There's A Light At The End of The Tunnel...It's A Train
June 13, 2014
by Bill Scott
The Bill Scott Group
There is no one that loves radio more than I do. Since I was 17 years old I've been working in radio. I've enjoyed working at radio stations at every level, hosting syndicated programs and working as a consultant.
I hear many of my peers say there is light at the end of the tunnel, however, I don't believe it's all good, it could be a train coming at us if we don't change the way we think.
As a teenager I can remember sitting in my car late at night, fighting the static while trying to listen to a great personalities on AM radio from Chicago, Detroit, Fort Wayne and New York City. In Northern Michigan, after dark, I could pick up great radio stations like WOWO from Fort Wayne, WLS Chicago and WJR Detroit, not to mention other great stations from back in the day. I would put up with the static just to try and hear what was going to happen next on WLS. I loved Larry Lujack's famous "Klunk Letter of the Day." There was no doubt AM radio ruled the airwaves.
Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1933. AM continued to rule for another 40 some years. FM was the red headed step child, no threat at all to anyone. On June 1, 1961, at 12:01 a.m. (EDT), WGFM became the first FM station in the United States to broadcast in stereo. Again, no one took this as serious competition. It wasn't until mid 70's that FM began to grow. It seemed out of nowhere that FM became the choice of music lovers. Near 1980 FM went mainstream and everybody was listening.
About 18 years ago I used to travel with a friend who carried books on the Internet to every sharathon we did. He told me, "Bill, you will buy your cars, homes, and everything you'll ever want online, plus you'll listen to radio online." I have to tell you I wasn't sure if I believed him. It just seemed too wild. He said, everything we will do is going to be online. My friend went on to begin the first online radio station, needless to say he's a wealthy man. Although that was 18 years ago and for much of that period it was hard to hear good quality music when streaming, that day is over. Like FM, streaming online is no longer the red headed step chid. Much like AM back in the day, FM doesn't realize the impact that online listening can have on their radio station. For a long time we would say, well it buffers, you can only get it on your desktop computer, you cannot get it in the car or while out for a jog...sound familiar? Today we can stream crystal clear, not only on our computers but on our phones, to the dash of our car and while I am jogging. The other day I was driving from Nashville to Johnson City TN, a five hour drive, pretty much all country driving. I streamed an online station to the dash board of my rental car and it was full stereo and never buffered once. The red headed step child has grown up. So the light at the end of the tunnel might be a train.
After AM realized that FM was picking up speed, they tried to compete with music and failed. It wasn't until AM began offering something different than FM did before they had listeners once again fighting through the static to listen. As long as AM competed with music, they lost. The same applies to FM radio and their new competitor online radio. As long as FM competes with music, it will lose. There has to be a reason to tune in to FM. If it's all about the music, then I'll use Spotify and hear what I want in the order I want it. FM will have to give listeners something they cannot get while streaming. My humble opinion is that it's coming full circle, and we'll need compelling personalities back on the radio. The days of time, temp and news are over. I have time, temp, news, and traffic all on my phone. The question is how do we provide compelling content in order to keep our listeners. We also have to figure out how to build community with our listeners and really connect.
Lets not see history repeat itself. I believe radio can compete and thrive but not in it's current form. So the question is, what can we provide on FM that online cannot compete with? Don't respond with the answer being local. Being local is the icing on the cake but won't get you across the finish line by itself.
I would love to read comments on this piece today. Idea's, questions, comments...