Radio's Youth Disconnect

I just returned from a fabulous time at Tom Kay's Conclave in Minneapolis where I had the honor of doing a two-hour teaching seminar for a most remarkable group of learners.

These are radio people who got up to arrive on time for an 8 am session on The Next Generation of Radio.

I didn't know what to expect.

For the past four years or so I have been teaching young, idealistic college students -- the heart of Generation Y. I have learned a lot from them -- not only about their likes and dislikes vis-a-vis the media business -- but their views about what's wrong with the record business and radio.

Our session at the Conclave focused on what I have learned from The Next Generation that I wanted to share with radio folks. It included the future of terrestrial radio, a glimpse of what future radio might be and some exercises for those who wanted to get started on the road to becoming better at generational media.

I left the session even more uptempo than when I arrived. This group was eager to learn. They took many notes. Participated in discussions. Worked together to help build a podcasting arsenal for a mythical local radio station that I threw out there as a learning example. My readers know I believe podcasting will be the next radio.

Still, I came away with even more insights about why good and smart people who run radio stations have such a hard time wrapping their arms around radio's youth disconnect.

On her blog, consultant Jaye Albright pointed out the irony of removing all technology for the presentation. Jaye said, "I suppose his point, as he ordered the AV folks to get rid of the presentation graphics projector, screen, and even all the playback equipment and microphones in the room, was to showcase the importance of high touch in a high tech world".

I wrote to Jaye and shared an email I had received just a day earlier from a student of mine who showed all of us that we really don't know the next generation the way we think we do. This bright young student was waxing eloquent about her generation beginning to turn off the technology.

Who knew?

"I don't know if you've seen it, but the idea of "you can turn it off" is starting to be seen with all things among people I know my age. I'm starting to see people who used to spend their saturdays on IM texting now going hiking for four or five horus--putting an away message on the mobile AIM and only checking their phones during water breaks.

I'm seeing kids who choose to drop the earbuds for a half-day of wake boarding or surfing. Who can leave the computer long enough to enjoy a sunset or walk down the street to the store (cuz gas is so expensive). And who can turn off their cell phones for a week to bring food to starving kids in Africa".

If I could have invited everyone in radio to spend a semester in college with Gen Y, they would soon discover, as I did, that young people have come to hate PowerPoint professors -- actually they sleep through their classes. They would prefer not to attend those classes and, in the alternative, get the class notes online.

What they want, believe it or not -- is one-on-one engagement. I soon learned to lose the PowerPoints and start a dialogue where I stimulated group discussion and the students taught me in return. In fact, the motto I always wrote on the board was my favorite Eastern saying "The teacher and the taught together do the teaching".

This is endemic of the problem. Maybe it would be better if we all step back and listen to the audience -- in a dialogue not a focus group -- to really hear what they want.

Radio is disconnected from the youth demographic for many reasons:

1) They grew up without the love of radio and had an alternative that they pioneered -- the Internet. They've moved on. Consolidation helped radio take its eye off the next generation.

2) They are more mobile and interactive than their elders -- and a Walkman is so Eighties to them.

3) What they really want, radio execs would choke on.

What is that?

• Djs who play their own music -- not corporate or station playlists (I know, I know -- it won't work. It never does. Tight playlists and repetition win out in the end. Bla Bla Bla). No, this Gen Y audience means it.

• Fewer commercials and better commercials. You'll never get them to listen to 12 commercials an hour in any cockamamie configuration. See you're getting irritated now because you think I've spent too much time in academia (I've heard it before, believe me). Still, one unit at a time. Then a song. Then another commercial. Stop and start -- like the old Drake format. This generation has a short attention span. They really like things to start and stop. We radio folks think we'll cram all the commercials into two or three sets and the audience will like it. It's the opposite with the youth generation. We just can't stop doing it.

• Better commercials mean -- as I told the Conclave session -- not the ones with music library tracks behind poor copy crammed into 30 or 60 seconds. They want live reads. They want the person who is knowledgeable about music to talk to them about what to buy -- what's cool, what's necessary, what they buy.

• This is the original social networking generation and radio is the official "I'm in denial" about social networking industry. They think MySpace and Facebook will pass. And it will. But this generation will be remembered for social networking. An impressive 12 people in my Conclave group either heard of or used Twitter (I wrote about it a few days ago) -- a new online social networking tool that asks the question "what are you doing"? We radio folks are not connected with that. Look at some of the comments my Twitter story got. Real radio think. Well, that won't cut it going forward.

So, the good news is that radio people are open-minded and enthusiastic about change. They want to change even though their employers are forcing them to do business as usual (for less money). My Conclave group was shot from a canon when they left. I gave them a one-sheet with a handful of ideas that I hope they will be able to use to start mending the youth disconnect. I'll bet they succeed.

The concern going forward is that unless we stop doing radio business as usual, the only available audience will be the older demographics that grew up loving radio.

I deeply believe after my college teaching sabbatical, that the ideas that most of us reject because they are so outrageous and out of line on their face are exactly the things that would even invigorate the available audience as well.

Of course, I ended with my view of radio becoming a content provider to be delivered by emerging technologies -- not just towers and transmitters.

We can do this.

But first, we need to change.

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