Radio Failing Online

I knew this years ago when I arrived on the campus of USC.

I didn't want to believe it. Didn't believe that it was as bad as it has turned out to be, but now the latest Arbitron data is confirming my worst fears -- streaming terrestrial radio is laying an egg on the Internet.

This in spite of all the hype about how certain large conglomerates are increasing their online streaming numbers. In reality they are going from hardly any online listeners to their terrestrial programming to almost hardly any listeners when you compare apples to apples.

How does less than 1% sound?

Online listening to AM/FM stations represents less than 1% if the total quarter hours in the 30 Fall, 2006 markets Arbitron analyzed. The proportion of listening went up causing a modest increase to individual station ratings but the overall number is bleak.

There were 20,331 unweighted quarter hours of Internet listening to specific AM and FM stations -- up from 4,684 in the previous spring. But that's due to new and revised reporting instructions in the Fall rating period.

And, it gets worse.

Most of the Internet listening for AM/FM stations is attributed to older males -- not the young early adopters a lot of radio companies thought they were attracting on the net. Lots of older people use the Internet although I'm not calling you names or anything.

This older male radio listening online is from listeners -- 78% of whom also listen to the terrestrial radio signal.

What does it all mean.

I know a lot of my blog readers think I put too much credence in my contact with college students but what they're reflecting is what is happening -- they have little interest in traditional radio programming.

Note I said programming.

It's true they don't like consolidation. Don't like Clear Channel (I love them because they made it possible for me to take a sabbatical from radio as a college professor).

It's really time to put aside some of your prejudices about the next generation and listen to what they are saying. It's also true that no college campus is 100% representative of the entire generation but this group is turning out to be a very reliable indicator.

So, let me tell you what I think their problem is and why even streaming terrestrial radio on the Internet doesn't make radio more attractive.

1. They don't like the way you talk to them -- relate to them. You're not talking to them. You're still doing sweepers that just happen to be aimed at youth-oriented formats.

2. All radio sounds the same to the next generation. It has a smell, if you will. The world has changed and we're still hiring the same voice-over people to cut the same meaningless sweepers and positioners. Sweepers don't resonate. Positioners box you in -- needlessly. Why is radio continuing to do this?

3. Not enough music variety. I know -- I know, I am a program director and I know they can't possibly want a huge playlist of music if it must also include marginal stuff. This is not to say that this generation doesn't really enjoy listening to non-hit material -- they do -- but what they are really saying is that your idea of variety is still too tight.

4. What you say it is, it isn't and they know it. If you say fewer commercials, they know it isn't so (even if it is true). Perception is still bigger than reality. If you say you play what you want they wonder, why do you have to rub it in our faces. We also play what we want on our iPods. The only time you'll hear me utter the phrase less is more without derision is when it comes to on-air hype. Lose it. Less is more when it comes to on-air hype. They don't buy it. Do it. Don't say it. They'll figure it out.

5. There is a big interest in knowledgeable djs -- thank God that didn't happen when I was on the radio or programming! Since their level of knowledge about music, genres, the music culture, etc. is so great (not just my students) you can imagine how stupid radio sounds with some of the jocks we all hear on our airwaves. I don't know if radio will ever take this one seriously but they should -- don't keep hiring dumb jocks.

6. They love news. You don't because you came from my generation of fighting the FCC to get the then-required news commitment moved to the overnight hours so you could play more hits. True, they don't care about the Iraq war (I'm generalizing, of course). Most are not as interested in politics as I remember from my college days. But they're not craving Paris Hilton stories, either. This generation gets its news instantly, on the go and online. You'll have to tell them something they don't know. You're telling them next to nothing right now.

7. They're more retro than you may know. You may only have to search your inner past to get a view of the future. In other words, radio used to do it right, before this generation was born. They didn't screw it up, we did. Put on a radio station that doesn't sound like one -- I dare you.

It's also helpful to remember that the Internet is just a delivery system the same as a radio transmitter is. Don't confuse the delivery system with content.

Good content is good content.

Too much of radio is not producing good content. It's producing content that fills up time and space -- cheaply.

That's why I'd rather swallow my bitter medicine about radio now than try to make it go down easier.

Remember the phrase "radio sucks"?

If you do, you'll note that it came into our vocabulary well, well before the Internet arrived, before mobile devices like iPods, prior to cell phones, before digital downloading, before email, texting and the like.

We were blowing it before our listeners could really do anything about it.

Now, the generation that has grown up online, is rejecting traditional media (TV and print, you're guilty, too!).

On my first day as a USC professor a number of years ago one student ended a class by proclaiming "we don't need radio". Remember, it was a music media class not a communications course. Still, he was sending me a message.

Are you beginning to get the same message?