iPods Are Killing Radio!?

I have three iPods. Great devices. Other than the fact that I erased all 3,000 songs accidentally when I got a new laptop, they are a wonderful technology.

Then all of a sudden I got quite a few e-mails about the announcement [about iPod adapters being installed in more vehicles] as well as seeing a few blogs that spelled the death of radio, both satellite and terrestrial, due to iPods coming into cars.

Putting the denial radar on full, I have to think that the “death” comments are similar to the proclamation that North Korean ICBMs are poised to hit Los Angeles ... soon.

In my opinion, it’s a changing world in terms of how you receive audio entertainment. Not a brilliant revelation, but how you process that reality is the key. The new choices are good! Bring it on.

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I can’t wait to have an iPod wired into my car. Put it right next to XM, next to terrestrial. More choice. Will I listen to my iPod in the car? Hell yes. Will I listen to XM ... of course ... and I might even pop over to terrestrial too. I think it can expand the time-spent-listening to audio entertainment.

One day, maybe Internet radio will be in the car too. Great! I think ya gotta accept that this is all coming and embrace the competition and the new playing field.

XM, and I assume Sirius, are going to continue to be aggressive in bringing satellite into as many ears as possible. It’ll drive companies to become more inventive and rethink things. If you look at iPod, they too have challenges, namely attacking the upper-end listeners who were born and raised on vinyl, cassettes and CDs and are confused by things they perceive as complex.

Of course any blanket statement is pretty useless today, especially when referencing music. Eighteen-year-olds are wired into the MySpace world; 40-plus Luddites are clueless about downloading; music freaks of any age will go anywhere the music is offered and there are traditionalists who continue to hear music on radio and buy CDs at the big box stores. And that’s an overgeneralization, with the point being that there are 300 million-plus North Americans and any blanket statements are, in my opinion, far too general in 2006.

And then there’s radio. It’s a different experience. The key to radio has been in evolving what comes out of the speakers as much as the technology. In 1970, FM was a superior technology sound-wise, but what made FM happen is the programming.

FM had been around since 1940 but in the 1970s FM attacked the vulnerabilities of AM, which was still paying by the rules of 1956. Same thing now, FM is vulnerable because it’s playing by the rules of 1980. When radio gets in sync with the era, it’s an experience that I believe will always be a significant part of the listening pie.

Years ago, there was similar talk about when eight-track, cassette and later CD players were integrated into cars. That same “radio is dead” talk.

Radio is resilient. It was given its last rites in 1955 when TV became mainstream. The emergence of these technologies certainly creates a challenge, but media ain’t no cakewalk.

Radio not ‘dying’

I can’t think of any business that changes as fast as media these days. If we were to stay stuck in 1988 — thinking or failing to address our shortcomings — that is a problem, but if we attack the areas we need to attack and actually deliver on what we promise, things will prosper. I can say that about any of the competing technologies, not just XM.

The technology is sound; the challenge is to maximize it through the speakers and to the public. To say the idea of satellite radio is “dead” because of another excellent technology strikes me as absurd.

We’re in an evolutionary world where music listening is changing and expanding ... not dying.

Then we gotta realize that as much as music is key to audio entertainment, news/talk is the number one most-listened-to format in North America. Throw in sports and it further illustrates the vastness of entertainment for the ears. As passionate about music as we are, that isn’t the whole picture.

It’s easy to get into denial and think we are invulnerable, and it’s just as easy to take the sensationalist course and think it’s all over. I’m in the middle. Gotta think realistically, put everything on the table — the good, bad and ugly — and think reality.

I believe we’re in the second inning of a long “war for ears” game. There’s a lot at XM we need to do to stay in sync with the battle. It changes almost daily.

It would be nice if this were 1955 and we just had to fight TV by playing the hit parade of songs. A bit more complex now. Not only for XM, for everyone.

Terrestrial has to worry about satellite. Apple is probably a bit concerned about Microsoft. Then there’s Motorola and the phone companies. Satellite worries about marketing. The point being, it’s a changing world and a time for everyone to focus on the realities of their business and not “freak out” or buy into the sensationalism.

It’s also important to separate the intellectual from the mass market. For example, intellectually FM is dead. In the mass market, FM is very much alive. Practically everyone listens to FM. That doesn’t make it good or intellectually stimulating. The goal of course, is to have both the mass market and the intellectual stimulation going — a major challenge, but a critical one. It’s all part of the success equation, at least from the creative side.

The age of AM vs. FM is over. Even satellite vs. terrestrial is over. It’s infinitely more complex. It’s an audio version of the political state of the world. It ain’t the U.S. vs. the U.S.S.R. anymore. Simple statements about the state of affairs are too ... simple. Be it world order or music. It’s all too complex to throw around “____is dead” when discussing something that is vibrant and ever-changing.

Radio is a unique experience. A joyful one when done right. iPod is equally cool. Internet is a player. It’s all good. At the end of the day, assuming you can receive everything with the same clarity, the best content will prevail. I am as confident now as in 1998. And for the music and sports fan: Let the games begin.

RW welcomes other points of view.


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