Can local radio stand up to mobile broadband competition? Will it profit from this growing platform?
In anticipation of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, which was released in March, Radio World recently asked several industry observers how the expected ability of consumers to access more and faster Internet-based content through cellular networks — whether in vehicles or on foot, via iPhones, laptops and other wireless devices — will affect our business.
Most sounded upbeat.
At present, for some consumers, ‘broadband in the car’ means an Apple iPhone attached to a Belkin TuneBase FM, for transmitting iPhone audio to their FM radio. Photo courtesy Belkin It is in the car where much of the focus is drawn, thanks to radio’s traditional strengths in that environment. Right now, in-car mobile broadband listening starts with iPhones and other smart phones. They allow motorists to directly access streamed audio from the wireless Web, using applications that deliver the audio across cellular networks for free.
“This is the easiest way to get Internet radio in your car,” said Bob Crane, radio developer and owner of radio retailer C. Crane Co.
“As far as playing the audio through your car stereo, you can hook an FM transmitter up to your phone and send the audio directly to the FM portion of your car stereo, or use a cable from the headphone jack of the phone to a mini audio input jack on the face of the car stereo.”
With this somewhat clunky signal path, motorists already have access to thousands of radio/audio sources in their car. For better or worse, if they don’t want to listen to local radio (or pay to listen to satellite), they don’t have to.
Now, with the national emphasis on broadband expansion, and with more consumer electronics devices coming that will put the Internet right on the dashboard, things are just getting started.
Logically, anything that gives motorists an alternative to local radio is bad for local broadcasters, at least as those terms are defined currently.
On the other hand, the new medium can be used to deliver local radio to drivers too, and to extend a station’s reach and brand into new markets.
This is why Nicole Marie Godburn views mobile broadband as an opportunity. Godburn is program director of Beethoven Radio on WCCC, a small AM in West Hartford, Conn., that has vastly extended its reach and ad sales via www.beethoven.com.
“Our Internet listeners outside of our Connecticut market are using mobile technology to stay connected to us when they are away from their computer,” she said.
“They used to be anchored to a desktop as the only way to listen to us. Now they can drive, fly, travel and still stay connected.” And make no mistake: Beethoven Radio is getting more listenership thanks to mobile broadband.
“We see more and more e-mails come in from listeners directly from BlackBerries and iPods who have us tuned in.”
The advertising edge
Listenership is only half of radio’s business equation, though. Rick Ducey says the presence of this new big pipe of data into the car doesn’t mean radio has lost the battle.
“Even if radio listening is impacted negatively [by mobile broadband], we see local radio as still having a durable value proposition with local advertisers,” said Ducey, who is chief strategy officer with BIA/Kelsey.
This is because local radio “can program, promote and package for local advertisers better than non-local media competing for listeners.”
Still, the fact that local radio currently is more advertiser-friendly than Internet-based media doesn’t make mobile broadband a toothless tiger. Anything that draws a station’s audience is bad news, because fewer listeners eventually means lower ad revenue. How can local radio compete?
“The first step to leveling the playing field between Internet-radio stations and broadcast radio is strictly about accessibility,” said Daniel Anstandig, president of McVay New Media Consulting. “They need to get real estate on the ‘Internet radio dial,’ meaning that they need to be streaming in the first place. Then they need to be accessible on popular Internet-radio portals.”
Next you need to give motorists and pedestrians a reason to tune to your station first.
“This is really an issue of supplying the right content,” said Jennifer Ha, executive director of digital media in New York for WNYC, an NPR affiliate that broadcasts on AM, FM and FM HD Radio. “Listeners will find the programming that they want.”
Among broadcasters devoting resources to integrating online and traditional platforms, CBS Corp. is one of the most notable. The goal of CBS Radio’s mobile broadband strategy is to supply accessible, compelling content, the company says.
“There are CBS Radio apps for the iPhone and Blackberry [that] you can download and take with you today, as well as apps for AOL Radio and Yahoo! Music,” said Karen Mateo, vice president of communications.
Moreover, “All of our stations are streaming, so if and when Internet radio becomes fully available in cars, our stations will be available to that audience as well. And just as a side note, about 50 percent of the listeners to WFAN’s online stream come from out of the New York market.”
If there is a moral to this story, it is that broadcast programmers and owners likely will be asking themselves even more questions about how and whether to reinvent their product given the changing nature of the competition, while still retaining the local angle that may be missing from most incoming content delivered via the new pipeline.
“There are clearly programming offerings that local stations can provide that global brands or faraway stations cannot,” said consultant Fred Jacobs.
“However, it is paramount that broadcasters start investing once again in research and programming assets. The dominance that local radio has had in the home, workplace and now in cars is becoming a thing of the past.”
Nicole Marie Godburn concluded: “Radio stations should not just compete but join the advance in technology. Develop a great Internet stream and Web site that is easy to use and provides great content for commuters.”