What's Really Killing Radio

It's not lack of HD technology, not too many commercials, not competition from iPods, cyberspace or social networks.

Not the decline of the music industry and certainly not satellite radio.

Radio has lost its listeners' trust.

Radio used to be a trusted friend.

I remember when I programmed in Philadelphia. I inherited a fascinating (although long) jingle package called "Where Your Friends Are". The station and other stations that subscribed to that jingle imagery actually tried to make the listeners feel that top 40 radio was their friend.

Today, students laugh when they hear them -- not because the music is ancient -- but because the concept is.

Radio used to be a listener's friend.

And it still is -- but only where radio works.

And that tends to be in smaller markets. Small market radio never got the message that radio was dead probably because the bug-eyed consolidators who lusted after the big stations in the big markets fell in love with the small stuff second -- if at all.

It's true that small market consolidators came next -- and that some of them were no better than their bigger brethren -- but there are also some good operators who remember their roots.

Winning and holding the listeners' trust.

NPR has it today on a national level. Ask young people -- and I do -- if they listen to radio and they unenthusiastically say yes. Less, but yes. But when they refuse to put NPR in the same category as radio, you've got a clue as to to how deep the trust problem runs. NPR is not radio.

Radio is a commodity to them. Hell, radio is a commodity to most consolidators. It's mission accomplished.

When small market stations become part of the community instead of big market imitators these stations still find the most passionate listeners.

Radio has been ruined by most consolidators.

I say it again and again because all the other issues are secondary to this nuclear holocaust that happened in our industry. Consolidation has been bad for radio and good for a precious few.

Consolidators lost their way because they forgot what made radio the darling of Wall Street in the first place. And as soon as consolidators worked their "magic" things began to unravel.

1. Virtual voice tracking -- how silly, how stupid, how anti-radio.

2. Economies of scale -- one PD running more than one station. Managers responsible for more than they could handle. Idiots (not everyone, but you know what I mean) overseeing regions when they couldn't even run one station.

3. Cutbacks -- please Wall Street at the expense of main street.

4. Shortsightedness -- that's what kept the IT guy in the back room when the IT guy was the only one who knew about the revolution that was coming.

5. Paranoia run wild -- it's satellite right that's the enemy. No, it's the iPod and Steve Jobs and the cell phone and those kids with short attention span. They'll be back. Well, they won't. They've got elsewhere and the relationship the next generation now has with radio is defined by convenience not choice in too many cases.

6. Bickering with the record labels -- radio kicked the labels when they were down by trying to pull off legalized payola. The labels get access to consolidator's program directors and in return they get weekly "adds" a few hours ahead of the music trade press. Big deal. Big scam. For this the labels were forced to pay the consolidators -- in some cases millions a year. No wonder the labels are taking radio stations down with them as they discover that they have no answers going forward. Eliot Spitzer put the fear of God in them and now it's gone.

7. Arrogance -- forcing advertisers to buy what they didn't want to buy. Packaging stations that were stiffs with ones that were winners. And the resentment that bred. High prices. Commercial clusters no one listened to because they were too long (duh, the sixth spot in a six spot cluster -- great marketing). Arrogance for not helping advertisers become better communicators -- especially on the local level. The salesperson writes the copy, gives it to the swing guy who throws some music together and makes it sound like everything else and bill the client. Radio needs more Jerry Lee's (WBEB, Philadelphia) who understands radio and advertisers together.

8. Measuring audience instead of effectiveness -- meaning if I all of a sudden said I'm going to carry advertisements and I have three million readers (okay, down boy) you'd expect results, wouldn't you or else you wouldn't care how many readers I had, right? In radio, we got so caught up with how many listeners we had and not at all concerned with whether we could make them buy what our sponsors were selling. After all, it is commercial terrestrial radio. And the infighting over the People Meter is more of the "stick your head in the sand" mentality that has little to do with whether a radio station can effectively communicate with its listeners. (By the way, those of you who get mad when I mention what my students like, skip this line -- they like "live read" commercials by people they respect. Sorry).

There is no shortage of the things that really killed radio. I'll bet my readers can add many enlightening comments as further proof.

But in the end, the bond of trust that radio used to have with its listeners of all ages has been broken and the thing that initiated this self-destruction was the illusion that consolidation was good for the radio industry.

It was good for the consolidators.

Consolidation was bad for radio listeners and the future of radio. That's why the Internet is the hope for the future because Internet radio (and not terrestrial streams) has a second chance to build the bond of trust that made radio a great source of communication and a great free cash flow business.

A business that is imperiled by a shortage of young listeners with whom they have no meaningful relationship.

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