Radio's New Litmus Test

There has been such a big stink in the radio industry over adopting the new Arbitron Portable People Meter ratings system that it is easy for the real issues to get lost in the controversy.

There is no doubt radio needs to adopt, support and, yes, improve the PPM methodology. The potential is there for curing the under reporting of radio stations and at the same time the risk exists of inaccurately reporting certain formats that are popular with specific demographics. Still, the PPM is the future.

But I have a litmus test, if you will, for a radio station's real popularity that has nothing to do with Arbitron diaries or new technology.

Imagine for a moment that your station had to support itself like a non-commercial public station does -- by soliciting donations from happy listeners and willing corporations and sponsors. Not just spots.

Don't lose that thought.

So, if your station turned to its listeners tomorrow and said support us because we're your lifeline to -- blank (whatever you do so well that they would give donations to you), would your listeners do it?

I'm guessing no.

Public radio has no other choice.

It has to have high (approval) ratings from its listeners because the stations ask their listeners to help fund operations. These stations have to be seen as critical to the community because they have to go to sponsors and corporations and seek grant money for local shows. (I'm not talking about the national beg-a-thons here, just the local ones).

It's remarkable that public stations -- available to everyone for free -- can attract donors who will support them nonetheless. This means they are filling an important need in their communities, in their niches, in the lives of their audiences.

Could commercial stations say that?

Of course they could say it, but I doubt that they could even begin to get donations because most commercial stations are either glorified iPods with inane djs or outlets for national programming that makes little sense to the successful radio mantra -- local, local, local.

In the months ahead, watch the radio industry commit suicide.

The consolidators inspired by the folks at Clear Channel are cutting expenses and reducing their staffs in anticipation of more trouble ahead. The outlook for radio in 2008 is bleak. Seven years of erosion and poor prognostications for the year ahead in audience and billing. That's not me talking -- it's your few remaining Wall Street analysts who cover radio.

Still, these operators are heading for the hemlock at record speed.

You see Citadel's Farid Suleman getting ready to offer up Don Imus for syndication early next year. Just what a hurting local radio needs -- more national programming aimed at old people. The lunatic fringe talk show host Glenn Beck has been offered something like $25 million including incentives to spew his venom all over radio for the next few years.

Smart. Really smart.

Radio continues to be a safe haven for blow-hards who mindlessly shout from the right and shout from the left. They have one thing in common -- they shout. Just what a dying radio industry needs. So what do we do? Sign on for more of the same losing formulas that got us into trouble in the first place.

Back to the litmus test.

What is so great about the public radio approach is that it keeps operators in tune with the audience. If they can't attract listeners willing to support them, they cannot operate. In commercial radio, Wall Street props up many losing ideas and formats in the hope that they will return a profit. These stations are out of touch with reality, but then Wall Street was never reality, was it?

I'm not suggesting that commercial radio stations stop carrying commercials.

Okay, maybe I'm saying they should carry four an hour and charge a lot for them (don't kill me, it would work -- ask Peter Smyth of Greater Media, a proponent for tightening inventory and raising prices).

What I am saying is that commercial radio doesn't have to become public radio, but it should think like public radio.

Would enough of your listeners and sponsors support your station even though everyone can hear it for free over the air?

Well, would they?

Then, my friends, you have the best ratings you could ever wish for -- a franchise where you are valued not devalued as is fast becoming the current trend in radio.

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