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Opinion: Are You Awake Yet?

Our business has been long overdue for a good bath and haircut.

On Feb. 11, Radio World chided the industry in this very space for perpetuating the practice of airing long commercial breaks of far too many 60 second commercials back to back. “Too much commercial clutter” has long been a big negative that competing media like public and internet radio – and especially satellite services – pounced on to lure listeners away.

Wall Street took notice this summer and called for the reduction of spot loads and an overall cleanup of commercial radio programming and practices. Radio stocks have underperformed in recent years. The owners seem to be hearing the call for change. Our business has been long overdue for a good bath and haircut.

Clear Channel was the first to step up and announce plans to do just that. We applaud its leadership on this issue, and now see other radio groups following suit.

Fewer commercials and less clutter by emphasizing :30s over :60s is a big step in the right direction. Better copywriting and production are required as well to make the radio commercial do its job more effectively and efficiently.

Beyond fewer commercials, a key component needed to re-energize traditional radio’s value is a renewed focus on expanded and improved local service. In real estate, the value mantra is location, location, location. For radio, it’s local, local, local. This is the one trump card terrestrial radio can wave high over the head of satellite, at least as satellite is now constituted.

Another ingredient in radio’s needed makeover is the movement to jettison controversial “bad-boy” talent like Bubba, Opie & Anthony and ultimately the King of all Media himself, Howard Stern. The pay-to-listen satellite channels will provide safe harbor for these guys, at least for a while.

Shock jocks and their employers got the same message about cultural and moral values from middle America earlier than the Democrats did on Nov 3. With the threat of punishing fines for indecent programming, publicly held companies have been forced to attend much more closely to their listeners, their customers, their stock holders and the FCC.

Yet another part of traditional radio’s needed transformation is conversion to HD Radio. Don’t underestimate the importance of accelerating radio into its new digital future to help give it more parity with its competitors. Those competitors sport digital, high-quality, noise-free platforms already.

Perhaps the most attractive advantage satellite enjoys over terrestrial radio is variety. It’s hard for even multi-station clusters in any market to compete with the hundreds of different channels on satellite. But help is on the way.

Only public radio has shown a keen interest so far in the second program channel capabilities of HD Radio. It’s time for commercial FM to understand and seize the potential of adding twice as many program offerings in their multi-station clusters. This is a sleeper that should allow them to compete more effectively with the variety on XM and Sirius as this capability rolls out.

The next few years offer lots of exciting opportunities for traditional radio to reinvent itself yet again. It easily can become more competitive and more vibrant than ever before. And won’t it feel good to make the radio naysayers eat their words?

Just don’t miss the wake-up call.

– RW