Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Radio Doesn't Know Who You Are Anymore

Do you ever listen to the radio? Back in the 1960's that would have been a ridiculous question. What else would you do?

Well, you could watch television. Back then you probably had four or five TV channels you could watch, like NBC, CBS, ABC, NET (National Educational Television which evolved into PBS), and that quirky independent station that played black-and-white reruns of the late 1950's TV shows like Highway Patrol, The Untouchables, or the original Dragnet before Harry Morgan. If you missed your favorite show, well, you were pretty much out of luck. You'd have to have your friends tell you what you missed when you saw them the next day.

If you wanted to see what's going on, you could read the morning or afternoon newspaper, or go buy a magazine or two, or wait up to watch the 11PM news on television (10PM Central) before going to bed. You could also watch the evening network news read to you by people like Walter Cronkite, or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. You just knew these people were 'fair and balanced' (even when they weren't). If something really big happened, they'd "interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin." You could be sure it was really important news if they did that!

If you wanted to see a movie, you could go to the local theater, drop 50 cents, and watch whatever they were showing that day (on their one screen). If you didn't like the movie, you'd eat your 25 cent popcorn and leave early.

If you liked rock and roll music, you could go to the dime store, buy a few records for about 50 cents each, and bring them home to enjoy on your $5 record player. You might even go to the local soda shop or drive-in and play some songs on the juke box, three for a quarter. This also gave you an opportunity to socialize with your friends. If you couldn't go out, you could always call them on the phone. But, if you had something to show them, you had to go visit them somewhere.

There were probably one or two radio stations in your town that played your favorite music. You'd either pick a favorite station and stick with them, or switch back and forth between the two constantly seeking your favorite songs. The radio was free, and the dee jays were very entertaining. They could sure put you in a great mood! Maybe you'd call in to the station to request a song, or dedicate a song to your steady date, and in the process get a sore finger from dialing the number a dozen times to get through the busy signals. If they put you on the air, your friends would all comment about it the next day. "Hey, I heard you on the radio last night!" You didn't get a chance to hear yourself because they broadcast the calls live, and they always made you turn your radio down to avoid feedback.

Things have changed, haven't they?

Cable TV brought a few hundred channels into your home. Now, thanks to switched-video technology, they'll soon be upping the ante to bring you a thousand channels or more. VCR's, DVR's, TiVo's, and Home Media Centers, let you record shows so you never miss them. You can archive an entire season of your favorite shows and maybe watch those during the summer break. Most of the channels show nothing but crap, so you tend to stick with a few favorite channels. Fewer and fewer television shows interest you, so you record a bunch of shows that you never find time to actually watch. You really don't even have to turn on the television anymore. You can create your own television programming with YouTube and Hulu and many other video on demand websites. A lot of what's on there is crap, too, like thinly-veiled propaganda designed to make you think a certain way.

Not only do we have several 24/7 news channels on both radio and television, we have different flavors to choose from. You've got your choice of political commentary, either far Left or far Right (Sorry, there's very little in the middle.) Practically every story is "Breaking News" today, so if something really important happens, it's easy to miss it. You can even create your own news channel by downloading podcasts and listening to them (or watching them) whenever you like. But most of it is thinly-veiled propaganda designed to make you think a certain way.

As for newspapers, well you just don't need them at all anymore, do you? A lot of people ended up canceling their subscriptions after asking, "Honey, why do we still get this newspaper every day?" A lot of newspapers have gone out of business. Of the ones that are left, whatever "news" they contain is either really old, or silly "human interest" puff pieces. Most of it is thinly-veiled propaganda designed to make you think a certain way. The bulk of the newspaper is, of course, advertising for products that don't interest you. It's not even the best choice for wrapping fish or lining your bird cage anymore. You get more "news" than you need from television and radio, not to mention the Internet, your phone, RSS feeds, blogs, and so on.

Go to the movies these days and you have more screens to choose from than you had TV stations back in the 1960's. Every movie is playing at every theater. Most of them are thinly-veiled propaganda designed to make you think a certain way. You really don't need the theater anymore. Many people have a better equipped theater in their home anyway, and you can stop and restart the movie if you have to take a pee break. Cable TV provides a whole bunch of movies you've probably already seen, or don't ever care to see. You could also drive out and rent a movie, or have them delivered to your home, or rent them on-line, or maybe even download them directly into your laptop or phone. You can watch them on your game console, or maybe skip them altogether and become part of the action in a video game.

You don't need to use the phone anymore. Many people don't even have a "home" phone anymore. Why pay for a phone you can't take along with you? Most people don't "talk" on the phone anymore, either. We can "Text" each other, write on each other's "Wall," or blast out our thoughts on Twitter, or any one of thousands of social networking Internet sites. We can share photos, videos and songs with friends and family all over the world without leaving our desk. If you tried to assemble all your Facebook "friends" in a soda shop today, you'd probably overload the building and create a fire hazard.

We don't need the radio anymore, either, at least not to hear our favorite songs. We can download any song we like and stuff it into our multi-gigabyte MP3 player or smartphone to play any where we like, any time we like, and in any order we like. We can browse hundreds of thousands of Internet streaming "radio stations" on the web. We could spend our entire lifetime watching concert videos on YouTube and other sites and we wouldn't live long enough to watch them all.

So many choices. These days it seems like you have an almost unlimited number of choices. Actually, you do. But the people who run radio stations are just starting to figure that out.

Radio stations are hurting right now. The audience keeps getting smaller. Where are they going? That's actually a no-brainer if you think about how the number of entertainment choices has exploded in recent years.

As the number of listeners drops, the advertisers are less willing to spend money on commercials. Those commercials pay the bills, and without income, radio stations suffocate. They can't afford to continue operations unless they cut costs. This begins a vicious cycle. As costs are reduced, usually by reducing costly but talented people, the less interesting the radio stations become for the audience -- ultimately causing their audience to drop even more.

It reminds me of something that's going on right now in Wisconsin. The government wanted more money for one reason or another (who knows what, it doesn't matter, they always want more money). So, they dramatically raised the tax on cigarettes. That makes perfect sense, right? Cigarettes kill, so why not increase the tax? Maybe it will make less people smoke, which is good for them. Those who continue smoking will supply the government with even more money through the increased tax revenue. A classic win-win, right? On paper, maybe. But the people are now driving into Illinois to buy cigarettes. The state of Wisconsin is getting LESS money from the cigarette tax because fewer people are buying cigarettes here. Here's a dumb question: Why not reduce the tax on cigarettes to the point where the good people of Illinois drive INTO Wisconsin to buy them? One might argue that this is a bad idea because it would encourage people to smoke, which is bad for their health. But, will someone who doesn't smoke already start smoking simply because it costs a little bit less to buy cigarettes? I doubt that very much.

OK, that's enough politics and economics for today. Back to our regularly scheduled program. What if radio invested MORE money in talent? Wouldn't that do the same thing my cigarette tax idea would do? Wouldn't it drive more listeners back to radio, thus increasing the audience size, thus making radio more attractive to advertisers?

The fact that radio has become less interesting is not the only problem, of course. There are still some radio stations out there that are damn interesting. In fact, I'd like to create a list of them. If you have any suggestions, please send me an email by clicking HERE, or add a comment to this post. Tell me the name and location of the station and, if you don't mind, a word or two about why you believe it's still interesting.

Many radio stations these days have no idea who is competing with them for a share of the audience. Back in the 1960's, it was mainly that other station in town that played similar music. That made it easy to measure how well you were doing. You'd just look at the ratings. But the ratings today are almost totally irrelevant. They're only measuring how many people hear a station. They don't measure what radio station operators really need to know.

The Three Most Important Things a Radio Station Operator Needs To Know:

1) How many of our listeners are influenced enough to actually buy the products they hear advertised on our station? (And, just as important, how effectively do the commercials we are running increase business revenues for our advertisers?)

2) How many potential listeners find our station interesting?

3) How many people who might find our station interesting spend their time doing something else, and what other things are they doing instead of listening to our station? (Like texting, Facebook, YouTube, Internet radio, video games, etc…).

The above things are listed in order of importance, by the way.

Commercials aren't a bad thing, and believe it or not, you don't really hate them. You DO hate commercials that insult your intelligence or try to sell you something that you don't want or need. You actually LIKE to hear commercials that bring you truthful information about products that interest you. That's information you can use and you may even find it more entertaining than music. Those commercials are important. But no matter how important they are, you probably don't want to hear a whole bunch of commercials strung together. That makes each one in the cluster seem a lot less important, doesn't it? Back in the old days, we knew who "sponsored" the shows. There were less commercials. Early TV shows just had one sponsor, and we knew exactly which company sponsored our favorite shows. Those commercials were much more likely to influence our listeners (or viewers) to buy our products. It makes sense, doesn't it?

Let me interrupt this program for a Special Bulletin. Attention radio program directors. You've invested a lot of thought into the "rotation" of your music. You're careful not to repeat songs too often. You know that the audience is turned off by the perception of repetition, right? Have you ever calculated the "turnover rate" of some of the commercials you play? I've listened to stations recently, in the largest and smallest markets, that are playing the same commercial every 15 minutes. Would you do that with a song? Does your audience react to that repetition the same way they react to songs that repeat too often? Food for thought, eh? Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

In the old days, the ratings companies asked people to recall which stations they listened to, and when they listened to them. This method had a couple of big faults, not the least of which was reliance on the listener's memory. People who were big fans of a particular station might over-report listening to that station just to help them out!

Today, we've traded one big fault for another. Now we have a "People Meter" that selected people carry around all day. It listens to whatever that person hears. Radio stations "encode" a unique identification signal into their audio which the People Meter picks up. It keeps track of all the radio stations heard by that person throughout the day, then reports all that back to the ratings company. The problem with this method is pretty obvious. It's telling you how many people HEARD your station, but not how much they LIKE your station.

Oh, and by the way, neither of these faulty ratings methods do anything to answer the three most important questions listed above.

Radio station operators would be wise to turn the puzzle upside down and look at it a different way. Instead of trying to get more people to hear our station, why not make our station more effective at selling products for our advertisers? That requires making our radio station more interesting for our listeners. That might mean we need to offer some of the things our competitors offer in order to lure some potential listeners away from those other outlets and back to our radio station. A radio station's competition isn't just the other radio stations in town anymore. Today, radio station competition includes things like Facebook, texting, video games, Internet radio, iTunes, television, blogs, movies, and on and on… How can we fit our radio station into this matrix of entertainment in such a way that it becomes interesting enough to today's potential listeners to make them choose to spend a little bigger slice of their precious time with our station?

In order for a radio station to compete with anything, including other radio stations, they need to offer something the competition does not, or cannot, offer. What can radio offer that you can't get somewhere else?

Radio is a one-to-many medium. It also has a limited market. A radio station's coverage is limited by the power of their transmitter. That's why every city has a different set of radio stations. Radio station operators today are not taking advantage of these things. How can you take advantage of limitations? Hey, great question!

If you're limited to a certain market, and all your listeners hear the same thing at the same time, you should probably be doing two things. First, you need to talk about things that are going on in your coverage area. Second, you need to be talking about things that a lot of people want to hear -- and that they are unlikely to hear anywhere else. What do a lot of people like to hear? Well, there's music, of course. But everyone can hear music in a lot of other places these days, so that can't be the only answer. Is it news? Well, we're bombarded with every flavor of news these days, so that can't be the only solution either. Why do so many people love to check Facebook? Could radio be more like Facebook? Sure it can! Why not? It can't be exactly like Facebook, of course. But that's ok. If you're just like Facebook, why exist? There already is a Facebook, and it's pretty darn good. Radio needs to be similar to Facebook, but not exactly the same.

Facebook is most interesting when friends share interesting thoughts with each other. Those thoughts have another name: Content. Content is a funny joke, a cool video, a great quote, a touching story, an interesting photo, a recommendation, a movie, song, or book review, stories about topics that you find interesting, and so on. Content is also what the talented radio personalities of the 1960's gave their audience, usually in great abundance. Content was also a listener dedicating a song to their steady date. Content was requesting a song and then hearing it play on the radio, knowing that you and your friends could actually influence what you all heard on the radio station, together, at the same time.

Radio may have purged itself of the one thing that it desperately needs to survive in today's seriously fractured entertainment marketplace. Before it's too late, radio may need to bite the bullet and invest in itself again. Bring back the talent, make our station more interesting for the listeners and more effective for the advertisers. It also needs to get married to the Internet to bring an updated version of "requests and dedications" to today's savvy Internet socialites.

It may also be necessary for everyone involved to be content to make do with less. A slightly larger piece of a small piece of a big pie may be all we can hope to get. But, if we can make our radio stations a lot more effective at the Most Important Thing, which is hooking buyers up to sellers, the advertisers will reward us. The listeners will thank us, too.

Here's a commercial from 1965 that repeats way too often on MusicMaster Oldies. It ties in a little bit with today's post, and it certainly qualifies as an Oldie But Goodie!


  1. Joe,
    You hit the nail right on the head, but I'm afraid you are preaching to the choir. I'm pretty sure the folks who need to hear this message aren't reading yours, or anyones blog posts. They aren't anyones friend on facebook and never tweet. I'll bet that the folks who read this post already know that what you say is true and, unfortunately, are powerless to do anything about it.
    A couple of things that really stick out to me are your comments about the number of spots in a cluster and the overall poor quality of the spots aired.
    Those of us who have been in radio longer than a few years remember when radio was cool and people had favorite stations. I think they still exist, but for many that favorite station is Pandora or their iPod.

  2. Patience has something to do with radio's travails. Even with call-ins, texting and email, if a kid has to wait a halfhour to hear their request, they have moved on to a new website, haircut, musical style, a new city. Radio was an adventure when music was innovative, the only way short of living at the local record shop (the WHAT?) to hear something original. Radio drove sales for a long time. You learned to trust certain DJs to bring you what you wanted to hear or to expand your horizons with the bizarre and the unknown. And we bought, albums, in bulk. Music is cheap now, more disposable than ever. And the quality has suffered. There is no memory, no patience to hear the past masters. There must be millions who believe the Killers are a good rock band, pushing the envelope with their guitars and melodies. Sad...