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Avoiding the Audio LCD

Last time we discussed how radio is assuming the “fast food” position among competitive services, and how that might hurt its status in the future. This time we’ll consider some other ways to keep this problem at bay.

Last time we discussed how radio is assuming the “fast food” position among competitive services, and how that might hurt its status in the future. This time we’ll consider some other ways to keep this problem at bay.

The focus in the March 1 column was on music formats, and how difficult it is for local radio to compete with “new media services” (i.e., satellite radio and Internet-only radio streams), which are produced on a national level and often with more narrowly defined, highly targeted formatics.

These formats are clearly the most vulnerable local radio services in this respect, and we looked at some ways for music stations to avoid falling to the bottom of the food chain. Consider also, however, that other formats are less susceptible to becoming bottom feeders, because they can rise above their new competition — if there even is any.

News, sports, talk — particularly of a localized variety — along with weather and traffic information (which are inherently localized), are all content types that are generally not duplicated by new media, since the latter typically are national in scope, or perhaps even purposefully “de-localized,” such that they appear to be coming from nowhere in particular.

Those spoken-word formats are therefore helpful to local radio in competing with new entrants, even if they are not featured as a station’s full-time format but just occasionally intertwined into the rotation of a format that is otherwise duplicated by new media services.

One analysis of this approach is that new media are doing to FM what FM did to AM, and perhaps that is just the way of the world for media maturation. Another way to look at this is that the FCC’s approval of satellite radio was in part a tacit method of encouraging terrestrial radio stations to restore their localism (which had been notoriously on the wane since the commission’s earlier approval of the ownership deregulation that enabled large-scale national consolidation of station groups).

However you look at it, a movement away from entertainment (at least of a musical form) and toward information services (including recreational content such as sports) is one solid way for local radio to stay out of the cellar in terms of perceived content value.

Know your adversary (and your ally)

Another weapon in the fight against LCD-ness for local radio — including music formats — is a continuous attempt to stay intensely locally responsive.

Here stations can fight fire with fire by using various new technologies like the Web (including wireless access), e-mail, IM and SMS to do this.

Numerous ideas have been put into practice here, many of which are newfangled updates of the old request line — such as listener voting for the next song, listeners submitting short playlists as suggestions for sets, SMS voting yea or nay for a new release, and so on.

Other elements may leverage different interactive concepts, but in all cases they are focused on input from the local audience, and responsiveness of the station’s output to it. Of course, there’s also the ongoing need to assess emerging service platforms as possible additional delivery mechanisms for a station’s content. (RW will present a special supplement focusing on that subject shortly.)

New methods of applying these basic concepts seem to arise almost every day, so it’s critical for stations to pay attention to what colleagues throughout the industry are doing, and determine if any of this creativity can be applied in the local shop. Signing up for industry listservs that consider these topics is a good way to probe these issues and learn even more about them.

Stations should also develop a process in which they can test these new “interactive” services on a small scale first, using just station staff as test listeners, or a small group of identified listeners from whom honest feedback can be solicited. (This is equivalent to “beta-testing” in the software environment.)

Once a new service seems viable, it can be scaled up and offered to the audience at large. This so-called “incugration” process for new services should become part of the standard fabric of daily life at the station going forward. The onslaught of new competitive services is unlikely to be a temporary phenomenon. Better get used to it.

Meanwhile it’s just as important to know what the new media are doing, too, and in a timely fashion. For this reason it’s a good idea for someone at each station to be a user (even a subscriber, if necessary) to each remotely competitive service that can be identified.

As good as Radio World and other publications may be at covering these issues, there’s no substitute for the experience that putting yourself in the consumer’s seat provides. Armed with this knowledge makes you far better equipped to fight in the new media trenches.

Staying relevant

All of this is becoming part of the landscape that radio now lives within.

This should not be so intimidating, because — if I may borrow a well-overused phrase — radio was into social networking before social networking was cool.

The local audience, particularly one that shares the interest in a particular audio content type, is a classic case of social networking. It aligns two axes of interest — one geographic, and one stylistic — to create a perfect interest group that can be uniquely served by local radio.

All that’s required is the additional of an interactive path for the listeners to talk back to the station and to one other, something that’s easily and relatively inexpensively done today.

Yes, some metrics may change in the process, such as reduced TSL, but cume can remain high (and even grow) if these techniques are implemented properly. (The introduction of the PPM will likely cause far more massive shifts in the enumeration and interpretation of audience ratings soon, anyway.)

This is becoming a broad industry mandate, as well, as both NAB and RAB mobilize for radio’s inclusion on a variety of new platforms, particularly handheld form factors. Interestingly, this includes both digital and analog forms of radio receivers, but with emphasis on metadata in either case.

That initiative makes good sense, as consumers move a growing number of functions from fixed devices to portable ones. Radio service already is available in the “unplugged” environment, so why not include the ability to receive it on all these new and increasingly capable devices?

Radio is a medium that has weathered many changes, but perhaps none so daunting as those it faces today. Keeping radio service both available and of high value to audiences young and old is a sound formula for continued future success.