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Keeping Up With Digital Technology a Challenge for Small Broadcasters

Freedman keeps abreast through children and young friends

In a world that seems to be run by corporate media, Ken Freedman is the underdog. As general manager of WFMU(FM), the longest-running freeform radio station in the U.S, he leads a station whose programming and fundraising endeavors continue to push the creative envelope, and delight listeners. Radio World asked Freedman about technology challenges and trends facing broadcasters in general, as well as those that will impact on WFMU in 2018.

Radio World: What do you see as the most pressing technology challenge facing radio broadcasters in 2018?
Ken Freedman: The most pressing technology challenge for radio broadcasters remains unchanged from what it has been for over a decade now: how to marry streamed/broadcast radio to native digital technology and social media in a way that leverages radio’s traditional strengths. Digital technology is much more difficult and expensive than traditional broadcasting, with constantly changing platforms, operating systems, security and privacy considerations, etc. Many legacy media organizations have opted to utilize large advertising platforms such as Facebook to address this problem, but this is a short-sighted strategy. Radio broadcasters should not send their audiences to third-party platforms, who will mine metrics from those audiences for their own benefit, leaving broadcasters bereft of the metrics that would benefit them. Broadcasters should be using digital technology to improve the experience for their audience and for the broadcaster. This is not the aim of large third-party online advertising platforms, but broadcasters have little choice, given the complexity and expense of building rich, modern online platforms.

RW: What consumer electronics trends will have the most impact on how consumers interact with radio and audio media?
Freedman: The biggest blow to radio broadcasters could come in 2018 as internet-enabled auto dashboards become more commonplace, invading radio’s last stronghold — auto-bound audiences, especially those during drive time. Unfortunately, the dashboard is already the domain of electronic manufacturers and music streaming companies, not broadcasters. The main competition to radio broadcasters (especially those in urban and suburban markets) is not from other broadcasters, but from podcasting, on-demand streaming platforms and recommendation engines. Mobile technology has put personalized traffic and weather into most consumers’ pockets, and radio needs to learn how to become less irrelevant in the face of such innovations. Regional, personality-driven broadcasting is the key to relevance, but these have not been the radio industry’s priority in this era of consolidation and voice tracking.

RW: As you look forward to 2018, what are some of the key fundraising and programming goals for WFMU?
Freedman: In 2018, I hope to improve WFMU’s local and regional service while still maintaining our significant national and international audience. We will also continue our “Into the Black” campaign, by attracting more and more automatic monthly donations until we are once again operating with at least a small surplus. Years of deficit spending on digital tech have weakened our financial health, but we are slowly and steadily getting back into the black.

RW:Is it getting easier, or more difficult for smaller noncommercial broadcasters to raise capital and thrive in the digital age?
Freedman: It gets more difficult every year for small and medium radio broadcasters to keep up with digital, and this is true not just of noncommercial broadcasters, but also for smaller commercial broadcasters, and it poses a significant challenge for even the largest group owners and networks. This is not only a financial and technical challenge, but also a cultural and generational one. It is harder for institutions to build and maintain social media presences than it is for a single talented individual and many broadcasters lack managers who are digital natives.

RW: Where do you learn about new technology each year, what trade shows or information sources?
Freedman: I keep abreast of new technology mainly from my children and their friends, as well as the youngest generation of programmers and superfans at WFMU. I also utilize Google and Flipboard news feeds, using search terms and keywords to focus my search. The advantage of relying on human beings rather than news feeds and trade shows cannot be underestimated. If you are confused about how to do something on Snapchat or Instagram for example, a digital native can show you precisely what you need to know.