Radio's Long Defeat
In response, Mike Black (a fellow WHTG-FM jock in the 80's and 90's, and more recently a winner in the viral video sweepstakes when he had the bright idea to do a stop motion video of the effect of a major blizzard on his backyard) chimed in.
He suggested, pretty plainly, that radio was dead.
After smarting a bit from the complete lack of tact (after all, I'm putting all the spit and baling wire I can find into Altrok 90.5 HD2) I came to the realization that he's right, at least in terms of commercial radio, though possibly ultimately with repercussions for radio in general.
So here's some predictions and observed real-world situations, all worth the money you paid for them.
- Commercial music radio on FM is, indeed, in its death throes, because advertising is still regarded as a necessary evil rather than what the listener percieves it as: a call to action to find something else to listen to. Anything radio does that actively causes their listeners to do anything other than listen, is self-defeating.
Real world use case 1: My wife, a hit radio listener, punches presets (programmed by me to her specifications, of course) until a song she likes comes on. When she gets tired of punching buttons, she turns off the radio. I'd go so far as to say her behavior is replicated among the majority of hit radio listeners. A fresh song from a known artist gets listened to; less so a fresh song from an unknown artist unless it's reasonably similar to a known artist; less so DJ patter unless it's short and sweet, and an advertisement or a song that we've heard multiple times on other stations is a guaranteed tune-out, up to the point where the radio's turned off, generally with a sigh of relief. Radio loses, and because it's made the listener crave silence, the listener wins.
Real world use case 2: Some of my valuable iPod space contains a collection of current top forty, which generally costs me about $10/month at iTunes to keep up to date, more or less. (The Lady Gaga album blew the budget one month, though.) When that goes on shuffle, the radio stays off. Radio loses, and because my wife has me to program an iPod for her, the listener wins.
Real world use case 3: A three-hour aircheck of Steve Lamacq on BBC 6Music, on occasions where it's put on by me after my wife's reached the shutoff point, is generally tolerated (even in its entirety on long drives) despite rarely featuring a known song or artist, because the host appears between each song, briefly introduces the next track, and does so engagingly. In this case, the draw isn't the music (though after repeated listens it can be)...it's the host. The late John Peel was capable of the same reaction; my wife, whose tolerance for music she regards as annoying is roughly nil, would repeatedly tolerate three minutes of the most ungodly noise, just to hear what Peel would say about it afterward. Radio wins...just not US radio. And the listener, entertained in spite of against all reasonable US notions of how radio is supposed to entertain, wins.
(That last notion, by the way, is why I do what I do...which is to find music I think the people who listen to me might like. I'm hoping that by courting an audience that really wants to hear something new, I'll actually be able to claim I have an audience, rather than a loose collection of disaffected and uninvested listeners.)
Real world use case 4: My wife's sister has a backyard with a pool, and an integrated audio system with faux rock speakers capable of delivering hefty volume around the pool, with a Sirius radio attached. That's where their monthly music budget goes, because they can't be bothered to actually collect and program music for an iPod. They do, however, like to listen to 92.3 Now and have figured out when, on the weekends, their commercial load is the lightest. They switch to Sirius when they get tired of commercial breaks. Radio loses. Sirius wins, and so does the listener.
Noticing a trend?
The listener always wins.
Radio forgot that.
Some follow-up predictions:
- Terrestrial music radio will, for a time, be consigned to HD Radio channels. It will be automated, generally, until an audience can support an advertising model - which will need to be radically different from today's model to keep it from again losing listeners to satellite and iPod. HD Radio's patents will need to expire for this to be a significant factor, though, because it's those patents and their associated fees that are keeping HD Radio technology out of radios available now. (Technological issues remain to be worked, including next-generation codecs and better transmission power models, but ubiquity of HD Radios will combat fringe area noise, since their DSPs, and in fact the receiver sections of better non-HD radios. tend to cancel it in the FM band implementation. On AM, much work needs to be done to make HD effective, and it may never be.)
- If radio continues to leak listeners by not understanding that listeners tune out when radio tells them to, wealth will leak out of radio with those listeners. That wealth will travel to other bandwidth-using services. Cellular data use is growing exponentially, and the toll collected on that growth by wireless bandwidth providers (it seems quaint to call them cell phone companies anymore) will fund lobbying pressure that will overwhelm commercial broadcasting's clout. We'll see a shrinkage or outright loss of traditional radio spectrum in this decade if radio can't keep its lobby funded. Commercial broadcasters will need to stay better-than-simply-solvent to secure radio's spectrum; non-commercial broadcasters can't do it alone. This is a classic example of playing to not-lose rather than playing to win, and in a sense, radio may already have lost.
So, here's the extra credit question: how can radio win in this environment? Or is this the technological equivalent of the long and excruciating defeat?