Radio's Future Shock

LA Radio will do under $1 billion for the first time since 2002.

Radio stocks are worth pennies.

Audiences decline even though loyalists whip out studies that show how many hours a day people listen.

Radio lost the next generation.

Need I go through this again?

While lots of folks were dismissing the role of Millennials in the recent presidential election, conventional wisdom took a big hit.

You know what was said -- they'll organize, even contribute online, but they won't vote. Young people never vote in large numbers.

I learned my lesson almost five years ago when I got to devote my full attention to the next generation as a professor at USC. Believe me, it wasn't pretty at first. I was a media guy like many of you. I made assumptions about the dilemma radio, TV and the record industry found themselves in, but I was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Today, generational media is as important as anything we can do to find our way into the digital future.

Even cavemen in the media business are beginning to realize that it is less about technology than sociology. They just don't know what to do about it.

The baby boom era is over.

This does not mean that boomers are irrelevant or that their contributions will necessarily be discarded. It simply says a new generation is coming of age -- a powerful new generation -- that is gaining control of the Internet, mobile space and social networks.

Look to the future and you will see:

1. A generation that is diametrically opposed to the kind of talk programming that radio airs. During the second golden age of radio (after the ascent of TV), National Public Radio and its low key approach were an asterisk at best. Not now. NPR is growing -- their morning ratings rival commercial radio -- exceed it sometimes. Imagine an NPR-type show that is local! What a killer that would be, but I'm afraid the economics are not there. In the future, to succeed at commercial talk radio (wherever radio winds up being), you'll have less Limbaugh, half the Hannity and more non polarizing fare by talent that has yet to be discovered.

2. A generation that really means it when they say they want more music variety. Boomer PDs know that the tried and true formula always was -- cut the playlist, play the hits, amp up the promotion. Make the mistake of doing that with the next generation and you'll be sitting there entertaining yourself. It worked in the past, but won't work in the future.

3. Boomers were loyal -- hell, they still are -- they're listening to the poor excuse for radio most of the major consolidators are putting on the air these days. Millennials are fickle -- and they're kind of proud of it. Boomers can stick with Jim Morrison decades after he died. The Dead long after Jerry Garcia left us. And the Beatles forever -- no matter what. Not Millennials. There is always another Coldplay in the wings. This does not cheapen Coldplay. It speaks to the unwillingness (or lack of need) of a new generation to focus on only a few groups forever. And their improved access to more variety through file sharing and social networks. Fail to understand this, and there is little chance of expanding the market to include the largest generation to come along since the baby boomers.

4. Boomers protested and took social issues to the street. Millennials work within the system and take their causes to the Internet -- to their social networks. They organize in a minute and speak loudly even when they don't mouth off. There is nothing wrong with the baby boomer generation and their tactics for fighting the Vietnam war or for that matter fighting for racial equality. Millennials are a civic minded generation -- they go about things differently. Both are good.

5. Keep your enemies close and friends closer is even more apparent with the next generation. They "friend" people on Facebook, collect friends, "spy" on them (their word not mine) and care deeply where they stand in the pecking order of friendship. Keep in mind that in previous generations, young people looked up to mentors, role models -- who happened to be sports figures, leaders, religious people and community folks. Millennials look to each other -- across the wide spectrum of Facebook, MySpace and other social networks. They are less likely to care what a radio dj says about music and more likely to be impressed with something a "friend" tells them. Radio people who want to continue in the media business have to understand that this is not bad -- it's just different.

I often say Steve Jobs got the gene that allows him to intuitively know what a different generation -- far different than his own -- wants and needs. What they will buy and recommend to each other. It's no accident that the smallest computer company has become bigger than Microsoft on the backs of intuitive decisions on iPods, iPhones and now slim computers.

For the rest of us, gene therapy is the order of the day.

That, or making it our business to understand the next generation in ways we have proven we are incapable of comprehending so far -- especially if you look at the sorry shape TV, radio, records and newspapers are in today.

This excites me.

Baby boomers are not done. Steve Jobs makes no apologies for being a 53 year old boomer. Nor does he try to be like the generation he has mastered (note the turtleneck and jeans -- a throwback to an era gone by).

But he knows that unless he wants to be as outdated as his clothes, Jobs will have to "think different" about the coming of age of the next generation. It's his business litmus test.

It should be ours as well.

What would happen if radio executives took more seriously the generational media trend that has killed them? They always blame their problems on Wall Street or the recession or the Internet or you-name-it.

What would happen if record executives moved on from lawsuits and greed that they got away with in the past but can't succeed with today?

Even newspapers -- the most outdated and irrelevant medium -- have bitter medicine to swallow. What with their decades of failure, newspapers still refuse to look to tomorrow for their answers.

It's not complicated -- it's all there.

When -- you are ready to get serious about the world of generational media.

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