Saturday, January 26, 2008

Radio's Audience: Ours To Lose

Radio is running scared! Let’s admit it! With its cousins, the Recording Industry, Radio has forgotten that it is King of the Hill and has all but abdicated its throne without a whimper, let alone a fight!

The reality is that every high-tech new media outlet would love to have 10% of radio’s audience—an audience that radio appears to be ready to just give away!

With the onslaught of hi-tech goodies, radio stations are sounding desperate to link themselves with the Internet, iPods, Satellite Radio and every other hi-tech toy that comes out, including HD Radio. Let’s put all this in perspective.

Internet Radio is at least 5 years for any kind of portability. The “pipe” (amount of data that can be transmitted) needs to double in size and processors need to increase in speed several times before any wireless internet will be of any kind of a threat to radio. At the present time, the best wireless is just slightly faster than a dial-up telephone line. And the second band needed for any kind of internet connectivity will have to expand far beyond America’s largest metro areas.
iPods are expensive! And at 99-cents a (legal) song download, a thousand songs costs $1000! At that rate, keeping up with the new music gets downright expensive. And Jammie Thompson’s “test case” has proven that illegal downloads and file sharing can be very expensive and dangerous! What’s more, we’re beginning to see “iPod Fatigue”. What we perceived as a trend could, in fact, be only a fad.

Satellite Radio has been a reality for over half a decade and their audience is only a fraction of Terrestrial Radio’s...a fraction! While nobody is entirely sure why this is, one thing is certain: even if they double their audience in the next half-decade, they’ll still have only a fraction of radio’s default audience.

On-Demand technology is still another half-decade from being anything but slow and clunky. America’s cable systems have invested heavily in fiber-optic wiring, but customers aren’t stampeding to subscribe to digital cable…and without digital cable, On-Demand never reaches the cosumer. The software development continues to be difficult and runs slowly while the systems are confusing to most users.

Cell Phones, as a music delivery system, are more of a threat to iPods than to radio. High-speed connectivity issues will keep internet radio off cell phones for at least another half-decade.
While HD Radio technology presents many wonderful opportunities for radio, it is still very much in the future—probably a decade before enough receivers will be in consumers’ hands to compete with our current audience levels. Radio sounds desperate to convert listeners to their HD1 Channels.

Yes, radio’s audience is deteriorating and record sales, outside of the superstar projects, have declined to levels that threaten the entire industry. But an effective case can be made showing that the damage is more self-inflected than the product of technology. Please consider the following:

1. For the first time in its history, radio—especially FM—is aimed at less than half the population. For its first half-century, radio aimed its programming at the largest segment of the US population. Now, it seems that every station on the FM dial is aimed at the younger, highly fragmented demos. Persons over 50—over half the US population are literally disenfranchised from FM radio. And this is the audience that made FM radio the success it has became. The Records Industry hasn’t created any hit music for persons over 50 for decades.

2. Radio, like all media, is sorely lacking in content. Open a mainstream magazine and count the number of pages that don’t have some sort of marketing message. When you watch your favorite sports team broadcast on television, how many advertising/marketing messages are you bombarded with per minute? Don’t forget the scoreboard, stats and other overlays. Then, listen to your station. Outside of the morning show, how many times per hours do your air personalities say anything NOT related to a marketing/positioning message? Between image voices, jingles and positioning/marketing statements and or course, commercials, there’s shockingly little content on most radio stations.

3. Air Personalities aren’t allowed to be personalities. There’s precious little time for them to say anything that isn’t scripted marketing statements. And they’re not accessible to their audiences. With voice tracking, studio lines are busied out—for obvious reasons. Street teams have replaced air personalities’ interaction with the public. After all, we want “beautiful people” on the streets representing our stations, don’t we? What does that say to our efforts to be “real”?

4. Radio stations appear desperate to attach themselves to the internet. While a station’s website presents a whole new way to add non-traditional revenue, we should be careful that our message isn’t perceived as an endorsement of other media—Internet Radio.

5. Just about every station’s presentation sounds like “CHR-something”. Air personalities don’t talk without a drum machine or beat mix playing underneath them. And the push for more “energy” has levels bordering on yelling instead of communicating. Where’s the uniqueness in any particular station presentation?

Between image voices, jingles, music-tonnage statements, drum machines/beat mix and artist/song migration from format to format, the listener can be downright confused…if not completely bored!

Radio has at least 5 years to reverse this trend before the hi-tech toys are even ready to become a serious threat. This is no time for sameness and decades-old formulas. It’s time for creativity, research and development and risk-taking. Once the new media takes over, it’ll be too late.

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