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Pandora Has Opened Its Box. Now What?

Radio must remind ourselves that we win when we’re locally focused, timely and emotive

As the dental hygienist scraped my teeth, I was doing what I normally do: trying to ignore the entire process by listening to the background music coming from the ceiling.

As the first song faded, I expected to hear a production element or DJ voice from the soft AC station that my dentist has had on in the office for the last 20 years.

Instead, I was shocked to learn I was listening to Pandora. Wow! Pandora in a dentist’s office?

For those of you who don’t know, Pandora is a “personalized Internet radio music service,” based on something called the Music Genome Project, which continues to “map” many forms of popular music.

Pandora’s one-to-one delivery system streams songs based on a preferred sound. The listener creates his or her own “station” by picking an artist; Pandora then delivers similar artists and songs to the selected sound. By voting thumbs up or down, the listener enables Pandora to drill down further, getting closer to matching individual taste. There’s an ad-supported free version and a service that’s commercial-free but comes with a monthly fee.

Can it be that Pandora and other online music services are now mainstream and ready to compete with broadcast radio?

How do we compete?

On a mass scale, in the immediate future, the answer is obviously not. Radio for the masses is still like a light bulb. Most folks want to press a button and hear the product. But as Internet access makes its inevitable move into cars and as manufacturers figure out how to make listening to online services simple, greater fragmentation will occur.

How will broadcast radio compete and what type of new services must the industry be prepared to offer?

While it’s easy to be critical of big broadcast companies for various ills, it’s important to recognize that over the last eight years, they have invested substantial finances, time and effort in streaming terrestrial AM-FM-HD stations, as well as creating online-only stations. Much progress also has been made in making broadcast stations available on mobile devices. Broadcasters will not easily cede Internet or mobile delivery to newcomers.

At this time, I’m not particularly concerned about the broadcast industry’s willingness or technical ability to compete in the new delivery game. In the big scheme of things, what we should be vigilant about is improving our content by making it more relevant and compelling.

At the risk of sounding like an ancient broken record, broadcasters must continually remind ourselves that we will win when we are locally focused, timely and emotive.

As fascinating as I find Pandora, Slacker and Wolfgang’s Vault, I eventually feel disconnected from my locale and drift back to local broadcast radio. Too often what I find is a well-worn music jukebox, devoid of personality — especially outside of morning drive.

To prove the point: If you’re lucky enough to have a live 24/7 all-news FM station in your market, odds are good it’s rated top three and maybe number one in your city. Sure, it’s expensive to run; but look at the billing.

Yes, there is likely only room for one, or perhaps two, local all-news stations, and maybe two or three talk stations in most markets; so what should others do?

Focus on finding personalities and properly compensate them to stay for a career in radio. What used to be radio’s minor league team of personalities in small markets — especially for music stations — has nearly vanished. We all know the reasons; so we have to dedicate ourselves to correcting the situation.

Groups should allocate resources in personality development, starting with kids right out of college or master’s programs. There are still a number of well-known consultants for hire who are amazing at personality development.

Local focus brings ratings now and listener retention, whether they are listening on a 20th century radio or an iPad. Country and hit music stations, which seem to naturally gravitate toward local material, still and will always have hardcore fans who remember the names of their DJs, show up for local events (and at advertisers’ locations), become active participants in fundraising for charities, and take part in contests in big numbers.

This can be done with voice-tracking, but the talent has to know the market extremely well and have enough time to truly focus on that one station — which is impossible to do when voice-tracking several stations daily.

Don’t underestimate the power of emotion in captivating an audience. Prior to a show, does your talent stop to consider how to connect using the entire emotional spectrum? Laughter is terrific, but there is also plenty of opportunity for your station to connect with serious issues listeners care about and to engage them in the conversation on the air and online. This is an area where broadcast radio can continue to dominate.

I’m a technology geek; so, yes, I am a big fan of Pandora and other unique online streamers; but when the hurricane was coming to my area a few weeks ago, you can guess where I logged my listening hours. When the power finally did go out, I was reminded that few of us own a wind-up computer!

Mark Lapidus is president of Lapidus Media. Email [email protected].