Thursday, March 13, 2008

Where will we get our entertainment in 2013 -- Part II

Some of the topics we have been discussing on this blog are not merely areas of curiosity or mild interest to many folks out there in the real world. It directly affects how they make a living and where their nest-egg investment is going. And it also affects how billions or people get their entertainment and information. There is currently a big debate raging among commercial radio broadcasters about how their particular “mass” medium fits into the picture nowadays.

Stations have cut personnel and spending about as much as they can in order to continue to show the kind of cash flow Wall Street analysts demand. Unfortunately, a great deal of that cutting has been at the expense of the on-air product they offer their listeners. Cookie-cutter formats (my term), piped-in voice-tracked personalities who are doing their thing for scores of stations all over the country (my very big pet peeve), and watered-down music aimed more at not offending anyone than at actually entertaining or enlightening someone—these are all steps station owners have begun taking to try to maintain a positive EBITDA.

Of course, what those owners have done is abdicate their role as the most personal, immediate, and intimate medium. Anyone can program his iPod with a better custom-selected musical playlist than a radio station, trying to cover all bases to get a “mass” audience, could ever manage. News, traffic, weather, and talk are available anywhere instantly, on demand, from the Internet. Satellite radio offers a huge selection of format variations to its subscribers. No one knows how many niche Internet radio stations there are out there. Any kid with a computer and an Internet hosting account can put a “station” “on the air,” broadcasting to the entire planet, and with no need to show a profit or even a measureable audience.

Radio’s ubiquity—there’s a receiver in every car sold and the average household in America owns five radios—has always been one of its big strengths. But with wi-fi spreading so fast and cell phone “radio” imminent, the time is rapidly approaching when there will be a computer in your dash instead and you can dial in “radio stations” from a staggering number of available options. Or watch movies or check your email or (hopefully from the passenger seat) work on the Power Point or Excel spreadsheet with your team back at the office, preparing for tomorrow's meeting.

Some argue that the only way to save radio broadcasting is for stations to stop emphasizing their tower on the hill and over-the-air signal. Instead, they should become “content providers,” developing compelling programming that audiences will continue to seek them out to hear. They will have to make that content available not only on the FCC-assigned frequency via RF, but also on the web, via podcasts, and by any other means that people now comfortably use to get their music, news, and companionship. They will have to use the term "broadcasting" in the context of its meaning TODAY, not in 1934.

If you would like to read more, check out this article about a recent conference in Silicon Valley addressing this very topic.

Before radio completely loses its legacy of providing ad hoc, spur-of-the-moment programming, it needs to reinvest in the content it offers it listeners. It must find new ways of captivating an audience and pricing that sudience for advertisers. That is the only way stations will be able to attract a large enough group of listeners to be able to sell those ears to advertisers.

Since the medium is rapidly losing its ubiquity, it simply must concentrate on its other strengths—its ability to entertain, to inform, to take people to a different place, whether it be in reality or via “theater of the mind,” and to provide precious, personal companionship, a voice that whispers in the ear or shouts in the faces of its listeners.

Don N4KC


Anonymous said...

Wow, Don, you are so on-target about Big Radio!

As you know, I am a media buff and I recently saw a documentary about this very subject. Clear Channel, of course, was THE Big Radio example, with accountants rather than knowledgeable DJ's spitting out what today passes for so-called Top 40.

Whether you live in New York, Chicago or L.A, you get McProgramming from their Centcom. You can set your watch by when a certain song appears on the same playlist across America.

Here in Milwaukee, we finally lost WFMR, the last bastion of classical music :(, so I am left with Wisconsin Public Radio for classical, and that only runs until three in the afternoon. But it has REAL DJ's and they are knowledgeable about what they are playing, thankfully.

When I was in the field selling every day, besides the classical WFMR (now gone) I listened to WJZY, the local Smooth Jazz FM offering with live air personalities,remote PR appearances, etc.

A conglomerate came from out of town, gobbled it up, fired all the local people and installed another one of those Centcom robotic feeds via satellite.

Sad, sad, sad!

I hear that some commercial service vans will come off the assembly line with computers installed in their dashes.

I don't have a problem with that. My Sears lawn tractor serviceman already carries a laptop and can instantly check for parts, order same and take credit cards, all from his vehicle.

But in-dash computers in passenger cars? Yikes!

As much as I love and use computers every day in my professional short story writing at, I can't see myself doing so from my car (while standing still), unless I was using a Bluetooth headset and dictating into Dragon voice-recognition software.

Heaven forbid, if teen drivers get hold of Daddy's in-dash computers and log on at 65 miles per hour (and you know they will)!

I grew up on "real" commercial radio, 50,000-watt WLS in Chicago and legendary DJ's like Dick Biondi. There was a real connection there. You and him, every day. Like a big brother.

I also grew up with a big honking wooden cabinet Philco console radio, with its green tuning eye and giant speakers.

That very radio is why I am a ham radio operator today and for the past 47-plus years.

You see, that radio also had the mysterious shortwave bands on it. Radio Moscow, BBC, etc. Now, much of that is now being fed to the world by streaming audio on the Internet. Not the same to this OM!

Well, I guess I had better sign. My wife wants me to watch something she likes on McTV. Ugh!


Wayne C. Long, K9YNF

Anonymous said...

Wayne, many of us had that same experience with the big console radio that pulled in exotic signals at spots on the dial that were actually marked with "Berlin," "Paris," and "London." For a kid in a tiny rural town in Alabama, that was about as amazing as it got.

I did 23 years on the air, and while I was no great personality (like Dick Biondi on WLS...yes, I used to hear him all the way down here), I knew I was accomplishing something when I would meet listeners and they treated me as if I was a longtime friend. Or told me long afterwards about something I said on the air or a mix of songs that brightened their day or that got them through a rough patch.

See, anybody can play one song after another. But a real personality can entertain you, be a friend, make you mad, turn you on to some great new songs, and...most of all...offer companionship. There are guys out there who can do it. But I'm afraid they are selling cars or punching a time clock at the factory or wasting all that talent at some other job.

Don N4KC