Options Ahead for FM Radio

It doesn't take long to conclude that the radio industry has a big problem.

Not the recession.

Or owing too much debt to repay it.

The listener problem.

Radio groups find themselves in an impossible position these days -- a sad situation of their own making.

You might argue that there was nothing they could do about the Internet, iPods, social networking, music discovery through bit torrent sites or the popularity of cell phones and text messaging.

Then again, radio CEOs could have seen these new technological and sociological trends as opportunities.

Nonetheless, the question of what shall become of FM radio as we now know it is a valid pursuit because operating radio stations as repeaters -- or cheaply voice tracked music machines is not very compelling, not even necessary given the alternatives and certainly is not a growth business.

One of my new media clients pitching a traditional radio client just two days ago was taken aback when the advertiser said they didn't want to buy radio and when asked why the response was that it doesn't sound interesting anymore. They must be hiring inexperienced people.

This is not good.

History allows us to take some context from what happened to AM radio when FM came into prominence in the 1970's.

What's AM radio?

Well, if you're under the age of 30 you know what I am saying. AM hasn't had much to do with your life.

AM was where the action was in music, talk, news, full-service entertainment -- you name it.

Until ... FM came along.

And while the FM band had better fidelity and stereo, consumers have long proven to be creatures of convenience not audiophiles.

FM radio originally had -- dare I say it -- fewer commercials.

No clutter.

No profit even -- at least at first.

Different kinds of jocks, production values and sometimes even longer playlists back in the beginning.

The radio industry liked to think it was FM's stereo capability that was the attraction. Ask my talented friend Mike Anderson what Stereo 92 meant to a Philly station we both worked at together called WIFI (really -- they were the call letters -- who knew).

It sure as hell wasn't the stereo in spite of how we rammed that "advantage" into our listeners ears.

It is significant that talk and news didn't start to migrate to FM until FM had long matured. And even at that -- AM is where the old people are (forgive me for that). But talk radio listeners are deep into their 60's. Gen Y doesn't do talk radio -- and there is 80 million of them coming of age.

They do new media. We keep wanting to make them radio listeners and they so don't need us to do that.

Then, once FM took off, radio worked its voodoo -- that is, cut the playlists, add AM top 40 formatics and there you have it -- too many commercials, no music variety and less music. Of course, we all knew how to handle that little problem: tell the listeners we played more music, fewer commercials and greater variety.

You wonder why radio is in a mess right now with listeners -- kind of a listening recession.

I got a kick out of the trades the other day when they reported new RADAR results as indicating that although there are more radio listeners, they listen for less time.

Radio was/is stuck with a diary ratings system that never fully reported the mediums full reach and now has to settle for the People Meter, a device you would never wear, that picks up any noise and reports it as listening.

PPM is better, but far from perfect.

Oh, and over all those decades when the industry could have pressured for a better audience measurement service, it failed to support even one adequately enough to survive which is why late in the game Nielsen will find out its chances of making it are slim to none with "slim" on vacation while his show is being voice tracked.

And, for decades while radio was red hot, it dropped its collective drawers and sold air time on the cheap -- a tactic it is paying for dearly right now when radio is not hot.

All of that is behind us.

Looking ahead then, what are the viable options for FM radio over the next five years? Beyond that I am unwilling to project for reasons I will disclose in a moment. Here's a sampling:=

1. Talk on FM.
Turns out Walter Sabo was right whether you like it or not. But instead of bringing over all those over 60 year olds (sorry, again!) try for some 40 year olds. To do that politics is going to have to get a rest. You're going to have to know your local region better. Abortion is not in the "A" list rotation. Nor are the usual political topics. But texting while operating a commuter train in your market -- notice how I said your market -- could be the replacement topic. Then, shorter discussions as all of our attention spans have shrunk. Add top 40 formatics and there you have it.

2. Local news.
This is a smash hit waiting to happen but it costs so damn much money. If you do it, it has to be local and live all the time and any shortcuts will not be appreciated. Stop with the garden reports and feature stuff -- make it compelling, now, cutting-edge. Live & Local 102 sounds compelling. You can no longer say, give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world. You'll have to say, give us 2 minutes and we'll give you your world. I wanted to include this although slim to none is back again on this option.

3. Discovery channel.
That's a name radio should have thought of first before TV claimed it. Except we were busy stroking the record labels and showing them how big our --- well, our -- egos were in return for all those gold records on the wall. We created the short tail theory -- after all, radio stations played very little new music. Same today. But if you're going to be in the hit music business on FM, realize that you will likely not be the first choice of listeners for music but will hope to be picked up on People Meters everywhere. Thus, you will have to channel your deepest urges to actually discover artists and bands -- local artists and bands. There is some growth potential here, but remember no young person is trading in a mobile device for a radio even if you put the radio into that device.

4. Help.
When I worked for the legendary Dick Carr at WIP in Philadelphia, we had a great afternoon personality, Dick Clayton, who did a humorous feature called "Mr. Help Me" which he ended by saying, "tune in tomorrow and let Mr. Help Me help you". Who knew that Dick was light years ahead of even his great self? There is a place for "help" radio if it isn't done in long shows. I'm hearing it in segments -- a few minutes long -- on different topics with referrals to listeners' phones to pick up more info, to your website to see a YouTube video and lots and lots of sponsorship possibilities. Steal this idea, please!

5. Sports.
Why do you think CBS Radio President Dan Mason is going crazy building sports stations where there once was music (think WBCN in Boston for example). But play-by-play sports is not necessarily the ticket. Big Tom Bigby is the expert on this -- as good a programmer as I know of in the area of Guy Talk (also known as sports talk). His top 40 formatics are incurable which is why Bigby's stations sound so good and make money. But where there is Guy Talk there can be Gal Talk someday. Sports and the lifestyle it embraces is still a good short-term use of FM radio.

Now rest assured that I am not saying all other successful FM stations should abandon their formats.

Far from it.

There is still some juice left in them. You see what B101 does in the Philly PPM and WCBS-FM's oldies station is truly on everywhere in New York (as everyone but former CBS Radio head Joel Hollander believed). CBS-FM is number two in PPM.

But here's the gut check.

You can't have a growth industry without the next generation.

Please re-read that line.

And you can't have the generation radio neglected now that their sociological needs are satisfied by new technology.

Therefore, consider using FM in the ways I described above or continue your successful live and local format as long as you can.

Do not voice track.

Voice track at your own peril. Only you and your accountant will like it.

Advertisers, as I pointed out earlier, are figuring this out.

You are hastening the demise of radio when you continue to water it down, make it less local, less connected, devoid of personalities.

And if all of this isn't resonating, please keep in mind that my clients, the former Grand Rapids number one radio team Dave & Geri -- fired and left for dead by their consolidator owners who worship the wrong numbers -- are within striking distance of equaling their radio quarter hour numbers after only five weeks of podcasting!

Never forget where the future of entertainment is headed -- and get there early.

Or at least before it is too late.

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