Lessons From My Digital Vacation

Every year I return to the New Jersey beaches where I vacationed since childhood to contemplate the year ahead, set priorities and observe how consumers use media in a changing world.

After my years of being a professor at the University of Southern California I have changed a lot of my views and beliefs about the music and media business. As you know I write about it in this space, but thought that you might like to see my thoughts on challenges and opportunities ahead.

Here are a few observations:

1. Only ten years ago you couldn’t go to a beach without hearing boom boxes everywhere with the local radio station blaring. These local stations had a stronger signal than many of the more distant larger stations and they made their money (especially in New Jersey) in a three-month period of time. Thus, lots of commercials – stops and starts – and local content. For the fourth year in a row I did not spot one boom box on the busy beaches I attended. Instead, lots of iPods and almost everyone (no matter what age) had a cell phone that was in clear view.

2. The debate on the FM chip for mobile devices is troubling because as I have been saying, young consumers do not use their mobile devices as radios. This could be a chicken and egg thing. What comes first – the listeners if radio gets live and local or do listeners have to have FM capable mobile devices to bring radio to their cell phones?

3. Kindles and iPads populated the beach. My wife brought her iPad but I did not. The iPad is fantastic in normal light and not so easy to see in bright sunlight. Kindles are easier to read in the sun. Older people seem to have Kindles. Younger folks iPads. Kids will use anything to play games. But I saw one family playing Scrabble on a beach blanket the old fashioned way and they seemed to be enjoying each other.

4. I had to mail a postcard and asked a young store clerk where the nearest mailbox was. He looked at me as if I had two heads. Now I understand why. It took me another day to find a mailbox on the 18-mile Long Beach Island. Okay, it was the first postcard I have sent in probably three or four years, but still, if you can’t readily find a mailbox in a resort, snail mail is over for the next generation.

5. Just a few years ago you had to get to the local WaWa (our convenience stores) early to get a printed New York Times. No more. They’ve got plenty of newspapers no one is buying including the Sunday Times. I love newspapers. Took journalism as part of my communications school education. But they are dead on arrival. KYW Newsradio's website (CBS) or Philly.com (Philadelphia Inquirer) kept me up on local news.

One day I tried to go cold turkey and not bring my iPhone to the beach. I hovered around it and plugged and unplugged it trying to make the final decision. Then I detached and left it in the charger. I was miserable. I understand fully why we are addicted to mobile devices for better or worse and I will share some thoughts with you on digital overload shortly.

My students and young people in general cannot be without their phones but I submit that older people are getting to be the same way.

Texting while driving?

Absolutely. Everyone does it. This is not a young person’s guilty pleasure anymore although I observed many shore vacationers on bikes texting while peddling. The government says texting while driving is more dangerous – more dangerous – than drinking and driving yet more people text than drive drunk (I think. I hope).

So, the world continues to evolve and observing consumers as they embrace new media can be fruitful.

Let’s be specific.

1. If I am a radio station, I’ve got to do better. Must be live and local. Do not need to stream my station but do need to be in the mobile content business. I expect to have to say this until I have no voice left because broadcasters are sitting right there looking at these assets they bought that provide what consumers are using less and less – 24/7 programming.

2. If I am a news organization, I’m going to invest heavily in mobile news content. This is the successor to newspapers. You might argue that there will always be newspapers. I have come to accept that newspapers – even online – are not a growth business. News content presented to groups of like-minded people (say local) will eclipse general delivery. That is the perfect marriage of social networking and mobile content.

3. If I am a new recording artist, I am watching consumers wander onto planes, into restaurants, down the street with their ear buds implanted in their ears. I want to be on their mobile devices. It is no longer a requirement to hammer a radio station until I get airplay. It is more important to find your fans in the mobile space. Record labels have let you down. Time to take control of your music and deliver it yourself to consumers.

Steve Jobs is the ultimate observer of media use by consumers. He leads them by following their sociology. The content creators need to do a better job studying how drastically their listeners and users have changed.

This leads me to conclude that there are no vacations from mobile media.

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