Monday, June 13, 2005

Content is KING! Radio ramblings

Anyone who has any interest in radio today knows these are troubled times. For some formats, such as AM Talk radio, the consolidation has been a good thing with hosts syndicated nationwide and good numbers for many programs. Things are only getting better for AM talk as the industry discovers progressive / liberal talk programming holds great potential for ratings just as conservative talk has for the last 10 years. Additionally, these popular national programs are helping local talkers find their voice too. KOPJ AM 620, here in Portland Oregon, recently added local programming in the mornings. An already great station, just got a notch better. Ideally, similar things are happening around the country.

Being the liberal sort, I'm all for getting as many voices into the fray as we can. Maybe we will see the smaller parties find their voices too. Where are our libby and green talkers? Listeners are waiting!

The gauntlet has been thrown with the purchase of the Ed Schultz show by industry vets Randy Michaels and Stu Crane. Anyone who doubted lefty talk was viable has a lot less to say now. Political issues aside, this can only mean good things for talk radio in general. Now that we have ratings and a growing base of programming, can we please have more FM talk stations or at least a few more AM Stereo ones?

FM radio continues to struggle however. The recent wave of format changes are blowing up quality stations all across the country. The replacements are less then stellar, highly automated, "iPod Killers" featuring wide music sets, less talk and a bold, "just don't tell us what to play" attitude. Blech!!

Back in 2004, Clear Channel communications launched an advanced technology initiative to "identify, develop and deploy technologies and products that improve the quality of radio for listeners, advertisers and the industry," Here in 2005 we are seeing the fruits of that labour in the form of aggressive HD Radio station rollouts, increased automation aimed at cutting costs and fewer AD spots. What's not to like?


Radio listenership is not down because the overall quality of radio. Radio sounds plenty good to most everyone. Even AM radio, in it's analog form, is perfectly fine for many listeners. It seems the Radio industry has drunk a whole pitcher of the digital koolaid. The race to digitize our radio stations, embodied in HD Radio, has brought a technology focus to the discussion that does not address the core problem with radio listenership today.

Quality is not the issue, program content is. History shows us, time and time again, that people will listen to well produced, quality radio programs, despite any quality issues that come along for the ride. Broadcast it and they will listen. Of course the digital revolution has nothing to do with programming and everything to do with quality. At a time when radio has more alternatives than it ever has, we are seeing the industry devalue itself in an attempt to co-opt the digital alternatives with buzzwords and technology.

Today we have iPods, streaming Internet audio, satellite radio, digital music downloads, podcasts and other technologies that all deliver audio streams to the listener. Despite being digital, most of these new alternatives do not have the quality a plain old analog radio broadcast does nor do they have the years of experience and name recognition radio has. But they are digital and they are new and that's got the industry executives attention.

It seems everybody is focused on quality and technology, but does this align well with the problems before radio today? Do these things significantly improve the value proposition of radio and how do they promise to bring new listeners? Finally, where is the return on investment? How will these things attract new listeners when quality is not the primary factor in their decline?

We all know listenership is down. Clear Channel is currently seeking new listener measurement tools. Maybe they want better numbers, maybe they think they are missing listeners, maybe they just don't know. It's almost as if they are saying the numbers can't be that bad, we just know there are listeners out there but we just can't identify them.

Folks, if the listeners are that hard to identify, there simply are not enough of them. End of story.

Radio is losing listeners because a growing percentage of programming being aired today is not worth their time, not because they don't like the sound of their radio.

Overall quality does not matter, number of spots mostly does not matter, number of stations does not matter and the music does not matter. Lets face it, they all play the same tunes anyway, it's just a matter of which sub-set of the list of payola approved tunes they choose to play.

What does matter? Programming, programming, programming.

Right now, quality oldies radio stations across the nation are being closed down, along with their radio personalities, in favor of bland automated formats like Jack and Charlie. These formats keep talk to a minimum, don't take requests and have fewer commercial spots. They also play a pretty wide set of music. Charlie has even run "iPod" spots by way of comparison.

Radio needs to be braodcasting programming that cannot be easily had elsewhere. That's why AM Talk is doing well. It's relevant, often local and very dynamic. People tune everyday because they cannot get the programming otherwise. Same for well-produced news programming.

Music, on the other hand, is everywhere. The only differentiator radio had was the on-air talent! If that's gone, radio becomes just another digital media delivery technology. Big loss, in my humble opinion and this is why:

Podcast: Not real time, can be local, are largely free, no commerical spots (yet), portable, timeshiftable, quality potential ranges from poor to CD-quality, iPods are growing like weeds but needs computer / internet for content.

Satellite Radio: Can be real-time, not local, somewhat portable, pay per month and per radio, growing commerical spots, generally not timeshiftable, quality ranges from poor to decent mp3, must purchase radio and subscription.

Internet Streaming audio: Can be real-time, can be local but mostly isn't, mostly free, growing portable but really isn't today, timeshiftable, largely free of commercial spots, quality ranges from poor to decent mp3, tied to computer / wireless devices, but computers are everywhere.

Analog Radio: Is real time, local, extremely portable, free, features commericals, somewhat timeshiftable, quality ranges from poor (narrow band AM) to very good (analog FM Stereo), radios everywhere.

HD Digital Radio: real-time, local, not yet portable, free, features commercials, maybe timeshiftable, quality ranges from Internet streaming audio (AM HD) to very good mp3 (FM HD), almost no radios anywhere and those that exist are going to be expensive for a while yet.

You may disagree with some items on the above list and that's ok. The idea here was to compare and contrast radio with it's competetors in a way that reveals it's strengths. Those clear strengths are:

Radio is Free: Anyone can pick up a radio and listen.

Radio is Local: Nationally syndicated programming and station clusters have sharply eroded this, but each station serves a local audience.

Radio sounds good: To the average joe, the differences between digital radio and analog radio will largely go un-noticed. Both sound better than most all other alternatives. My point being that radio is plenty good enough in this area.

Everybody knows what Radio is: Not everyone knows what a podcast is, understands how to get internet audio, etc...

Radio was first: This means radio sets the bar others must follow. Given this leadership position, why is the industry working so hard to lower the bar thus setting easily met expectations for it's competition?

Here is the question again: If quality is so important as to cut live staff and spend tons of money on digital radio, how come the competition is doing well with marginal quality overall? What does the competition have that radio does not? What does HD Radio add to the overall picture? Increased quality and some increased choice for those willing to pay for HD Radios. These are already pretty strong yet listenership is falling. Doesn't that indicate the efforts are not properly aligned with the needs?

Instead of spending tons of money on expensive and hard to maintain automation systems and digital radio technologies that do not address programming problems, we should be seeing increased programming efforts. Those efforts are going to take people to produce which is exactly the thing being removed from radio today. Devaluing the industry to save costs will only work for a while. As the new alternatives continue to mature, radio will enjoy fewer cost, portability and quality advantages, leaving only programming as it's primary differentiator.

We need programming on the radio that is not easily obtained elsewhere, not programming avaliable everywhere delivered at a lower cost! Until we see this happening, radio will be innovating technically while increasing numbers of people quit listening. Perhaps if enough of them tune out, we might see some investment in innovative programming worth tuning in.


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