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Seeing Radio’s Challenges Clearly

As the old adage goes, hindsight is 20/20. What radio needs is more clarity looking ahead.

As the old adage goes, hindsight is 20/20. What radio needs is more clarity looking ahead.

“We need to do a better job of informing listeners about the great variety that radio already provides,” said NAB President/CEO David K. Rehr in his keynote address at the NAB Radio Show in Charlotte.

His “Radio 2020” initiative is heralded as “a series of initiatives aimed at ensuring that radio’s value will be recognized well into the next century.” In preparation for the launch, NAB and two partner organizations, the Radio Advertising Bureau and the HD Digital Radio Alliance, conducted what they called an “unprecedented study involving thousands of Americans” to better understand what makes radio important to consumers.

It revealed, among other things, that the feather in radio’s cap is its accessibility. It found that consumers demand the latest technologies, and that manufacturers are “getting it,” making radio available wherever there’s a speaker or a headphone. It also found that radio offers multicasts and more eclectic formats but needs to do a better job of educating the public on these developments and those of HD Radio.

An initiative such as Radio 2020 is great for radio and we support it. Rehr is right to call on everyone in the industry to be evangelical about radio’s strengths.

But we are always leery of snappy marketing phrases that tend to disappear by the next convention cycle. We’ve heard in the past about initiatives such as nourishment of new technologies, playlist diversity, format variety and reigniting radio, topics Rehr listed as central to Radio 2020. What lies behind the latest catchy name and hip logo? What’s to be done in these next 12 years to keep broadcasters abreast of the initiative’s success or further research findings? Will radio leaders stick to this? Can the industry expect quarterly progress reports?

NAB, RAB and the HD Digital Radio Alliance say they will be “sharing the information [they ’ve] learned through research, and developing a plan of action and marketing initiatives … that will redefine radio into the future.” But these organizations frankly have not produced outstanding marketing success for radio in the past few years.

We’re anxious to hear more. We want more concrete and ambitious goals. We’d like to see specific targets that will provide a roadmap of industry improvement against which we can assess progress. We also suggest that NAB commit now to holding interim summits in 2010 and 2015, when industry can assess and update the 2020 effort.

More important, we fear that radio leaders really think what they’re doing is good enough, that they only just need to market it better. Most programmers and commercial owners, we suspect, still don’t hear what the market has been telling them about the lack of compelling content.

The name “Radio 2020” works well. It coincides with the 100th anniversary of a generally accepted birth date for commercial radio. (Radio 2009 or 2014 just don’t have the same ring.) We’re glad NAB is thinking far ahead. But it’s also fair to say the industry can’t afford to wait that long.

If Radio 2020 ends up being just about telling radio’s story better, rather than improving our underlying product, it’ll be DOA by 2008.

— RW