The Future of Cell Phone Radio

When I was 11, my father got me my first client -- for mowing lawns -- back in Springfield, Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia.

Being Italian, my father insisted on price controls.

It was a flat $1.25 per lawn -- after all, they were neighbors and they got a discount!

Hey, at that price -- I soon had two lawns to cut. When I tried to raise the price in ensuing years (inflation?), my dad made me give back the increase. And, I mowed these lawns until I moved out and got married.

For $1.25 lawn. No kidding.

I used the money to buy my first tape recorder (a Webcor) and mike so I could practice being a dj in my room.

I mention all of this because to mow all these lawns I had a friend help me -- my transistor sister.

I could listen to Joe Niagara, Hy Lit, Jerry Stevens, Bill Wright, Harvey Miller, the audience killer and all the "Wibbage Good Guys". I gassed up the mower, looked up on the wall (where Mr. Porter had pinups from Playboy -- sorry, I'm trying to be honest here) and started the mower. Full disclosure: I made sure I ran out of gas a lot so I had to go back to the garage.

The small, green transistor radio was in my pocket with an earphone -- for one ear not two like an iPod -- so I could listen to WIBG in real time. There were no iPods. No Walkman CD discs. Just this portable radio.

Mr. Porter years later asked my dad how long I had been deaf. He thought the earphone to my radio was part of a hearing aid. I always had it in my ear because we were all radio freaks then.

There was a time when radio was the destination -- where listeners on the go joined it in hopes of not missing anything. I still have that transistor radio (called a Standard Radio made in Japan) and it still works.

What doesn't work is the assumption that, today, listeners will use a cell phone for a radio.

It is true radio has changed and I think consolidators have ruined it over the past ten years. But there's still some good stuff on the air.

The next generation doesn't need to listen to a radio station on the go -- they are different and that's precisely why you should be cautious about the potential of 24/7 radio on a mobile phone.

Sirius XM announced a deal yesterday with Apple for an application that will allow its subscribers to take XM and Sirius with them on the iPhone. And it is still unclear what the pricing structure will be.

Here are the realities:

• The next generation uses a cell phone primarily to text. They also use it to call people and if they have the capability, they can use their mobile devices for other things such as playing music, but they tend to use an iPod for that.

• A cell phone is not a radio (isn't it Bill Burton who says "a car is a radio with four wheels", anyway). Cell phones for the next generation are connecting devices. Making the assumption that radio stations and satellite apps will become an inexpensive radio are misguided and is probably based on the personal experience of baby boomer media CEOs.

• Pandora, the much loved customizable "radio" is one of Apple's top apps and even at that Pandora listening on the mobile phone falls way short of Walkman listening on a radio in, say, the 80's.

• Similar "radio" type apps have not exactly been tearing up the marketplace. There is certainly a time when listeners want to hear real time programming but it does not seem to be a huge area of growth. If Pandora can't transform an iPhone then Sirius XM certainly can't. ABC is doing a deal with Radiolicious that will license an application to stations that want their listeners to be able to access iPhones and iTouch customers. But only 100,000 people have downloaded the Radiolicious application prior to the ABC deal. Radio is just not that hot a ticket on a cell phone. Nothing against radio because it's more about the generation that sets the trends.

• Short attention spans also must be factored in -- after all, if someone is mowing lawns today (probably for $25, damn it!) then they could listen to their iPod and really customize the music. They could also text like crazy to keep from being bored. The next generation grew up on stopping, starting, time-delaying and deleting music and content and they don't really need a radio station.

• Podcasts are more likely to be cell phone friendly if and when music can be more readily licensed and assuming the content is short. After a brainstorming session, one participant reminded me that podcasts should be no longer than five minutes. I'm not sure I agree but he's right to think "short" and eventually he may be right. Or eventually, I may catch up with his wisdom.

I can understand why radio stations and satellite companies are so desperate to get their stations on a mobile phone. The radio as a device is so passe.

But these same owners have fired their talent, kicked their best PDs to the street and shortchanged their listeners for years now. All of a sudden they are going to put mediocre 24/7 programming -- including voice tracking -- on a cell phone.

Who wants that?

Not the next generation that has demanded and received more say in their entertainment options.

All of this and the lack of understanding of the next generation leads baby boomer radio execs to make decisions that don't have a chance to work.

If they want to know what to do, ask a local teen or young adult. You don't need a giant research project.

The next generation doesn't want terrestrial or satellite radio on their cell phone. To make it to this ubiquitous device, radio is going to have to reinvent the medium -- and I hate to tell them -- for a cell phone not a car or tabletop radio.

All the answers to the digital future are right in front of us. If I go broke in this economy and have to mow lawns again tomorrow, I'm taking along an iPod for music and a cell phone so I can connect with my friends.

Forget me -- look out your window -- what is Gen Y doing?

are the change makers.

Music discovery is the number one attraction for the almost 80 million members of the next generation. (By the way, if you're interested in an article that discusses discovery vs. technology, here it is).

It would be prudent to take pause at this point and remember that from now on it's not about putting the same repetitive music on devices that are held sacred by the next generation.

That would be a sacrilege and bad business.

From now on the sociology is just as important as the technology.

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