After FM, Where Does Radio Go?

You’ve no doubt been reading about the rush that has been going on of late as owners are porting their AM radio stations over to FM.

Bonneville was one of the early pioneers of moving AM brands to FM because, frankly, listeners have migrated over to FM. In fact, they migrated a long time ago.

It is remarkable but one thing has not changed – listeners will listen to AM radio if they want to hear what the station is broadcasting. These available AM listeners do tend to be older and the move to FM makes sense if a brand is worth protecting.

Stop right there.

Fast forward another five or ten years and ask yourself where will great FM radio brands be connecting with audiences then – online, on cell phones, iPads or still on the FM band?

While moving valuable listening brands from AM to FM appears to be a no-brainer, one has to wonder why it took 20 years for this migration.

There are several interesting points:

1. A great brand is a great brand and while an FM signal doesn’t guarantee an audience without excellent programming, being on FM is not enough without an excellent brand (not repeater radio, heavily voiced tracked stations without community presences and live and local operations).

2. I believe even young listeners would have found the AM band if they had a reason. It was the radio industry in its infinite wisdom that assumed that FM would be for music because it is in stereo and AM would be for news/talk because it is mono. Actually, that assumption helped start the migration decades ago when young listeners actually knew what an AM station was. Ask a college kid now and you might find that you are horrified with their response. Did it have to be this way?

3. A solid FM brand does not need to be streaming on the Internet. Period. The very successful WBEB-FM, Philadelphia owner Jerry Lee stopped streaming because it was a poor return on investment (i.e., royalties). And, he was only picking up a very small amount of listening to add to his number one ratings. Over a year since Lee pulled the plug and WBEB is still number one in the Philly PPM. No stream.

4. Study a guy like Lee and I do because he was my first employer in radio. Lee in essence has become a mega millionaire many times over with essentially one radio station – 101.1 – not even a great signal. In fact, a lousy one. Lee flirted with owning WFIL-AM after its heyday and then dumped it. He returned to one FM station – over-the-air – and a license to print money even today. Even in a recession. Even while everyone scrambles around to dabble in new media. How could that be? Blaise Howard and a series of great GMs didn’t hurt. PDs like Chris Conley and Chuck Knight. Bill Moyes as a researcher spending a lot of his time successfully fending off competitors like Greater Media most recently.

I know what you’re thinking.

Jerry (me), make up your mind. Should radio be in new media or remain a pure over-the-air venture?

My mind is made up.

Radio should offer the best product and service to its listeners. Owners should invest in research – they don’t. In marketing – very little. In advertising/promotion – are you kidding, who wants to spend that kind of money. That’s how Lee has done it for decades, still does it and no one has figured it out.

Very few want to pay attention to him.

Lee, now in his seventies, is a man of many interests but he never sold out to the consolidators even when they could have made him richer. He has a passion for the process of being number one. I’ve known him a long time and I can’t say he has ever lost his interest in radio.

One station – that outperforms others by far.

So, what it tells me is that if you want to observe Lee, you can learn a lot. And you’ll also find your answer about radio’s role in the mobile media world.

Shall we?

• Terrestrial radio should by and large be live and local. You have to spend money to make money. Must do research. Must advertise. Test music, etc. The goal is to build a strong brand and defend it.

• It does not follow that streaming is the future because as Lee well knows (because he is a shrewd dude), consumers don’t listen to computers or for that matter cell phones and even iPods the way they listen to radio. In other words, a radio format doesn’t work on a telephone. Even an iPod is not a Walkman. It is an on-demand jukebox that consumers use to jump around from song to song even before it ends. Cell phones are not radios and no one can make them become one. A car radio isn't even a car radio anymore, it is an "entertainment center" that shares its time with drivers who are texting.

• The mobile Internet requires new content delivered in shorter segments that put the user in control of their on-demand entertainment. Radio is used to a hot clock and 24/7 broadcasting. The mobile Internet is waiting for the next Bill Drake to draw a mobile hot clock on a napkin at the new age equivalent to Martonis that will consist of short elements of content – video, audio, text with social networking.

Therefore, a great terrestrial radio brand works only on terrestrial radio.

And mobile Internet content – even inspired by a terrestrial brand – will only work if it is separate and apart from radio formatics that embrace short attention spans, on-the-go living and connectivity.

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