The Digital Future Radio Is Missing

By Jerry Del Colliano

(Clockwise from JD in blue -- Bruce St. James, Ken Dowe, Jim Taszarek and Todd Wallace at a recent Scottsdale Study Group lunch)

The other day Major League Baseball announced a blockbuster initiative that could give new meaning to the term Internet streaming.

MLB's At Bat Apple application makes it possible for users of iPhones or iPod Touch devices to receive streams of broadcasts for every major league baseball game in 2009 for a one-time fee of $9.99.

As of yesterday, At Bat was the fourth best selling application for the iPhone and it is one of the most expensive apps even at a reasonable $9.99.

That's still far less than it costs for a subscription to Sirius XM -- the rights holder of satellite radio baseball broadcasts. But At Bat is a one-time fee -- did I say that?

The program also offers a live scoreboard with statistics and game day pitch-by-pitch graphical coverage, as well as video highlights available shortly after they happen live. MLB is saying take me out to the ball park.

At Bat is loaded with potential and it comes with a few limitations.

It competes with over-the-air broadcast stations that have paid significant money for their rights. And fans could always use a free radio to hear free broadcasts. There are more Blackberries at ball games than radios.

This product is aimed at the next generation -- and MLB clearly knows the importance of getting its games on the communication device of the future -- the iPhone.

Still, there are battery issues. Try listening to an entire game with the limited battery life that comes with an iPhone. And, as I always remind you, there is little evidence that the next generation (at least) will have the attention span or interest to follow baseball on a phone any more than it desires to hear your terrestrial radio stations in real time.

It's a terrific move by MLB, but not the whole answer. Yet MLB knows what the radio industry had better well discover -- that finding a presence on the iPhone is critical to longtime survival.

Yet with the exception of a minority of stations that are building iPhone apps for their formats (and I mean a small minority), radio has no plan in place.

Of course, the better move for radio and MLB would be to invent new content and go into the mobile content business as I have been espousing for years now.

Sometimes radio people get frustrated that a smart phone has taken their industry hostage and I feel their pain. In fact, I agree.

Don't do radio on an iPhone -- I don't think it will work in the long run and it sure as hell isn't working in the short term.

Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan may think that an FM receiver in an iPhone is the answer but I'll bet you that young people who make up the 80 million Gen Y'ers coming of age disagree.

I remember when I invited Pandora founder Tim Westergren to one of my USC classes, you'd think the adoring students would pick his brain for everything they could get.

It didn't happen.

They argued with him for the entire period about why he insists on calling Pandora -- radio. In the end, as I recall it, Westergren, who is a talented and great guy, asked them -- what should I call it if not radio?

They could think of no better name.

But they still didn't want their Pandora -- which they love -- called radio -- which they hate.

But this is about more than whether one generation dislikes radio broadcasting and speaks more to generational media issues that I, and perhaps you, find fascinating.

Radio really asked for it from Gen Y. They ignored these kids figuring they'll always be teens turning into radio listeners and they concentrated on the fun game of monopolizing the radio industry through consolidation.

What's at issue is more than missed opportunities or even the quality of programming. Hell, I can find you a lot of good radio listening that should appeal to young people but the bigger point is that their generation no longer resides at 99 Radio Row ("Wibbage" in Philly used to call WIBG).

They live in and help contribute to a new world of digital content that is suited to their short attention spans and quick trigger finger for deleting and advancing through programming.

If you're with me on this, you can begin to see why radio comes up lame every time it simply moves what it is doing from terrestrial signals to the Internet. That seems to be the extent of radio's creativity and marketing skills when it comes to the digital future.

And, sorry to say, this is a game killer not just a game changer for broadcasters who will be among the last to find that it isn't the recession that is their one problem. It's a lack of presence in digital media.

Radio should be radio.

It shouldn't be downsized, Sulemanized or Dickey slicky. It should be the best product that available listeners can enjoy. Instead, consolidated groups and their followers are crapping all over their listeners. Radio listeners are getting shortchanged by radio station cutbacks and firings. It certainly hasn't made programming better, that's for sure.

So, fix it. Invest in programming, talent, music, research. We all know how to do this -- except, apparently radio CEOs.

But when it comes to the digital future, get off this idea that copying the one thing you do on-the-air to the Internet is a strategy. If it is, it's a strategy for failure.

Apple apps that simply make it easy to listen to 24/7 radio on an iPhone will be a bust -- that's my prediction.

I have just about every radio app you can stuff on an iPhone and when I talk to my industry friends many of them do as well. And while some actually listen to radio stations via the Apple apps, a surprising number do not. We get them and then don't use them to listen to terrestrial radio.

It's worse with the next generation because they don't want to listen to radio on a radio let alone on their valued smart phones.

I know there are seemingly endless ways to use America's new found love affair with Apple iPhone apps and things radio companies are most qualified to offer.

These apps are in areas like news, music discovery, social networking, fun and games even talk radio.

Interested? I've got some specific idea starters I'd be happy to share.

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