Earlier this week, I was invited to speak to a radio class at Salem High School (Plymouth, MI). It all came out of a recent blog post ("Michigan, Radio, & Youth" - 12/10/09) that spoke to the dual problems that my home state and our industry are facing in the area of attracting young people.
This school is special because they have had a real FM radio station, WSDP, since 1972. "The Escape" is on the air 24/7, and has been recognized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters five of the last nine years as "High School Station of the Year."
I have to tell you that while I walk into some pretty heavy-duty meetings every year with corporate executives, CEOs, and the like, I was more nervous about this appearance than most. In the first place, it's a first hour class (at 7:13 a.m.), and if you have high school students at home, you know about the wake-up challenge. But more importantly, I believe that we're at a point where teens can teach us veteran broadcasters a great deal about the media entertainment world.
After a slow start, the questions began to fly. Yes, they don't listen to a lot of commercial radio. We only had two hard core contest players in a room of roughly 30 students. Most simply aren't engaged by the radio or personalities they hear, or simply use iPods and other sources to entertain themselves. Of course, repetition and the lack of new music are root problems.
The top source for new music discovery? In perhaps a throwback to eras gone by, it is still all about friends and word-of-mouth.
We talked about HD Radio (and I wondered yet again why local broadcasters aren't making better use of high school and college fledgling radio broadcasters), smartphones, and Pandora (which many listen to). And also about the shortsighted strategy of voicetracking overnights in commercial radio, thus eliminating the potential for developing that farm team. Rush Limbaugh's recent health scare brought the problem of radio's "no succession plan" into focus.
As an industry, we are going to struggle with attracting America's youth to radio if we aren't more inviting - with formats and job and career opportunities. Back in the day, my biggest challenge as a fledgling college student in the '70s was trying to break into radio because jobs were few and demand was high.
Today, we are hard-pressed to attract bright, excited young people to our business. And instructor Bill Keith tells me that his applications from students each year have fallen as well.
Part of the solution is dialogue - like my get-together with this class. We need to listen to them (and vice-versa.)
Even at that very early hour, it was an eye-opener for me, and I appreciate the efforts of Bill Keith, Lauren Cummings, and of course, the students.
I would encourage any of you grizzled radio professionals to speak to a high school media (or radio) class, but be prepared to do more than lecture them.