybody really wanted to hear those, FM radio would run them now.

The biggest change here, of course, is mindset. If the online version of the station was the flagship, things would probably be right more often. And if ad insertion were the thing that happens on the AM/FM side where, for now, the greater number of advertisers and listeners are, the rejoins would probably sound better.

It’s not an unprecedented suggestion. A decade ago, we told our PDs to think of themselves as product managers of a Website that happened to have a transmitter attached. We bonused them for Web traffic. But what we got wasn’t a better online experience. It was, “What did Lindsay Lohan did now? Go to our Website for pictures.”

Would treating the stream as the primary product be contradictory to broadcasters’ current push for an FM chip in smartphones? Most broadcasters concede that the battle will have to take place on both fronts. FM on cellphones is a kiosk in the new mall; it only has to generate a little more listening to be worthwhile and to reimage radio to a younger audience.

But even if you firmly believe that listeners must repudiate streaming for NextRadio to work, the short term need is to engage with listeners where they are now. If we want listeners to demand that their carriers make our radio stations available without data charges, they are more likely to do so if they are having a better experience with us on the radio now. And we have to want to give them that better experience. We can sell existing great audio brands online. But only if we think of them that way.

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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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