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To Ride the Radio Comet

Chris Anderson's seminal article "The Long Tail" in the October 2004 issue of Wired magazine has stimulated an inordinate amount of discussion in the media world. A new book by the same name and author is now on many media professionals' late-summer reading list.

Chris Anderson’s seminal article “The Long Tail” in the October 2004 issue of Wired magazine has stimulated an inordinate amount of discussion in the media world. A new book by the same name and author is now on many media professionals’ late-summer reading list.

To recap the basic premise, the long tail idea starts by stipulating that for any media type, there is a “head” of top selling titles comprised by a small number of the whole (say, less than one of every 10) published offerings. No surprise there, and it’s probably always been so; not every player is an all-star.

But the concept continues with the critical premise that if all titles were equally available, the less popular 90+ percent of titles – the “tail” – would account for about half of the media form’s total sales in aggregate. This is where the concept has particular resonance to today’s online media world, given its armchair access to all the world’s catalogs of content.

In other words, when all published content of a given form is “in stock” at a given retail venue, about half of all its sales will be made up by the bestsellers, with the other half going to all the other titles. In a world of physical inventory, this is a difficult algorithm for any vendor to satisfy fully. But in the virtual world of digital media, where every title need be stocked essentially just once in a “master file” form that can be copied as requested by each customer, the long tail concept rules.

For this idea to deliver its full value to any business model, however, both the head and the tail must be respected. Like a comet, the tail cannot exist without the head, and vice versa.

Radio’s role

Given such analysis, many have asked in the interim how it applies to radio.

Traditionally, radio has played a part in the music industry’s long tail, by amplifying, and perhaps effectively creating, its head. The bestsellers of music are continuously promoted by radio, with few or none of the industry’s tail occupants appearing on air. Thus radio is a tool in the retailing of music content, acting as simply a single component in a larger machine.

But what of radio’s own long tail? Is radio condemned to forever remain a foot soldier for the record labels, or can the medium leverage this concept to its own advantage in the digital age?

In engineering terms, given that radio plies its wares not in the physical but in the time domain, how might the long tail apply if a transform were applied? A number of possibilities emerge when the concept is viewed along the time axis, in which radio’s own head and tail become visible.

Let’s assume first that the archetypal radio service we consider here adds some unique value by creating some of its own broadcast content, and is not a complete shill for the music industry by spinning discs full time. I sincerely hope – and still believe – that this is generally the case.

(If nothing else, local advertising fulfills this function at the most rudimentary level, but let’s take the premise that at least some local assets such as news, sports, weather or other valuable program material are also created and broadcast by this station.)

With this in mind, it can be argued that the immediacy of radio is its “head,” and its collected archive of local content is its “tail.” In other words, in an age where it is possible for broadcasters to easily provide access to at least some of their content beyond its ephemeral, real-time broadcast lifespan, a station’s Web site becomes valuable as a widely accessible repository of low-demand material, while its on-air service remains its ubiquitous, high-volume site. If every visitor to the Web site seeking such archival content is considered, its aggregated audience could become a non-negligible addition to the whole.

Market issues

By this thinking, today radio’s head far outweighs its tail, but this need not always be so. In fact, current trends would argue that the differential is waning.

Consider NPR’s recent redesign of its Web site, and its frequent on-air encouragements to listeners to check its site for more on a particular story. A visitor to that story’s page may find (besides the story as it aired, presented in streaming media forms) some photos taken by the reporter, extended interview excerpts or other audio material that did not appear on the air, plus links to other stories about the subject, other pieces by the same reporter, etc. – like a library’s (or Amazon’s) cross references.

In other words, the long web tail is thus appended to the on-air head. This is simply the latest incarnation of Nicholas Negroponte’s and the MIT Media Lab’s “tell me more” vision of the 1970s, now quantified with a new conceptual model.

Ultimately, IBOC multicasting may play a role here, as well, by which broadcasters on their main (“head”) channels can reference and cross-promote longer-form or special-interest “tail” content on their supplemental channels.

Moving away from radio’s homegrown content, and returning to the other traditional radio function of music discovery, similar features could apply. For example, many radio stations already leverage their computer-based playout systems’ metadata to feed RBDS, PAD and online “now playing” displays. On the latter, a few stations now include links to music download services where listeners can purchase a copy of the song currently airing. Some stations also include retrospective program guides online, so listeners can explore and purchase songs broadcast earlier – and the stations announce this feature’s availability on the air.

Here again, a real-time head is attached to a historical tail. Listeners tune in for the “now” experience, but may come away with a permanent purchase of a particularly favored musical experience. (Put another way, this is the “rent-to-buy” audio business.) Appropriately, radio stations may receive a “finder’s fee” for this discovery or content-referencing service, as some of the radio stations working in this area have arranged.

Such a two-tiered approach to content delivery – one providing a few high-demand offerings on-air, and the other including many low-demand units on-line – can be a helpful model to broadcasters as they learn to manage their emerging services. A proper balance of heads and tails will keep radio vital and relevant in the modern media world.