Saving Radio's Last Generation

Yesterday I wrote about Radio's Lost Generation -- how they are so different sociologically and technologically speaking.

But there also remains the issue of available radio listeners.

You know, the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who want to listen to radio programming and like it.

They are also being misunderstood and it might be worthwhile to take a look-see as to what can be done to keep them.

Traditional wisdom is that Gen X and Baby Boomers will always be radio listeners.

Then again, radio CEOs thought the same thing about Gen Y -- and they let them get away.

So much for traditional wisdom.

There is still an available audience for radio, but radio CEOs are tempting fate again by making wholesale cutbacks in talent, local programming and a live presence in each market.

The question is how long can these listeners remain loyal to radio as their first line of mobile entertainment and are they vulnerable to new media initiatives that have captivated younger demographics?

The answer to both is yes.

Yes, they can remain loyal to radio and yes, they are perfectly able to jump in on the mobile, social and new media revolution presently underway.

But to keep Gen X and Baby Boomers spending time listening to radio, some changes are going to have to be made. I'm not kidding myself. I know these changes are unlikely. After all, consolidators are fighting for survival. They really aren't in the mood to grow their businesses. At least that's how they are acting.

What I am about to describe will be very familiar to smaller, local station operators who rarely get publicity in the trade press and somehow chug along under the radar doing quite well -- many even making money.

That's right -- making money in a tough economy.

So, let's take a strategic look at how radio can save its last generation of listeners:

1. It is very important not to fall back on the past in terms of programming and marketing. Doing old time radio isn't going to keep the available audience. This is not to say that strategies that have worked in the past will not work today. In fact, many will. But radio must reinvent itself using the principles that make it compelling or else it threatens to become a virtual broadcasting museum.

2. Radio listeners want local programming with personalities. Radio consolidators are moving in the opposite direction -- a fatal mistake. Even young people, in my experience, like personalities and would probably have bonded with radio had the industry not tried to de-emphasize personality radio more than ten years ago. Consolidators apparently cannot and will not reinvest in talent but stations and groups looking to survive will find this an important component.

3. Give the talent a percentage of the show's take. The days are over where radio personalities can afford to be hired for what they are worth. Instead, they grow with you and get a negotiated percentage of the show's billing in return for a long-term contract. I don't think I know of one radio personality who would not go for this arrangement and it lessens the upfront financial burden on the owner/operator.

4. In the spirit of reinventing radio for the available listener, come up with shorter shows. In talk radio, one to three hours could be the max. For music radio, let air talent entertain for shorter periods (no longer than three hours) to get the best product on-the-air. I know longer shows are more cost effective -- oh, there you go again!

5. Make nights and overnights as special as mornings -- and keep in mind what available and older radio listeners do at night. In the past, programmers assumed they were watching TV and their teenagers were listening to the radio. Now, the teenagers are online, texting, talking, listening to music (Homework? Not without all this new media). And their parents are also increasingly online and distracted from television.

6. All-night shows should be magical again -- an offbeat departure from the rest of the day. Your new litmus test: each daypart should sound different and I'm not just talking about a different playlist. I'm certainly not talking about syndicated programming, either.

7. Personalities communicate with listeners by text message, Twitter, Facebook and the like -- their audience. As you know if you've ever written to me, I answer all my mail -- sometimes within 24 hours. This helps me bond with my audience. Radio needs to use new media to bond with theirs.

8. Do something about the abysmal commercial load problem -- fix it. Many of you know I favor the content-commercial-content-commercial approach -- not stacking the ads in two or three stop sets. All of us -- not just the next generation -- have shorter attention spans. Stop and start is your new best friend.

9. And while we're at it, it's time to own up to reinventing commercials. No one listens to them.
That's why they don't work and which is why you're having a hard time selling spots during this recession. Your station has become an add-on -- not a necessity. Make sponsor messages a necessity by reinventing the live-read (I'm doing this now with Dave & Geri in Grand Rapids). Do more out of the station stuff in return for money -- ancillary income. If you tie your income to spot radio you're dead because spot radio is dead. A recent study quoted in Inside Radio said there will be no radio growth until 2015. You can't last that long and there's no guarantee there will all of a sudden be growth again even six years from now.

10. Take a hint from podcasting -- broadcasting has to become more personal. The days of channeling our inner Cousin Brucie or Ryan Seacrest are over. Available radio listeners want intelligent entertainers -- who know about the content (music, news or talk -- depending on the format). You can't do herky jerky radio jive in this era of great change and connect with today's listeners.

So there it is.

I've written about the importance of news, community involvement and other essentials so I'm sure you've noted it previously.

It's not back to the future. No, not at all.

And you can't do new media on radio. Technology prevents it.

It's about talent and how the dynamics of radio works best for Gen X and Baby Boomers who are inclined to like radio if they can get an outstanding, compelling and addictive product.

Don't confuse the cutbacks, "layoffs" and shortcuts like national syndication or network programming for radio and expect available older listeners to continue to tolerate it.

It's not.

Repeater Radio is designed to save money for consolidators and that's it -- not entertain and keep their available listeners.

With no next generation coming up through the ranks to give terrestrial radio a growth component, failure to super serve the listeners who already like and listen to radio is tantamount to actually inviting your audience to leave you.

Sooner than 2015.

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