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The Things We Left Undone

Radio Show 2019 NAB RAB Sean RossThe HD Radio ads started nearly 15 years ago. They were hard to miss for a while, even when only broadcasters themselves and the most dedicated hobbyists owned an HD radio. The ads tried to explain “stations between the stations,” but to most people, the concept was nebulous, and so was the navigation of the radio, something confirmed when I went to buy an HD Radio. Then the Pandora app came to the iPhone and made clear which new technology was truly embraced by consumers.

HD Radio’s most prominent role now is to feed FM translators — some of which fill needed niches and provide a valuable public service, some of which are just spoilers. Had America developed an easier-to-use and more robust HD Radio, we might now have the viable digital tier that exists in the U.K. or Australia (where usage of streaming audio alternatives is indeed lower these days). At worst, broadcasters would have had more additional stations ready for the age of streaming. Instead, the job of providing and organizing niche channels remained with satellite radio, HD Radio’s intended target.

But the HD Radio campaign has been rendered an obscure memory by the onslaught of subsequent initiatives. HD Radio itself evoked memories of the early ‘80s AM stereo campaign (which also began before the hardware was readily available, with listeners being asked to position two radios slightly to the left and right of their desired frequency). Broadcast radio’s proliferating digital competition has spurred numerous industry-wide and/or on-air initiatives, most of them worthy, each of them obscured by a new priority before the job is finished with the previous one. Often, broadcasters expend just enough resources to waste them.

A decade later, broadcasters campaigned on a similar scale for an activated FM chip in cellphones. Under the happiest circumstances — a cooperative electronics industry, an excited consumer base, an easy solution to the measurement of earbud listening — NextRadio was under too much pressure to “solve everything.” But even a modest beachhead for audio on the phone would have provided those few extra occasions that broadcasters crave. Now the ample on-air inventory that HD Radio and NextRadio received is deployed to multiple fronts — smart-speaker listening, encouraging station app downloads, and now group podcasting efforts.

One of the common threads over the last 15 years is that our industry of communicators and creatives never quite finds the right sell. We message in a uniform and often rote manner. One year it is “like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter” with no further incentive to do so. Now it is “download our app and take this station wherever you go.” From NextRadio to “download our skill, then say, ‘Hey Alexa, play … ” there is often app-ification involved that undermines the strong point that is radio’s simplicity, but never offers an irresistible alternative.

As broadcasters moved from initiative to initiative, there were other major issues that would have benefited from the same sort of concerted, industry-wide effort:

  • The quantity of spots on broadcast radio;
  • The quality of spots on broadcast radio;
  • The quality of the streaming experience for broadcast stations;
  • Finding content that would appeal to the next generation of listeners, beyond the ad hoc mother/daughter coalitions that sometimes happened organically in CHR or Country;
  • Offering well-organized choice to listeners, especially those looking for something specialized;
  • Maintaining localism as radio’s true point of differentiation, but also creating national stations that capitalize on the potential of national radio;
  • Offering one-stop shopping for all audio needs — between them, the now-merged SiriusXM and Pandora offer the classic radio experience and the even-more-music/even-less-talk option. Also the streaming-music-on-demand choice that they’ve barely promoted. Also podcasts;
  • True broadcaster unity to compete with digital rivals and larger entertainment entities on a scale where efforts can be effective — the sort of unity that cannot happen when broadcasters elbow each other with bargain spots and commercial-free spoiler stations on FM translators.

As the industry gathers in Dallas for Radio Show 2019 next week, it is already possible to sense some broadcasters starting to view podcasting as the next 1948-style reinvention of our business — an opportunity to concede the music battle and still have something to move on to. After 70 years, “Suspense” and “I Love A Mystery” aren’t just the network shows we heard our parents and grandparents reminisce about; suddenly, they’re the episodic forerunners of today’s true-crime genre.

Merely viewing podcasting as radio’s escape hatch is like thinking of migrating to Mars as the answer to climate change — the most draconian choice for a problem not easily solved under any circumstances.  Not everybody will make it onto the spaceship — only a few broadcasters begin the process with both product and distribution — and the problems of home will follow those who do. For both the benefit of those still making a living from local broadcast radio, and those looking beyond it, those issues must be tackled with the same vigor as each silver bullet.

The quality and quantity of spots, and what we choose to sell them for, remain an issue, even if broadcasters evolve to podcasters. For those who are not NPR, iHeart, ESPN, or Entercom (and perhaps even for those who are), so is needing industry unity to achieve scale. Broadcasting and podcasting will better promote each other when everybody better provides one-stop audio shopping on a well-organized platform. So, ahem, will playlisting — an obvious extension of radio’s strengths that has somehow not become an industry campaign. Fixing the radio industry we have is the first step in keeping podcasting or any future silver bullets from becoming one more of the things we’ve left undone.

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  1. frankieagogo says

    The war for listeners is lost, Sure, the ratings services and research firms sell station owners the fantasies they want to hear, and something they think they can sell. It’s business. But reality is something else. There is no real future for radio as we have known it, and, as you so accurately point out, the industry has fumbled every attempt to remain relevant. It’s just a matter of time before a one-hundred year old technology goes the way of the once ubiquitous ice box.

    My four and six year old have no idea that radio exist, but they do now how to say… Alexa, play… And they do know how to tune in Amazon Prime music channels on our TVs. And they find music on their tablets. All this without the guidance of mom or dad; much to our shock and surprise since I don’t want my innocents listening to pop music filled with sexual themes.

    Personally, as a radio guy, I stated that I would never pay for satellite radio, but let’s be honest, Serius delivers an incredible product. I haven’t listened to AM/FM for 20 years; except for an occasional listen to Rush or Coast to Coast AM, and when I do, it’s through Tune-in.

    The point here is that the audience has moved on to better technologies. If I owned a license to a frequency, or 500 licenses, I’d be selling off NOW before they become worthless, like all those once hugely successful heritage AM stations. I worked at two 50,000 watt clear channel heritage AMs in my youth, both are now DARK… This is the future of AM/FM.

    Radio will linger on for awhile, but the idea that audiences will listen to endless commercials and formatics that haven’t changed in more than 50 years, and ten song playlists, is madness in a world where so many better listening opportunities exist.

    As to the concept of local, the younger audience, people under forty, could care less. The death of so many local newspapers is proof of that. Adding to all of this misery for radio people is the endless choices of entertainment now available, most of which are available on my cell phone. How can a local station possibly compete? And as a local advertiser for many years, I can tell you first hand that a radio commercial no longer delivers results. As a friend of mine who owns a local advertising agency told me, if he hadn’t hired some tech kids and began selling the Internet, he’d be out of business.

    Yes, it’s all very depressing. But you’ll get even more depressed trying to listen to once dominant KISS-FM here in Los Angeles now with a 3.4 rating in seventh place. The station is unlistenable. But what’s more shocking is that the top six stations all cater to old white people. Soft Rock KOST-FM is #1 and Oldies KRTH-FM #2. Radio’s future listeners don’t exist. And, of course, ad sales are way down.

    This dog had its day, that day has long past.

  2. martybender says

    Create quality commercials and the quantity issue goes away.

    1. Sean Ross says

      I agree that it becomes less of an issue. But 6-8 minutes of spots, even great ones, may never be considered a fair trade-off again. And if there’s a truly great or clever spot running in your market, I want to hear it (seriously, not a rhetorical comment).

      1. jaymeyers says

        Brilliantly written and presented. Should be required reading for everyone in our business

        1. Sean Ross says

          Thanks, Jay!

  3. dmr_andrew says

    Thanks Sean. There is merit to failing fast in order to innovate faster. However, as you note, jumping from one big idea to the next and expending “just enough resources to waste them” is not the same thing.

    Radio is far too willing to pursue the next silver bullet often at the expense of our core on-air business.

    Data from across measurement platforms confirms radio’s sustained and unrivaled dominance in the audio space. However, maximizing the mother ship, while also making the necessary upgrades for a fast approaching future, requires an industry wide effort and a full measure of confidence.

    1. Sean Ross says

      Thanks, Andrew. And thanks for your rallying calls to the industry as well.

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