The Inconvenient Truth About Radio

Is it too late for radio?



Can't say I'm not direct. I am asked this question constantly -- not by my young students but by people working in the media business. The students represent Gen Y and they really have no meaningful connection to terrestrial radio.

They have their own means of finding, storing and listening to music and they don't care about news and talk on traditional stations. An exception would be NPR stations that many in this demographic seem to like. And as I have written previously, my students have told me they don't think of NPR or KCRW as radio. God forbid.

Terrestrial operators love talk radio. My experience with Gen Y is that they are social -- non confrontational. When I first arrived on the college campus over four years ago I was expecting protests and buildings on fire. That may have been the way it was when I went to college, but not now. These folks work through the system. And the blowhards on talk radio are exactly the opposite of what they would want to hear. There could be no Don Imus of Gen Y -- they don't think its funny to call anyone a nappy headed ho. So don't even bother to appeal to them. You're better off pandering to the older listeners you already have.

This generation doesn't have the race issues older generations had. They are more accepting. And while illegal immigration fuels radio windbags, this generation sees it from a polar opposite point of view.

I'm just telling you what my experience is with the next generation and the reason I bring it up is because to answer the question "Can radio be saved?" the industry will have to deal with these young folks one way or the other.

Currently, radio is blowing it.

That's why Dan Mason has it right -- the available listeners to terrestrial radio are Gen Xers and baby boomers. He's restoring classic hits and rock stations -- blowing up ill-conceived fantasies that were to be Free FM talk stations aimed at younger demos. Plainly put, the next generation is not inclined to listen to radio now or in the future.

So, no -- radio can't be saved as a growth medium, but yes -- it can be a damn viable free cash flow machine for the foreseeable future if it can rid itself of a few inconvenient truths:

1. Get over HD -- the audience already has.

2. Start spending on content (this isn't likely to happen). Growth companies like Google and Apple hire and invest. Chrysler cuts back. You get the point.

3. Don't even think about more voice tracking -- it will only save money and never attract listeners -- not even if you paid a person carrying a People Meter to stand in front of a radio blaring your station 24/7. Voice tracking must go if you want to entertain. We report, you decide. Or should I say you're investment banker gets to decide.

4. Don't start me on using the morning personality as an afternoon voice tracker as Clear Channel is apparently considering. Call me exorbitant but Bill Drake had it right again --three hour max for air shifts. Four on the weekend. Ask any of us if we can entertain for more than three hours a day six days a week. Good PDs know. (This, too, isn't going to happen so don't tell me it's a fantasy. I know it.)

5. Program directors should be given a budget, be required to propose a plan (each year) and then you must leave him or her alone. If they fail, you can have your way with them. But they will not succeed when Wall Street runs you and you run them.

6. Return to a code of good production values for your station. If television programs had radio's piss poor production values it would be -- well, YouTube. Oh My God! That's what TV is becoming -- YouTube! I mean don't step on vocals. No dead air. One spot per commercial cluster. You know, the stuff we know works. Do it while there is a glimmer of hope.

7. Cox is right. Cut the spotloads. I'd go to eight units an hour and raise prices. It isn't helping radio to run every spot they can sell for low prices. This, by the way, has been a problem in radio even in the good times. Too many cheap spots.

8. Invest in a killer morning show. Every good PD knows that a morning show can be worth 40-60% of a station's billing. Then tie that person up to a long term contract. The NHL Philadelphia Flyers just signed 22-year old future star Mike Richards to a 12-year contract. So far he seems to be the real deal and worth the money, but the alternative to operate on the cheap causes your most important day part to be underrated and under billed. Hockey has a salary cap just like radio. Oh, you didn't know radio has a salary cap -- an unofficial one. In sports it would be called collusion.

9. By the way, I have an idea for a morning show once you hire and lock in that unique talent that will build a large following for years to come. It's a bit complicated but I'd be happy to share it in a future piece if there is enough interest. It builds loyalty.

10. Play to the available audience because the next generation is busy on their cell phones and iPods. Don't try to aim for the generation you need so badly -- the one you let get away by doing nothing to fill their needs for the past ten years. The result: Gen Y has no strong attachment to radio and isn't likely to get one.


Can radio be saved by becoming a content provider for the Internet and for consumption on mobile phones and devices?

You bet.

And that's why I am so optimistic about the future of radio-produced content away from the terrestrial signal. But radio people hardly know about the preferences of this elusive generation. I get emails every time I write about them from angry broadcasters who think Gen Y is the enemy. No, you are the enemy -- you've proven to be your own worst enemy.

They are not. They are your future business because terrestrial radio will never again be a growth business.

One reader slapped me and said go and understand what Clear Channel is doing in interactive. Yes, I understand. Everything will be alright. Now, try to understand that no matter how much Clear Channel tries to get into the heads of Gen Y, it can't. And I'm not convinced they are trying all that hard.

Again from my vantage point -- and please note this is personal -- nothing traditional radio or for that matter the record business is doing is of great appeal to the next generation. So lull yourself into thinking you've got the future figured out without them. I'm betting you don't.

Is it too late for radio?


Only companies like CBS that understand how to program to the available listener can operate for as long as they will listen.

Is the terrestrial signal the only option for radio's future?


I spent the better part of the last four years in effect going back to school. And to the radio industry I respectfully say, I'm afraid it's now your turn.

There is no future for a radio industry that keeps imitating itself -- and doing it on the cheap.

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