Radio’s New Frontier

This political season you can’t avoid the candidates’ call for change and reform.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama rode the wave through the primaries to upset Hillary Clinton and presumptive Republican candidate John McCain cut his teeth on being the maverick reformer.

I have long ago learned that I’m never going to talk anyone into changing political parties and surely no one is going to change me, either. That’s not the point and this is not a political discussion.

It has occurred to me that change – the thing that seems to be resonating so well with the electorate this presidential election – is not finding its mark in the media business.

People are generally afraid of change -- or at least the word. Some political strategists have acknowledged that Obama might be wise to switch themes from what worked for him in the primary elections, but that advice is above my pay grade (sorry, for that). One thing is certain, change has two sides.

We want it.

We fear it.

Speaking of the media business, I think the people running the major groups and companies fear it. In fact, they don’t want change. They want four more years.

Four more years of excessive pay, perks, tax benefits and travel.

That’s not what the rank and file in radio and records want. The people with all the creativity, sales and management skills to the best of my judgment want reform – a new beginning. Anything but the same mismanagement that saw the radio business and record labels run into the ground.

Radio cannot continue – even one more quarter – as a monolithic industry that airs content and funds itself through commercial announcements. No matter how well it worked in the past – wake up – it isn’t working now.

It’s not the economy – although that makes the radio industry’s decline more dramatic.

It’s not the analog signal in a digital world – although that is an issue.

It’s the scary reality that all the billions investors paid to create a virtual radio monopoly may have been for naught. They took over a great industry. Applied Wall Street financial and management constraints. Banked on the prospect of further deregulation (they were wrong). And fell asleep at the wheel while the next generation moved on to all things mobile and digital.

Even today, at least judging from my mail and anonymous comments to this site, there are many who think I am overplaying the important of Gen Y. Radio just needs a few nips and tucks, they argue. Botox for the rock and roll soul.

I still insist it’s more than a face lift that they need.

Take radio.

1. New CEOs are needed at 80% of the major radio groups. Without this change, there can be no leader to take this industry into the digital world of generational media. Hell, most of these characters don’t know what generational media is. They think they do. But.

2. Non-consolidated companies – about 50% of them, need new CEOs and presidents. Ones who get it when it comes to the new radio. Top guns with the skills to see the future and – equally as important – the judgment to install the right people to head in that direction.

3. Starting today, radio has got to understand that solely the business of transmitters and towers is over. I’m sorry about that, but the radio industry and the NAB didn’t help when they initiated the great gold rush – otherwise known as consolidation.

4. Broadcasting terrestrial programming as Internet streams is not Internet radio, it’s terrestrial radio delivered to places where available listeners have a hard time getting the signal of stations they enjoy.

5. Without a mobile future, radio is stuck – well, in a car -- and in five or ten years – it will have a lot of competition from WiFi, satellite radio and anything Bluetooth can allow a mobile device to play through external speakers.

6. Radio can’t get away with budgeting a mere few percentage points of its actual operating revenues to Internet and new media. I know budget is hard to find for these things but a 20% commitment next year to these things gives radio at least a fighting chance to be part of the digital revolution.

7. Time to realize why podcasting will be the new radio – and that broadcasting is not podcasting. Young listeners have shorter attention spans and they are used to stopping, starting and time-delaying their entertainment to fit their needs. Broadcasting is so – unnecessary --- if you accept that this huge market constituting the next generation is not going to listen to radio the way you insist on delivering it.

8. And there is no use getting into new media until you go back to school and humbly learn how very different the next generation is. You’ll then discover – as I have – why radio is doing all the wrong things not just once, but 24 hours a day.

9. Become comfortable with radio’s best chance to become a growth industry again – as a content producer, marketer and promoter. The reality is – that change has come but radio CEOs with their stock plans and privileged deals don’t know it. Sorry about the millions you spent to put your station clusters together. They’re now yesterday’s news. The only future is to do what radio does best – provide content and marketing and sales and deliver it anywhere and anyhow technology or the marketplace allows.

10. Oh – stop the brain drain. These same CEOs have gone too far cutting out fat. They’ve cut into the backbone of what makes radio great. Get used to the notion that these same talents are the people who can take you to the digital abyss. They can help you safely cross it. And the best part is, they work for you now (hopefully) and they’re interested enough in being trained.

When John Kennedy ran for president he didn’t talk about “change” in the sense they we’re hearing it now. Make no mistake about it – that young senator from Massachusetts was betting on the changing of the guard.

But JFK skillfully kept saying, “I think we can do better”.

He talked about a “New Frontier”.

Neither of these phrases scare anyone. In fact, they are such a strong allure that it's hard to resist the challenge.

Radio must be ready for a new frontier – now, not in three more years when things go from worse to even worse.

Unfortunately, in radio’s case, it’s not a democracy. We don’t get to hold elections. If we did – Radio One might be run by a different CEO. John Hogan might be returned to run a station in Atlanta and Farid might be sent back to Mel where he was a great bean counter.

The PDs, managers and sales folks don’t get a vote.

If they did, they’d start the necessary transition immediately to radio’s new frontier because there is no doubt in my mind that we have the talent in place to do better -- much better.

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