Gen Y Consults Radio

From time to time I like to share the insights of the next generation as it pertains to traditional media.

I do this because there is a great disconnect between what media executives think they want and what these quirky, Gen Y'ers say they want.

When I arrived at USC four years ago for my radio sabbatical, I was shocked to find young people so distanced from radio. It didn't take me long to find out why. Other alternatives. More time on the computer, cell phones, social networks like Facebook, but the worst cut of all was the one that could have been prevented.

In my observation (and I emphasize you're reading my observations which may be skewed), young people had a relatively easy time turning away from radio because radio stopped vying for a place in their lives.

Baby boomers running radio stations thought (and some still think) that all they have to do is come up with new formats, new liners and new ad campaigns and they'll be back. I know better.

So, here's what I observed as their advice to radio:

1. Too much repetition, not enough new music. Any programmer knows that if you cut the playlist and play the hits, your ratings will go up. But with this generation it is different. They really do like obscure songs. Many are so anti-repetition that they will just walk away from it. Some can't understand why radio stations insist upon telling them that they play the greatest variety when the playlists are so obviously short. This is a deal breaker with the next generation.

2. Feature knowledgeable djs. Boy, they really hate radio djs. Little do they know that even in 2008 radio jocks are still channeling their inner Cousin Brucie. This generation turns to each other for what's good musically -- not to djs. Social networking is not just a term, but a means to find out about bands, singers, concerts, gossip -- everything. They don't get this on the radio and my sense is that they would like it (without jocks developing a case of diarrhea of the mouth).

3. Fewer commercials. Clear Channel thinks "Less is More" will help attract listeners and do wonders for their advertisers but my experience with the next generation is that they really can only tolerate a handful of commercials. This is pure genius for a radio industry that has never had the guts to cut inventory and pressure prices. Never. I think Gen Y would happily put up with a few commercials an hour if there were a limited to few.

4. Make better commercials. I soon learned that they like "live reads" even though they are not familiar with the term -- and by the way my observations are based on young people not communications students. I don't teach future broadcasters. Actually, fewer students want to be broadcasters, but that's for another day. This group doesn't need production unless it is good. Therefore, every time your production person ads music under copy, you lose with this generation. As far as how long they should be -- the answer is -- it's not about the length. It's about how good they are.

5. Forget HD. I know the die-hards are still willing to spend millions to promote digital technology but the appeal of more radio sub stations on the dial is not there. Radio is old and tired to these folks. Just what they need -- more old and tired stations. And if you think, well, we'll make some exciting new formats, it's too late. You've got to do one well before you can do two. Actually that's a good rule for consolidation, too. You've got to be able to run one station before you get a chance to run two. Imagine if that were the rule instead of six or seven stations per market. Back to HD -- no way. Never.

6. Personalities are the appeal. I mentioned this before but young people really have no reason to listen to radio because there are so few personalities talking to them. Not Don Imus types. Not even Howard Stern. They sometimes ask me "why don't your friends in radio put more personalities on"? Duh! How stupid can these kids be -- don't they understand how consolidators work. Cut the talent, show the investors you're earning your $1.75 share price and the hell with young people. I'm not telling them. You do it.

7. Make content for their portable devices. Many students faithfully listen to podcasts. Podcasting is the next radio -- have I said that lately? The reason I keep saying it is because it is. The next generation wants to time delay its entertainment. They want to control it -- stop, start, go back, advance. They are less likely to tune in to 24/7 programming and more likely to "subscribe" (for free -- I'm just using the term "subscribe" to mean sign up) to what they want. This is mandatory -- get into podcasting. And if you're going to do it with the current air staff, you'll lose. You need an entire new approach from content, production, marketing and sales. Hock your HD transmitter and use the funds to get started.

8. They want to be your program director. In the past year I've observed how much this generation wants to "mash-up" or contribute to the entertainment they listen to. Hell, YouTube is the "mash-up" capital of their world. You can shoot it, add music, collaborate, stage it, fake it, steal it -- and you never need a PD (As a former PD this hurts me to write that line). Any radio strategy that doesn't include listener participation and active input will fail. Back in the 60's when stations first started playing "Instant Gold requests" on-air, listeners burned up the phone lines to call in a request. Radio hasn't gone very far beyond that.

The advice of Gen Y would also make radio a better attraction for older demographics and should be considered.

While consolidators fiddled, Rome burned (and Philly, New York, Chicago, Louisville -- you name the market). The next generation -- the one radio can't survive without -- is not likely to return after all these years of disinterest.

That wouldn't stop me from doing several things.

One, I'd heed the advice they are giving you above -- and learn more about it -- and how you can respond on a terrestrial signal. Make real changes. Make them radical. And please, no liners talking about the changes. They don't believe them anyway (do you?).

Two, learn about podcasting. You're going to see me talking about the new radio a lot in the future. I am jumping in with two feet -- not just with one toe. I advise the same to you. Podcasting is not as easy as you think. Of course, it's easy to do technologically -- that's not what I'm saying. It's the content, the presentation, new ways to market (no commercials) and make a profit. If it sounds like radio on a memory stick, it won't pass the test with Gen Y.

Three, start Internet streaming. No, not just your terrestrial signal. New streams -- new ideas, new people. If you get into streaming audio, you'll get angry at the record labels for imposing unreasonable copyright penalties on streamers. You'll see why Kurt Hanson is leading the fight for fairness. Why streamers like Rich "Brother" Robbin run better online stations than most radio groups. When WiMax arrives and blankets the world with Internet capability radio broadcasters will wake up and call their bankers. In the meantime, get on it -- it's going to happen.

One last thing.

As dismayed as I sometimes get with my friends running many of the radio groups these days, nothing excites me more than the thought of radio talent (on-air, programming and sales) driving a new non-terrestrial business.

In the meanwhile, we could all do a better job on-the-air for the next generation while retooling for the next radio revolution.

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