Radio, the State of the Ship

For More Than a Decade We've Been Making a Lousy Product and Getting Away With It
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As we radio executives observe falling stock values, the difficulties in obtaining acquisition financing, declining local revenues, audience losses and emerging technologies, perhaps it is time to take an unemotional, big-picture look at our beloved industry and the state of our ship.

Never in its history has radio faced a three-front attack from its regulators, new technologies and its own attempts at programming self-immolation.

The benefits of loss

Perhaps the problems started with deregulation.

The promise was that we'd have fewer stations losing money. This was fulfilled in the short term as winners acquired losers in a post-deregulation station feeding frenzy. However, this was a little like trying to halve the number of victims of a dreaded disease by killing half the patients.

Rolling up losing stations into market clusters reduced the root of radio's resilience. Commercial radio was vibrant because it was competitive and innovative. Radio needs losing stations. Formats like top 40, easy listening and all-news were dreamed up in competitive desperation. But deregulation has allowed the large to eat the small and in doing so plow over a fertile garden that had grown new concepts in sales and programming.

The long-term effects are proving near-fatal: a lack of new ideas, a lack of creators, and a management structure driven exclusively by cost reduction. Unrealistic acquisition costs forced higher spot rates and placed downward pressure on operating costs. Personnel were cut; radio job opportunities became limited.

At the same time came improvements in the quality of computer-based automation systems that were rabidly utilized by cluster general managers who were desperate to please out-of-market bosses with reduced payrolls.

Satellite costs dropped; entrepreneurial syndication ventures emerged and syndicated programs were added to automation. Programming and promotion departments scaled back as former competitors were absorbed into the market cluster, lowering the competitive drive that historically motivated innovation.

Former competitors now shared the water cooler. A format or positioning slogan that appeared to win in one market was duplicated blindly in others. The creators — meaning the programmers — were reduced in number and quality. A typical major-market program director was a promoted air talent who could wear a tie and run Selector.

Those who could still think had such reduced influence that no decisive or dramatic format experiment could be authorized by the new corporate structures.

The result was a bland, over-commercialized product and a management approach of trying to copy things that had been successful in the past.

Initially, revenues grew and operating costs came down. Things looked good for a few years.

By the early 2000s, however, radio, with its boring non-local content, long stop sets and high rates, was competing with new portable music delivery systems.

Self-inflicted

The core problem in this competition is self-inflicted: poor programming product.

For more than a decade we have been making a lousy product and getting away with it. Now we have competition ... not XM and Sirius, but Best Buy and Circuit City. Portable electronic devices, free of nine-minute stop-sets and hard-to-understand slogans, are becoming the preferred method to discover new music. Radio will be past recovery if addressable Internet service of decent quality gets into cars or if the FCC mandates a digital conversion, forcing purchase of new receivers.

Please try, as local programmers once did, to think like a potential listener. Forget the industry "inside conditioning" and think like a consumer.

Consider the silly, pointless names we give our station product, the ridiculous imaging.

A frog is an amphibian. A laser is a coherent light beam. Alice is a friend or relative. These are not radio product names. They are inside code words that convey no listening advantages to an audience.

We have confused and lost listeners who have given up trying to figure out what our "industry-hip" station names may mean. Proof? Ask a young listener what station they listen to and — if they listen to radio at all — they will name a frequency, because that is what they can understand.

The plethora of cute names is a result of radio insiders trying to impress other radio insiders with ever-hipper slogan identifiers, forgetting that none of it makes sense to a listener. Once artists, in any entertainment medium, begin playing to each other, the public is lost. A 96 Rock is better than a Jack. It has always been true that the speed of cume acquisition is directly proportional to simplicity of product description.

Adding further to the product confusion, consider the nutty, high-frequency slogans we mindlessly repeat: "traffic on the 8s" or "on the 2s." People don't talk or think that way. What the devil are the 2s? When did any listener ever say to a friend, "I'll meet you today on the 3," or "I have an appointment on the 8s every Wednesday"?

Would it not make more sense — and be easier to understand — to say "Traffic every 10 minutes"? All of the listening audience would understand and, heaven forbid, it would actually convey a programming advantage in an easy-to-understand slogan.

Similarly, when is a heavy, deep, threatening voice a positive thing? Yet we contract national talent to record positioning lines in threatening, growling deep voices that sound mean and hostile. Would not a light, positive, fun and friendly voice be more inviting?

Is it not dumb to hire a local DJ, then formatically assign that personality only three times an hour to read a mere position line, a slogan liner better delivered by a contract production professional?

A live, local DJ should be heard often and contribute content that a recorded liner cannot add and other media cannot emulate. Live voices should do what only live voices can do: Add local identity.

Why waste live talent with "the best mix of the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, two thousands and today" when something like, "Hi to all y'all driving to work at Bethlehem Steel this morning, say hello to Fred when you get there" would touch more local lives?

Often the lame appearance of a local DJ within the music hour is so infrequent that it exceeds the average TSL for the format.

Tech's role

It is said that radio remotes no longer work. Of course not. In major markets at least, remotes have morphed into a pointless product: a card table and banner, crewed by an assistant promotion director who may do a couple of call-ins an hour. Radio remotes were once live, animated shows. The client saw a hard-working crew in his or her place of business and the public had a show to watch. This worked.

A passive banner, no matter how artistic, will not give a client the idea that their promotional investment bought serious station attention. It will not attract the public. The programming product has to be reinvented.

Radio technology does not drive audiences; entertainment does. In show biz, content is the prime audience motivation and technology has never driven mass audiences to radio stations.

Equipment manufacturers and chief engineers have great interest in new tech trends that can be sold to gullible broadcast executives as audience salvation; but often the public could care less. Radio owners and mangers often are like poor cattle wandering across a field. Someone in a corner shouts "AM stereo" and the herd moves toward the voice. Later the shout is "HD Radio" and the herd starts in that direction — always wanting to believe that a new enhancement to a radio transmitter can drive up an audience.

FM was around for decades but no audience movement occurred until better content — with few commercials and narrowly focused music formats — appeared and started the youth listener migration.

Here is a showstopper for conversation: There is no business model difference between FM HD Radio and the decades-old subcarrier business. Both require special receivers to capture and decode content embedded on a primary station.

The premise seems to be that somewhere, somehow, there are great mass appeal formats that just can't get on a limited number of radio platforms, so the public needs new platforms. The premise is untrue. If there were such formats, a losing .5 share FM radio station would be programming it on its primary signal. The whole HD idea is driven by industry, not the consumer.

Technical improvements and innovation should be embraced but are not a core solution to audience problems. So often, what is technically possible is not necessarily practical.

Invest in creation

Today's programmers rarely innovate, so any major-market success story involving a new, live, local exciting format will have to happen to be replicated.

I am sure that a lot of exhumed '70s and '80s PDs will say "just redo top 40 like it used to be and that will work." But I think we need a new, intermedia, interactive format, certainly based on time-proven sound principles and dynamics of audience reactions but designed for the media realities of 2009 and beyond.

A new format and basic business model are needed, using each medium for its strengths. Radio can attract cume audience and the Web can give more content, visuals and instant commerce.

Local listener peer group positioning, entertainment news, new trends, new music, hit music and showcased excitement are desirable format qualities. But time is limited; each year a demographic cell of young listeners moves up the Arbitron demographic envelope and we have an ever-expanding listener universe conditioned to not expect these qualities from radio.

The classic peer group interaction and individual positioning that teens got from their local radio DJ at one time has been replaced by e-mails and text messaging. The music comes from downloads and radio is becoming something grandmothers have in their bedrooms.

Broadcast professionals who love this business and want to make a difference must start thinking and inventing. Entertainment products are not invented by research; they are invented by empowering creators to create. Radio is the only entertainment industry that ever believed a research study could create a hit. Creators create hits.

Let us no longer deny these truths, let us admit that we have a product problem.

Those offended by my comments may be numerous. The general manager might say "We're going Alice" thinking it is a decisive, intelligent decision. Manufacturers focus on sales. Chief engineers convince management that a new box will drive up audience shares. Program directors think they are creative even as they continue to copy, copy, copy. Chief executives consider the cost of everything but never give conceptual thought to the core programming product that clone stations transmit.

We can still invent, if we recognize the need to do it. Let us again value creators, as other entertainment industries do.

May just one major-market radio station get outside of this self-constructed container and program an exciting, all-local entertainment format on a big FM signal. Hire a creative team and let them create.

If it works, ratings and revenue will follow and just maybe enough industry press on that single success may motivate station decision-makers in the herd to start imitation. If it fails, fire the creators and hire another set; but keep trying to create.

This takes courage and a belief that the industry can only adapt if it invents. Talented executives remain in our industry. Let's us hope they see the big picture, assert themselves and help us get our ship together.

The author is president of Radio Broadcast Communications, which owns WKHZ(AM) in Ocean City, Md., and manages several radio stations in the Washington and Baltimore markets.

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