What Radio Can Learn From Radio

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What can radio learn from a radio blogger? Often, it’s how to be anybody else. Every few weeks, at least, broadcasters are urged to follow the lessons of some hot company or industry, usually one generating positive headlines of the sort that radio can only envy.

Apple has been a frequent topic of these articles. Last Wednesday morning, my inbox had an article about what radio could learn from Apple Pay. But there have also been articles on what radio can learn from the Super Bowl (two different ones), Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, YouTube’s viral media stars, Pixar, Domino’s Pizza, Halloween, TV in general, and Australian radio. And that’s just been in the last year or so.

It’s often valid advice. I do take inspiration from Fallon, who — in about a week’s time — managed to shut down the prevailing wisdom that younger audiences would never again be interested in late-night TV. I have also written that U.S. broadcasters would do well to keep an eye on Australia, Canada, the U.K., and other places where radio faces similar challenges but hasn’t been quite as overwhelmed by them.

But now it’s time to consider that U.S. radio might already have some of its own answers as well.

Those who blog to other industries don’t think that’s a crazy idea. Search the words “…can learn from radio” and the 21,000 responses include “What Web Marketers Can Learn From Radio,” “What Social Media Can Learn From Radio,” and several on digital media and content. None of the front-page results use radio as a cautionary tale, as radio’s own often-negative bloggers might. Instead, they praise radio’s localism and economy in messaging, among other things.

Apple, the entity broadcasters are most often encouraged to emulate, did not come up with the name iTunes Radio by accident. Neither did Pandora Radio or Rdio. Those beyond the broadcast dial recognize that, at the very least, “radio” is well-regarded and easy to understand.

Earlier this year, I came up with my own list of broadcasters’ assets for a presentation called “Radio in an Audio World.” The intent wasn’t just a pep talk. It wasn’t at all intended to drag out the unproductive discussion of whether Webcasters also produce “radio.” It was to identify the strengths that might propel broadcasters forward on every platform. In doing so, it became clear that broadcasters would be in pretty good shape if they only played to radio’s own strengths on a regular basis. But scanning the list shows broadcast’s track record to be uneven.

The Shared Experience. Radio’s claims to be the “original social network” sound desperate now, but they’re also a little reductive. At its best, radio as a cultural unifier differed from TV and movies only in the geographic footprint of individual stations. And certain format movements (early rock radio, for instance) were absolutely national. The success of Scott Shannon and WCBS-FM New York is a shared experience harkening back to the shared experience of WHTZ (Z100) thirty years ago. The song of the summer is a shared experience. But so was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, driven more by social media and TV. So are Pandora, YouTube and satellite radio. So, increasingly, is podcasting, and it is gratifying at least that its breakthrough, “Serial,” came from broadcasters.

Showmanship: There are plenty of station concerts now, but showmanship used to happen on a regular basis between every song on some stations. It was the sense that you were being entertained in some way that went beyond what you could do playing music for yourself. That kind of bigness has been a casualty of the post-PPM era. For the most part, there’s no sign of broadcasters’ competition stepping up to offer that sort of engagement, although if the ability to offer an artist concert is what constitutes showmanship, Pandora has found a way to bake an artist meet-and-greet into a listening session.

Live and Local: In my work with Edison Research, I’ve seen this to be a more easily understood, better appreciated commodity recently. The last year has seen Rush Limbaugh on KFI Los Angeles and Tom Joyner on WDMK Detroit give way to local shows. As often, though, it’s going the other way, with Nash-FM cheerfully rolled out in markets like New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and New Orleans that were once radio’s most distinctive. Most other forms of radio are not trying to be local content providers, although if I hear an ad from a local business in my New York-area suburb it is most likely to be on Pandora.

Sense of Place: Beyond “live and local,” it is the notion that a radio station could only be broadcasting from one place. Hawaiian radio, with its distinct reggae-flavored mix, is a perfect example. Visitors often return home and stream it, just to keep the vacation going a little longer. Just as often, though, it is possible to hear stations where the only true localism is in the commercials. And now Pandora does that, too.

Companionship: It isn’t always high-profile personality. You likely have gregarious friends and lower-key friends and appreciate them both. WLTW (Lite FM) has more forefront personalities these days than it used to, but I have no doubt that many listeners missed longtime host Valerie Smaldone as much as any morning show. Christian AC personalities don’t have much more open-mic time than the average AC, but in 30 seconds, they attempt to help listeners make sense of the world. Competing audio sources for music are, by and large, not trying to be in that business.

Music Recovery: There is often as much passion in putting people in touch with music they haven’t heard in a while as in introducing them to new music, as demonstrated most recently by the land rush for throwback hip-hop and R&B. There is plenty of music not usually played on broadcast radio available elsewhere. The response to the new format suggests that people still appreciate having it organized and presented to them.

Music Discovery: It’s been nearly a year since the Wall Street Journal reported that radio’s response to losing its hegemony on music discovery had been to become more conservative. Some can spin that as a positive: radio plays and legitimizes the hits. For those who are concerned about losing the music curation franchise, it is one that satellite radio has enthusiastically taken up, and one that Songza and Beats Music (and thus Google and Apple) are banking on.

Because Beats Music and iTunes Radio were not immediately phenomenal in the manner of their namesakes, broadcasters are eager to dismiss them. Apple set out with a track record for reinventing common experiences, and the resources to recreate the best parts of the broadcast-radio experience on a larger scale. Today, you could write an article on “What Apple Can Learn From Radio” (or even “What iTunes Radio Can Learn From Apple”). But broadcasters shouldn’t be fooled: That track record and those resources still exist. And iTunes Radio remains another place to hear a lot of music with far fewer ads.

Continuous Music: You can argue whether this one is still allowed on the list. I believe broadcasters still program music as well as anybody, but it’s certainly a moot point for some listeners if the spotload issue isn’t resolved. I clocked Pandora earlier this year at just over two minutes of commercials. Earlier this month I repeated the exercise and they were up to three-and-a-half: still less than music radio’s 10 to 16 minutes. Songza, meanwhile, isn’t running audio ads at all. There’s only pre-roll and native advertising. There are more experiments in spotload reduction now than there were a year ago, and yet you get the sense that many in the industry are rooting against them.

Identifying broadcasters’ strengths may not be easily translated to acting on them, especially in an environment when radio is overtaxed and overwhelmed. But it’s no easier for radio to go out and “be Apple,” or “be the Super Bowl,” or “be Domino’s.” Your advice to a family member or a close friend on their own self-doubts would be easy. “Be your best self” requires a lot of effort, but “be yourself” is always the starting point.

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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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