Finding Radio’s Lost Generation

The radio consultant Alan Burns came out with a study recently that concluded “radio is in danger of losing its future adult audience”.

Note Burns said “future adult audience” not young audience which radio has arguably already lost.

This notion is not new to those of you who meet here at this space every day. We’ve been warning of these dire consequences for years as radio companies ignored their product for foolish cutbacks.

They fail to fully understand the new listener – their technology and sociology.

In the Burns study, almost half of all women and nearly three-quarters of early adopters would buy a different cell phone if it contained a radio receiver.

I’m not buying it.

Radio is not a main attraction on a cell phone which is why Steve Jobs has been stingy with putting the FM chip in his devices.

For some reason we in radio have a hard time seeing that consumers have changed. We are still trying to offer them what we’re comfortable offering them – 24/7 broadcast radio.

I agree with Burns when he says, “the more like a jukebox we become, the more we’ll lose audience to digital alternatives”.


Yet those of us who believe this are already speaking to the converted. Even as we speak, more morning talent is being cut loose to make way for voice tracking.

My friend Bill Gardner, the outstanding morning talent is leaving JILL-FM in Los Angeles because of -- I'm sad to say, automation. What is it about voice tracking that owners do not get? Listeners don't like it but owners love the money it saves.

So here’s the real story:

1. Personalities like the ones being fired by radio stations are the antidote to iTunes. Especially if these personalities are music trendsetters. The very thing that differentiates an iPod from a radio is the thing radio executives apparently do not value enough to keep them employed – on-air, live and local personalities.

2. Radio as it is now configured is not a major influence on musical tastes as it once was when it had no digital competition and before filesharing. Come on – playing the same tunes over and over again ad nauseum does not directly address the more potent competition – music discovery by peer group and online websites. Pandora and peer-to-peer filesharing is today’s music discovery not top 40 radio.

3. On-demand listeners will continually opt for short form “radio” whatever that turns out to be. In other words, entertainment that has a beginning, middle and end and that can be carried around on mobile devices or eventually available from the cloud anywhere. It can be consumed on-demand. This is anti-radio 101. Keep fighting this and in a few years some consultant will tell you what we just said right here.

4. Local is what is missing from radio. An iPod is impersonal. When iTunes updates its music offerings, it’s the big Apple out there for everyone to see and hear. Radio works best when a local personality debuts the local playlist assuming it has new music on it. We don’t need more national. iTunes is good for what it is, radio doesn’t need to aspire to a poor imitation.

5. The iPad is the new radio, the new television, the new magazine or newspaper, the new book and maybe even the new computer for some folks. If you believe me, then everything we do should be built around the iPad – not old technology. That means radio will have to have video available alongside. Personalities who are live and visible. Just jiggering new playlists or bending old formatic beliefs as a concession to a new age will be met with failure.

6. In the past if you wanted to change format, you’d hire a consultant or PD to do it. They would build a local station and if it was good and if it fit a need, the station would succeed (and if you could hear it). Today, if a radio company really wants to rebuild for the future, all it has to do is start with the concept of social networking. That is, build the new “radio station” (which will soon be misnomer in the digital world) around this group of like-thinking people. Then you service them, talk to them, put them in touch with each other in a way they could not achieve elsewhere. Oh, and do it all for an iPad. Three million sold in less than three months and Christmas is coming.

My advice would be to stop thinking of radio in a traditional way.

Think of radio as the perfect and I mean perfect liaison to new media. We know how to do content professionally, we can do video. Although we don’t impress in social media, we’re capable of learning.

If you wanted to create a scenario for the potential of new media, broadcast radio has all the tools (especially if you rehire the squandered local talent) to come up with whatever the marketplace wants.

That’s the can-do attitude radio should have.

Not clinging to the past and not trying to slightly modify the past for the present.

Listeners are way ahead of radio.

Go follow them because radio has the ability to give today's more demanding listeners exactly what they want even if it is in a different form or in a different space.

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