Connected Cars, Cold Beer, and Redefining Radio
January 13, 2012
Your future was on display at the International CES convention in Las Vegas this week, but it had little to do with any of the specific gadgets being touted. Those were a little underwhelming. Other than a prototype 8K ultra-ultra-high definition 85-inch TV being shown by Sharp, LG's really thin OLED TV, and a refrigerator that cools a beer can in five minutes (Better Living Through Technology!), nothing really seemed all that great. They're still trying to jam 3D TVs down the public's collective throat, and the glasses-free versions were... meh. Ultrabooks? Just PCs aping the MacBook Air. MySpace TV? Please. Even the vaunted "connected car" stuff wasn't that radically different from what we've seen before from things like Ford SYNC. Maybe Windows 8 is a departure, but that's not ready yet. Otherwise, lots of evolution, no real revolution. And iPhone cases, miles of iPhone cases.
But that's all beside the point for radio. So was the small radio presence on the floor -- HD Radio was back and behind a pole again (really), but the few radio manufacturers didn't seem, at least when I was on the floor, to be getting much action. That doesn't mean that radio wasn't represented or important, though. It helps, however, to stop thinking about the business you're in as "radio." Unless you own a license and antenna and transmitter, that is. The rest of you, read on.
It doesn't take a trip to CES to know that the hottest category moving forward is mobile. It's the one electronics category that's become practically universal, and it's the one where consumers are motivated to buy new equipment every two years, like clockwork, whether they absolutely need it or not. You can't say that about TVs, or radios, or refrigerators. Mobile is booming. And at CES, mobile also means in-car entertainment and information and navigation, with all of that connected to the Internet through, yes, your mobile phone. You'll undoubtedly see Net-connected in-dash systems as standard equipment before long.
You know that already. And you know that Pandora's been aggressive in doing deals to be on those car screens, and that radio apps are trying to get in there, too. But as I looked at the "connected cars" and in-dash systems and heard all the announcements of new content deals, I was reminded that technology is fundamentally altering the definition of what radio does. Radio has been for the last century defined by its technology. The limitations of the broadcast model -- you stream individual channels of audio programming in a continuous manner to many receivers -- are being eliminated. All of them. You can have multiple streams. It doesn't have to be continuous. It can go to anyone anywhere at their convenience and demand. It can be altered and customized by the end user. And it doesn't have to be just audio -- you can do video or add data. You're no longer restricted. "Radio" doesn't need to mean what it used to mean. To the audience, you're one of a practically infinite number of choices of audio, video, and data entertainment and information. They don't see Pandora as radio, or Spotify as radio, or radio as radio. In the new world, everyone -- radio, Net services, television, streaming, podcasts -- is equal. You hit the Pandora app, or the app that gets you KROQ, or the button that calls up NPR or Adam Carolla or YouTube or NBC. Your car will do it, your phone will do it, your TV will do it. Your toaster might do it.
You're not going to be in the radio business. You're going to be in the entertainment business. You already are.
And that's why CES was most interesting to me this year. The technology itself is amusing to look at, but being assaulted with a wall of 3D monitors doesn't excite me. What excites me, and should excite you and everyone in radio, is the opportunity to create anything you want and get it to the public easier and faster and better than ever. The technology is enabling more creativity than ever. The game is changing, and the competition is wider and fiercer than ever. It's going to be a challenge to stand out and to monetize it (more on that in a later column). But if you're on the creative side of the industry, these are fascinating times, and technology is already enabling amazing things. A lot of people are going to take advantage of it and will prosper. As I always say, it might as well be you. We'll continue to examine how you can do that as the year progresses.
CES and my other duties tend not to mix well, so I had to slow Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports, down a little bit most of thw week; digging up stories and writing stupid jokes is difficult when you're trying to navigate what is essentially a cross between the World's Largest Best Buy and an electronics Grand Bazaar. But I'm statting to get it all back to normal, so come on over here for that, and follow the column on Twitter at @talktopics. There's also "10 Questions With..." syndicated health show host Dr. Evelyn Higgins, who has a lot to say about the state of wellness today, and, as always, you'll also find the radio industry's first-best-most complete coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess.
Follow me on Twitter and Facebook with my personal accounts at @pmsimon and www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and read the pop culture stuff I write and edit over at Nerdist.com. My personal website, pmsimon.com, is still on a temporary hiatus due to time constraints, but I have some stuff left over from my CES coverage that might just show up there.
As I mentioned, I absorbed more at CES that bears mentioning, so that'll probably show up in next week's column. Also, thanks to KDWN/Las Vegas' Heidi Harris and KFI/Los Angeles' Tim Conway Jr. and Jason Insalaco for having me on the air this week to talk about CES. Now, I'm gonna go recover -- whatever part of my mind that I didn't lose at the convention probably fell out of my head on the drive back through the desert. If anyone sees my brain by the side of the road in Barstow, I could use it about now.