User Generated Radio

I’ve have wanted to write about this topic for a long time, but something that happened the other day has propelled me into action right after the Thanksgiving holiday.

I heard Morley Winograd, the director of USC Marshall’s Center for Telecom Management who is publishing a book this Spring on millennials remind my students that baby boomers are running traditional media companies and the majority of them do not understand Generation Y. In fact, they are making every mistake in the book if they want to reach this demographic.

Why care?

Generation Y (generally those folks born between 1984 and 2004) will constitute an even larger group than the expansive baby boom generation.

Lots of radio people get upset when I write so passionately about how to reach the next generation. In many cases they are angry. They don’t care. To be blunt, they don’t understand them.

Take my brethren in radio.

They have neglected the needs of Gen Y while they were tending to their short-term needs (i.e., to make a bundle of money consolidating and going public). It’s not all their fault. New technology, changing sociological trends and economic considerations made the next generation potent agents of change. It was hard to keep up.

See, baby boomer managers think they can control radio stations by devising formats that different demographics will listen to. It’s always been that way so why not follow the logical conclusion.

But the next generation is different – very different.

They want to be the program director.

They want to be involved in their lives every step along the way. They turn to YouTube and are happy enjoying content created by other people --- even other people who are not their age. User generated content.

They have their own social website pages – Facebook, MySpace and increasingly smaller niche sites. They want to discover their own music, share it and enjoy the music of others even it isn’t number 12 with a bullet in Billboard.

Radio folks think they can still lead these Gen Y listeners to their predetermined formats, but they’d be wiser not trying in my opinion.

The age of user generated radio is upon us, but the owners, managers and programmers of terrestrial radio have not yet arrived.

They haven’t arrived because they can barely let go of radio’s classic formatics let alone understand a radically different approach.

If they took the time to understand this next generation they might still be constrained by a terminal death sentence of their medium that rewards companies for consolidating their assets, cutting costs and producing non-local programs.

But the potential of user generated radio is exciting. Here are the whys and wherefores:

1. User generated radio can only be done by a new generation of radio executive – not well-traveled consultants or radio people steeped in tradition. Tradition is nice for nostalgic get togethers and radio conventions. It has absolutely no place in the future of user generated radio. So, it's back to school for all of us if we want to be relevant to the next generation.

2. User generated radio is programming inspired by and in some cases provided by the audience itself. This will stick in the craw of most of us who are used to being in charge, but the next generation says it's their turn to be the PD. By the way, look no further than the popularity of Al Gore’s Current TV with this generation and you’ll get freaked out. User generated TV – not for boomers.

3. Radio will probably fail if it attempts to do user generated radio because it takes a change in mindset – a major change – which takes time, willingness and money to move valued radio professionals to the promised land.

4. User generated radio is good for radio – it may even be radio’s salvation. So close (so possible) yet so out of reach. Radio was once all things to all people until television came along. Then radio was America’s jukebox and soapbox for talk stations and seems unwilling and unable to reinvent itself -- user generated content is the next thing.

I’m waiting for my phone to ring. Don’t get me wrong. I’m, not soliciting. I’ve spent the last four years studying the demise of traditional media and the potential for interactive and mobile media. I don’t need the money (thanks Randy and Lowry) and I won’t offer easy answers but radio can afford to take some steps and can’t afford not to. Still I write constantly about the many, many opportunities radio has in the new media world and yet too many radio people are still interested in fighting satellite radio!

Here’s some free advice (and it may be worth what you're paying for it -- nothing -- still):

1. Set up a 12 month “course” and educate yourself and your valued employees on the conditions that are causing the demise of traditional media and the circumstances that have evolved at the hands of the next generation.

2. Find a mentor – a corporate mentor – who knows what she or he must do to enable your people and get them excited about the next generation and the potential for user generated content. Consulting was the thing in the past. Mentoring your staff – letting them make the decisions – is the future. In other words use your wise mentor to help your people think differently and create the future. (Steve Jobs does it at Apple which is why you see me mention his age-defying tactics often in this space).

3. Sit down before you read this next one. Commit to a five or seven year plan to do the above. Okay, I lost you. I took that chance. Was it when I said commitment? You can’t transform your company in three months – that would be called preparing to advise Wall Street on quarterly profits and you’re doing so well on that lately if stock prices are any indication (and apparently they are everything in your world).

Yes, fund it it.

Hire your mentor.

Enable their efforts.

Let your people be trained to make all the decisions not the mentor.

Prepare to be experimental and daring. Ted Williams hit over .400 one season – a remarkable statistic. What’s more remarkable is that he didn’t get a hit sixty percent of the time!

I have grown to admire CBS Radio under Dan Mason because he knows that to keep traditional radio listeners – the ones available to a radio (Gen X and baby boomers) you have to do programming that resonates with them. And to his credit and the credit of his capable CBS staff they are getting better every day and will generate more profits soon (take that Wall Street!).

Who is going to be the CBS Radio for the next generation?

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