The Next Generation of Listeners

I recently heard former Governor Howard Dean analyze the present political atmosphere as the establishment’s last stand.

Politics is politics and I’m going to try to put that aside in looking at something he went on to say that rings true if applied to the media business.

Dean, a Democrat and former presidential candidate, was criticizing his arch rivals the Republicans and the Tea Party movement. Again, not looking to get involved in all that for this purpose, he went on to say that the next generation would reject any attempts to restrict gay rights or attempts to impede immigration.

These are certainly two super charged issues and Dean’s comments reminded me of working with college students at USC.

We often look at the world through our own eyes and experiences. Radio people think there will always be 24/7 radio and record labels apparently think they can get the same high profits for selling music that they once earned for selling vinyl or CDs.

The generation that is now coming of age – Generation Y – is reshaping everything. It is strong in numbers at about 70 million and the last Gen Y’er has already been born but hasn’t made it to college yet.

If you’re looking for a political fight, you’re not going to get it here. My mother, a Democratic ward worker in her day, always reminded us that you’re not likely to talk anyone out of their political beliefs.

But there are some things worth considering about the next generation as it pertains to media.

1. They, indeed, have more open attitudes about immigration because they have likely embraced immigrants who are their friends in person and on Facebook. As a professor I can tell you that college students care very little about racial divides that talk radio obsesses over. They see the world in one color of humanity – a characteristic of which we parents should be very proud.

2. Sexual preferences are personal decisions that are openly supported in large part by this generation. Of course, there are exceptions. There is more lesbianism on campuses, more gay relationships. Gen Y is just fine with this. Listen to their music which is the soundtrack of their lives and “I Kissed a Girl” is more than a song, it is a marker of change.

3. Number one and two above means that the kind of issues – political and societal – that are the fuel of talk radio stations will never compel the next generation to become a listener. Howard Stern, radio's famous shock jock, means nothing to Gen Y. If they want shock, they’ll kiss a girl or dress like Lady Gaga or be Rihanna. This is fundamental to content providers who want to find the next way to engage an audience. Politics, intolerance that surrounds the immigration issue and restricting sexual behavioral choices will likely not fly with them.

4. The listener of the future is also very civic-minded. I have said this many times and yet media executives make short shrift of it. The next generation cares what their stars, singers and friends are willing to do to help the environment, lend a hand to others and build a better sense of community. Look no further than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who gave $100 million in Facebook stock to the troubled Newark, NJ public school system after getting to know charismatic Mayor Cory Booker. As The New York Times put it, Zuckerberg has “no particular connection to Newark … But in July he and Mr. Booker met at a conference and began a continuing conversation about the mayor's plans for the city, according to people familiar with their relationship." The Harvard dropout did have a particular interest in civic issues.

The point being that understanding our own business is not going to be as critical in the emerging digital media world as being an expert at understanding the changing consumer.

To do so would mean adapting to their interests which are polar opposite from older talk radio listeners.

Extend this further and any station playing music is competing (poorly) with an iPod unless it provides live and local people that can relate to Gen Y the way baby boomers and their parents were able to relate to radio, TV and journalism people.

Steve Jobs – who took one college semester before dropping out – is the gold standard as far as I am concerned for understanding the next generation. He’s a complex man and no personal role model other than to see how he has built at least three businesses (including Apple twice) by having a better understanding of the youth market than any one else.

Jobs may have this ability in his DNA.

I am suggesting that the rest of us can acquire it by more keenly observing this revolutionary new market than only channeling the views and policies that worked before 2000.

Success in the growing mobile Internet is directly proportional to how willing we are to see it through the eyes of a young generation that has singlehandedly redefined much of society through social media and the Internet.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill is famous for saying “all politics is local”.

To adapt that memorable phrase to a media industry on the verge of monumental change, “all media is live and local” and must reflect the social, political and civic differences of the next 70 million listeners and viewers now coming of age.

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