I recently ran across the following piece in FMQB by John Silliman Dodge, a programmer, a consultant, and the head guy at KBPS in Portland (yes, public radio). While you may not agree with John's views about radio's dilemma, he makes some compelling arguments that are great jumping off points for ongoing corporate strategy sessions.
In recent weeks and months, we've heard how traditional broadcasters are now reassessing their technology plans, and how they intend to develop a digital model for the future. There are no easy answers to be sure. In the middle of all of this is HD Radio. In this space, we have long argued that whether you view it as the future or as a distraction, the motivator to consumers is going to come down to great content. And related to that issue is the quality of the content on terrestrial radio these days.
Let's welcome John to this space, and hopefully, our own dialogue about what's next and what's important.
HD = Huge Distraction
I recently asked a 21-year-old college senior where she and her friends discover new music. She answered, “We find out about new music from each other, or from movies.” I followed up, “So, radio isn’t a factor?” She replied, “Yeah, I guess it is, kinda. But mostly it’s our friends.”
Did we just get a sneak peek into the near future? Note the lukewarm reaction: “I guess it is, kinda.” Yesterday, radio reached deeper into people’s worlds. We were more involved in their lifestyles, even provided part of their self-identification. Today it’s so easy to search, to download, to burn, to share files instantly among friends that this has become the new music distribution system. To use a term I haven’t heard since the dotcom era, we’re being disintermediated; radio is a middleman who’s being slowly cut out of the transaction.
Yes I know, radio still touches more than 95% of Americans every week. But the trends are clear. Listener leakage is real. And if radio is reduced to something which merely distracts people while they’re stuck in traffic, our business is on the slippery slope. Once Wi-Fi covers all the major markets and people can buy cheap and portable Web-enabled radio units at their favorite big box store, that slide picks up speed.
So with long-term customer retention issues like this, why in the world are we distracted by HD? You think that better sound quality drives the market? You think that even when digital radios break the $100 barrier, there will be a rush to buy them? Again and again we see what motivates consumers: convenience and creative programming. Tens of millions have happily sacrificed audio quality in order to squash their CD collection into a box the size of a pack of cigarettes. It’s not that people don’t care about quality; they do. If you offer something that’s cheap, convenient and of high quality such as the CD, they will spend billions. But not on a digital radio that plays the same stuff their FM radio already plays.
Here’s where the waiter brings our Reality Check: we’re not programming Channel One compellingly enough to worry about Channel Two.
We can dance around this issue all we like, but sooner or later we have to confess our lack of investment in programming. Notoriously skin-flinty Mel Karmazin now spends millions on programming deals, development deals, partnerships and co-promotions because he knows that’s how to differentiate Sirius from XM. Same thing with HBO and Showtime; the channels are interchangeable commodities, but great programming drives the market. And great programming is a function of creative talent plus time and money. We can’t do this on the cheap, because the verdict is in and endless cost-cutting in the name of shareholder value has devalued the product.
You can argue that restrictive playlists are causing this problem. I disagree. The average playlist on the average iPod is much shorter than the average radio station playlist. So while people (and media writers most of all) love to trumpet the variety issue, they don’t truly seek out variety in their listening lives. You can argue that people are sick of the hits and want more deep cuts. Again I disagree. On both Sirius and XM, listeners tend to preset 3-4 stations just like they do with terrestrial stations. And these choices tend to be the hit channels just like terrestrial radio. So note the difference between what people say they want and what they actually use. By and large, we are playing the music that most folks want to listen to. That’s not to say that you can’t get short-term juice by coming up with a new blend, but as we’ve seen with the Jack phenomenon, we quickly get Jill, Joe, Hank, Bob, etc.
What your competitors can’t clone is your unique and compelling air talent. The relationships that your talent develops with your listeners are golden, and those assets belong to you. Music is dynamic, cyclical, even fickle. But your air talent is like family. They bind listeners to the radio station. They’re the close personal friends that you’ve never met. That’s real value.
Radio personalities who can draw and hold a crowd are rare, but they’re out there. Between fewer opportunities and major market risk aversion, there aren’t as many as there used to be. Or perhaps there are, we’re just not aware of them. Maybe we need to take a tip from baseball and go talent scouting in the minor leagues to find the next great morning show. Thank goodness for the Internet, otherwise you’d be cruising Kansas in your rented KIA.
We’re not necessarily looking for someone with previous radio experience. I’ve had good experiences working with talent from the theater. We’re not necessarily looking for someone with a “good” radio voice. Attitude trumps tone any day. Here’s what we are looking for:
Maybe you’re on a fiscal year and July 1 begins the next cycle. That means that budgets are developed this spring. You have a few months to hone your argument with the GM about why it’s time to increase the Talent Development budget. But make the time to search for new talent, and take the time to train the talent you already have so that everyone in the house is on the continual upward path.
I’m not big on “the good old days.” I think maybe our memories have invented some of that goodness. What I am big on is a vision of our future that includes a reinvigorated concept of audio entertainment. So let’s move forward to the thrill of discovery. Let’s focus on the finer points of personality and presentation. Let’s add a generous dose of surprise to our mix. Let’s make compelling, “I can’t tune away because I’ll miss something great” programming driven by personality power.
And what about HD? If your boss or your board runs into your office breathlessly asking, “What are we gonna do about HD?!” Tell him / her / them that you’ve carefully considered the matter and next year is the year we focus on Channel Two. (Next year, tell them next year is the year we focus on that.) Meanwhile, we have to get busy and put the passion into Channel One. Good luck and keep in touch.
John Silliman Dodge has a 25-year career that spans and integrates music, media, and management. He has been a Program Director for stations and networks from coast to coast. Today, John is a talent coach, consulting and conducting performance workshops on the art and science of creative radio communications. He is also the Program Director for KBPS-FM in Portland. Contact John at 425-681-9935, by mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.sillimandodge.com/.