User-Controlled Radio

CBS Radio is doing an interesting experiment at KITS-FM in San Francisco with the help of a user-controlled web service called Jelli.

I’ll say this for Dan Mason and CBS Radio – while other groups only cut expenses, he manages to cut expenses and innovate especially in the Internet/mobile area.

What matters is that CBS is trying.

I thought I would take a subjective look at user-controlled radio through the eyes of the next generation as I have come to know them in my academic work. Perhaps there are some beneficial observations for all those interested in this approach.

User-controlled radio will only be on-the-air in San Fran (at first, at least) for two hours on Sunday nights. The problem here is that if CBS attracts positive attention from listeners who control the station, it may make the rest of the station's programming seem like corporate controlled radio.

I don’t remember knowing which companies owned the stations I listened to when I was in college. But students (and we’re not talking about communications majors here) absolutely know the name Clear Channel. They don’t like corporate radio.

Still, CBS is right to take the chance, recognizing the downside, and proceeding with the experiment.

Of course, I would never do this if I didn’t have in mind converting the entire station 24/7 over to user-controlled radio if it became more than a Sunday night passing fancy. I’m sure CBS is thinking about it.

The Jelli service allows audience members to choose in real-time what is played on-the-air.

There is also real-time voting.

Plus, song rating features before each tune. Reminds you of the days when stations did “Hot or Not” through primitive telephone call-ins except now the online community can weigh in seamlessly.

Yes, the record labels can vote.

KITS listeners can even vote to pull a song off the air instantly.

Sounds like a computer programmer came up with that formatic. I don’t like it but I know that young people frequently don’t even listen to their own iPod music all the way through. They have short attention spans and may not dislike having a song pulled in progress.

Again, I'd try it.

On the other hand, KITS may piss off more people than they impress with this stunt. If I’m taking a serious look at user-controlled radio, I’m hiring a Coleman, Edison or one of the other many sound radio research groups to get me some answers.

KITS is the perfect station for this experiment. They had the guts to try user suggested playlists in the past and while the idea didn’t work, trying is the virtue.

Success is built upon the lessons from failure.

The only time you really fail is when you stop trying – as most of the other radio groups have done.

CBS – at least publicly – thinks that the KITS experiment is a chance to engage the terrestrial audience with the online audience.

I’m not buying that one and I don’t think anything I have seen in generational media supports this claim.

There are 80 million people coming of age in the next generation and you can see for yourself that it is not radio that is stuck in their ears. I know CBS and Jelli are touting this benefit but it appears overblown.

If anything, the KITS user-controlled programming concept sounds at best like a potential Internet streaming format and at worst, a poor alternative to an iPod.

Many of you know that I like Sunday nights for different programming – radio has a long history of using that time period to enhance its formats, image and even make money. They also leave a lot of radios tuned to the morning show. (Hopefully, there’s a live and local AM drive show waiting for them when they awaken).

Another great time for experimentation is all-nights.

Radio's all-night shows are now predominantly voice tracking and syndication.

To a listener, it’s not a lot of choice -- and nothing unusual. The same few talk shows city after city. And boring music programming that leaves a listener lonely – certainly wishing for more.

While I like technology as much or perhaps even more as the next person, I also like personality on the radio.

That’s it.

That’s the one way to commute consolidation’s death sentence on AM and FM. I’m not talking about the kind of personality radio that Bill Drake’s format cleaned up in the 60’s. But meaningful authorities on somethingfun people, interesting people, communicators.

So while experimenting with user-controlled radio (which, again, I endorse as a meaningful learning experience for corporate radio), it reminds me of what young people say when they talk about iPods, music and radio.

Have a seat. I don’t want you to have an accident.

My impression is that young people are bored with their iPods – by their own admission – but are not likely to give them up anytime soon.

Certainly not for terrestrial radio – even user-controlled radio.

My sense – for what it is worth – is that they want to be entertained.

There, I’ve said a consolidation dirty word.

They already have control.

Young folks engage in filesharing to feed their need to discover music.

Their iPods are their generation’s personal radio stations with no commercials, no clutter, no sweepers and voice tracking nonsense.

They have Pandora to discover music and few in the next generation don't like Pandora.

You see, what young (and probably older) audiences want is to be entertained. Morning shows with personality that relate to them and where they live and work.

Entertaining people who connect them to the crazy music scene.

Authorities on music – something radio programmers poo-poo but that I hear over and over again from youth. Listeners don’t care if the jock has a voice so low that they have to carry their balls around in a wheelbarrow. They want knowledgeable people who actually know the music, the artists and their city.

CBS user-controlled radio is something Clear Channel is not doing.

They have Repeater Radio controlled by San Antonio (and a few command centers).

But young listeners – the ones radio owners will have to find a way to attract if they want to remain in this business five years from today – want more.

In a way, they already have user controlled-radio.

It's called an iPod.

Now, they want to be entertained – and the last time I checked, the radio industry used to do a pretty damn good job in this area.

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