In radio's ongoing quest to determine precisely who is the competition in 2009, the conversation - post NAB - continues. While I enjoy listening to the marketing and digital gurus as much as anyone, there is a great deal to be learned from simply talking to consumers - your friends, relatives, and neighbors - about the way their media habits are changing.
Like we learned from the "Bedroom Project" back in '07, there is much to be learned from an ethnographic, even anthropological, approach to "research."
Some researchers simply don't understand ethnography because it flies in the face of their precious data, but as we saw in "Bedroom," if you want to get a handle on where the puck is going, rather than where it's been, innovative, creative research becomes a necessity. We have all the statistical data we need, and the Internet provides us with endless analytics to measure everything from engagement to ROI.
I used to be a radio guy that simply blocked out a lot of the consumer babble, favoring instead my data, my research, and my auditorium test. Those statistical blinders were comforting because they provided numerical comfort and confidence, while filtering out the listeners screaming for deeper cuts and more music from Mahogany Rush or Anthrax.
But no more. Because I have found that the shelter of the data can often mask the cacophony of real people asking questions about why things in radio are the way they are, while they discover there are other welcoming destinations and options.
So, here's a couple of anecdotes from these informal conversations, but ones that we should seriously pay attention to because there may be more "truth" to them than in any number of key findings in Pew or Forrester studies, much less auditorium tests.
The first is from a friend with a couple of small kids - under 10 - who live for Disney on the radio. Just like in your town, the Radio Disney station here in Detroit in on the AM band - at 910. These kids live for Disney - every time they get into the car, there's something special and exciting going on - countdowns, features, and lots of the music they can't get anywhere else.
When you go to the Radio Disney website, it actually looks like you'd expect from a digital home catering to kids - videos, info about the artists and their music, games and contests, and easy ways to enjoy the content on other platforms and engage with the channel. In short, more connected to the audience than most music stations that aim for adults.
So, in an environment where young people have gravitated away from radio because broadcasters have provided precious little that engages them, Radio Disney has proved that for the right, targeted content, kids will go anywhere - including the AM band.
The second is from a mom who insisted that her mp3 player include an integrated AM/FM radio because she enjoys working out at a club where plugging into the system allows her to listen to the television channels using ear buds. But when she's not in the club, she's a regular to the Hot AC station in town. So that's a good story, right?
It was until she got an iPhone. And discovered Pandora. And figured out how to connect it to her minivan's sound system. And that's pretty much been the end of the Hot AC, a popular station in PPM that plays a lot of great music without a whole lot of interruptions or clutter.
But on Pandora, she's found an even better Hot AC station, and this one plays commercial-free music, doesn't have goofy DJs, and allows her to skip past songs she doesn't like. And because that terrestrial station doesn't really provide much in the way of content beyond the music, and really hasn't engaged her with anything that is local or meaningful to her, she's become a Pandora P1. And that Hot AC station has been written off because it has now become a crappier version of Pandora.
Or is it the other digital entertainment options that are rapidly permeating mobile devices, making their way into cars, and becoming more and more familiar brands to growing numbers of consumers?
If we continue to spend our time focused on who's edging out who in cume in today's PPM weekly report, and we're not devoting attention to the growing competitive tsunami that has already begun to hit, we are missing a changing entertainment and information revolution, in the same way that newspapers overlooked the Internet, and the recording industry totally missed digital music.
And it begs the question: Are we simply programming our stations to compete against other stations, while the revenue and ratings pies continue to shrink? Or should we be looking over the hedge, past our traditional property line, and toward the real competition for the consumer's time and attention?
This is no knock on the programmers of terrestrial stations. They are in the trenches, fighting the enemy, and incentivized on market ratings and share. The upper echelons of broadcasting companies are charged with the task of setting larger strategies, seeing the full field of competition, and devising plans that not only serve their companies in the fourth quarter of 2009, but in the years beyond. They'd better hurry.
Our built-in advantages - habit and ubiquitous access - are diminishing.
The Walkman is long gone, and has been replaced by iPods and mobile phones capable of streaming audio and video.
Radio needs to do more than simply provide its traditional offerings on other platforms and new devices. Radio's challenge goes beyond listening locations, and encompasses the fact that consumers are seeking content offerings that provide control, variety, choice, and the ability to freely network with one another to trade and share content.
Simply programming nice, seamless music stations with lots of segues and less DJ talk may "print" in PPM in 2009, but it will be replaced by consumers in 2010 and beyond with better, commercial-free, customizable options. Just like how Google replaced the Yellow Pages. And Craigslist destroyed the classified ads in the Post Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News.
Pay attention to those stories and anecdotes from your friends, family members, and the guy you bump into every morning at Starbucks. They may not be statistically significant, but they are part of a larger narrative that we simply cannot afford to ignore.