Snakebitten Radio

I was a major market program director for a radio GM who used to call me and the station sales manager, a guy whose nickname was "The Snake" -- into his office when the Arbitron rating books arrived.

Behind closed doors, he'd shut his thick drapes that covered the windows overlooking an array of towers in a large field.

He had "The Snake" on his right side and me on his left as he paged through the newly arrived rating books. There was one light on -- a desk lamp, as I remember it.

I was scared no matter how many times he performed this voodoo ritual -- and I wish I was making this up -- but sadly, it's exactly as I remember it.

Every time the GM paged to a new section or daypart, I'd say "we're number two in teens". "The Snake" would say, "I can't sell teens". I'd retort: "Look there, we're number one 18-24". "The Snake" would answer, "We can't live off of 18-24s -- we need adults." This went on and on until the GM was convinced that he had a grasp of the ratings so he could make the big call to his boss in New York (the owner) to spin the numbers.

In those days, teens were unwelcome for exactly the reason "The Snake" argued -- only a handful of advertisers wanted to buy teen demos and if they did, the ads ran in the night shows where rates were lower. Hell, even 18-24s didn't get respect in spite of what they could do for the 18-34 year old breakout.

My programming friends will get a laugh out of this -- eventually the station dropped the top 40 format to become an adult contemporary station. In their infinite wisdom they lusted after all those older demographics that made the market leader number one in ratings as well as revenues.

Of course, they forgot a few things.

They had an inferior signal. No personalities that would appeal to the adult market and no money. Outside of that, it was pure genius. Of course, the format failed.

I often think back to this because today wouldn't radio love to have the "problem" I brought my general manager in his darkened office -- too many young people listening to the radio.

I'm here to tell you that radio never respected teens and 18-24 year olds and assumed they'd always be there to someday grow up to be adults -- still listening to the radio. This disrespect predated the Internet, social networks, iPods, music filesharing and cell phones.

In arrogance that has not served radio well, executives misread the numbers then and continue to do so now.

But as recently as 1996 when consolidation came along, the greedy group operators were more obsessed with buying out a competitor, reducing staff and cutting costs than offering anything significant for young people to listen to.

While consolidators were busy pleasuring themselves, these kids took control of the Internet, figured out how to share music online and looked to each other instead of djs for what's cool on the music scene.

What's more startling is that radio group operators still don't get it.

Their young audiences have moved to the Internet and mobile devices but radio hasn't followed them. Radio execs still think they can get young people to give up their digital life for analog radio. They don't even understand that this generation plain doesn't like radio programming or the way it is presented.

What's worse is that no radio group budgets even chump change to create new revenue streams that are designed to follow the customers to the place where they live -- digital new media.

Arrogance -- pure arrogance.

Radio still thinks putting an Internet stream of a terrestrial station online is new media.

What they missed and still fail to grasp is that the next generation wants their content when they want it -- not when it is broadcast. They want to stop it and start it. They want to share it and have some say in it -- or be part of it.

So there you have it.

One of the major reasons why radio will never be a growth industry again is because they falsely assumed that Gen Y, like previous generations, had no other choice but to be a listener to terrestrial radio.

The world changed, but radio didn't.

It strikes me that yesterday the stock market -- arguably the group owners real ratings -- turned in a 900 plus performance. Yet Citadel closing at just 28 cents was down almost 4%. And Cumulus, Cox, Entercom and Salem also dropped while the remainder of the radio stocks were either unchanged or went up a whopping 4 cents! Most of these radio stocks now routinely sell for under one dollar a share.

It was the biggest day on their beloved stock market and the public voted by saying -- no, not you, radio -- everybody but radio.

It took a lot of work to turn $100, $50 and $25 stocks into mere penny stocks.

And I am sorry to say misunderstanding and not valuing the youth market was at the heart of a strategic failure that will take the radio industry down.

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