Radio Losing The Dashboard

Have you heard about what Ford Motor Company and Microsoft are partnering to do?

They’ve come up with a new factory installed fully-integrated, voice activated in-car communications and entertainment system for mobile phones and digital players. It’s called SYNC.

Users can access their mobile phones or digital music player including access to genres, album, artist, title, song all by voice commands. (SYNC is fluent in English, Spanish or French).

Names and phone numbers in mobile address books are wirelessly and automatically transferred to your car.

SYNC works with iPod, Zune (of course – it’s Microsoft), Play for Sure players and USB storage devices. The system can be updated for whatever becomes the rage next because all it requires is a software adjustment.

It’s hands-free thanks to Bluetooth. Contains a USB port for command and control and for charging digital music players. There’s audible text messaging from you mobile phone. Your contact list. Advanced calling features. It gets better and better.

While cars will still have radios and, increasingly, satellite radios, the traditional radio could become a relic of generations past.

I try to pass along trends that I see developing with my students at USC and I can assure you that nearly 100% of my students would like to drive a car with these features. You know they are not great radio fans. Many go through a laborious routine just to make their iPods work through their car radio. The SYNC system and future devices made in its image would be seamless.

Since radio is an automobile with four wheels, the radio may soon be headed for the junkyard with the next generation. If satellite radio is the upgrade older car owners want to have (and pay for), the SYNC system could be the option that Gen Y falls in love with (without a subscription)

This begs the question, how does radio sustain the latest attack – if this expected competition develops.

Buy Ford and throw out every device but a radio? Buy Microsoft and put the Vista software on a screen – that will drive just about anyone nuts enough to wish for an old fashioned radio. No, this won’t do.

But auto manufacturers are also looking to install hard drives in their cars so drivers can download their own CDs, digital tunes or whatever and that entertainment remains in the car.

Even exotic cars are adding distractions from radio. The new Maserati GranTurismo doesn’t have satellite radio. It doesn’t have Bluetooth. But it does have a hard drive for drivers to transfer their own content from CDs – those wild and crazy Italians!

I’m bringing the new radio distraction issue to your attention not so we can get into a defensive mode (“radio is still better") or an attack mode (“radio is dead anyway”) but to point out – well, new opportunities.

An automobile is fast becoming a hands-free, digital, connected entertainment center with four wheels.

The radio industry, still best equipped to produce content, must see this opportunity as a chance to adapt to the marriage of new technology and changing sociology.

Radio companies can continue to run transmitters and towers, but now they must become content providers for new media – even entertainment systems in tomorrow’s cars. If not, radio becomes a relic tied to the day when the only entertainment in the car was -- a radio.

In fact, the latest trend is just the tip of the iceberg. You’ve seen me write about the opportunities in Internet radio, mobile content and podcasting. If I am a radio company right now and I want to turn things around, I’d consider this plan:

1. Bring proven, top-notch programmers back to produce the best radio you can using the formatics that get ratings and the talent that still resonates with the available radio audience. Cut the commercial load to eight units – ten in morning drive. Let the client buy up to 60 seconds of commercial time or as little as ten – but the station still only carries eight to ten units. Price accordingly. Raise the rates. My programming friends will attest to the fact that this can be done easily and listeners will like it. Ratings will go up.

2. Re-value radio. Radio has been devalued for decades by owners and managers without the courage to cut the spotload and raise the rates. Now, it’s time. And while you’re at it, lose the Google commodity deals for selling radio and double your sales staff. Increase commissions. Don’t take away earned accounts. Billing will go up.

3. Take action to build a plan to produce content for auto entertainment centers, Internet streams, mobile phones and podcasts. This is a big deal. It requires an investment in time and money. It requires an education that even the boss must be willing to get. Corporate can develop content, but local stations and their talented people can also develop content based on localities, the expertise and interests of the local programming staff and technology and marketing opportunities. You will create a new income stream.

Many of you ask is the future for radio hopeless? Is there anything positive?

It’s really time to stop with the excuses. Stop hanging on to the horse-drawn carriage when the consumer wants an auto. Step into the future.

I can promise you that even more distractions for commercial radio are coming. Radio is losing the battle for the dashboard, but it doesn't have to mean the end of the road.

In one of my courses I teach generational entertainment – that is, how to understand your target market(s) the way Apple's Steve Jobs does by instinct. In the future the entertainment business cannot get by with research studies, gut instincts, new age technology deals unless and until it understands what each generation wants and needs.

Start your engines and ignite your ability to become masters of generational marketing).

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