Your Future In Radio
July 27, 2012
There were a lot of young broadcasting students at last week's Conclave Learning Conference in Minneapolis. None of them asked me anything. I can't blame them, because most of them probably have no idea who I am or what I've done or why I would have anything to offer. But if they had asked, I have some ideas about what I would have told them about a career in the radio business.
I would have told them about the low pay, long hours, and limited appreciation from the bosses. But they probably know that already. The more important part would've been this: if you have any innovative bone in your body, you might want to consider another business. It wasn't always this way, but it's especially so right now. Innovation in radio is discouraged, and that, of all the problems facing the industry, is one that distresses me the most.
That's not to say that there aren't opportunities. If what you're looking for is a standard career doing standard things that have been done before, there are still opportunities in radio. But if you want to try something different, you're better off looking elsewhere. Think about it: what was the last truly innovative thing that's come out of the radio business? Hard to come up with one, isn't it? Most of what's new in radio has been reactive, like doing customizable audio after Pandora did it, or podcasts after everybody with a microphone did it. (Or Adult Hits after the iPod shuffle play became popular, for that matter) Radio was even late to the game doing streaming audio, partly because of the royalty and union issues and partly because they just didn't see any way to make money on it. And on the creative side, do I have to even tell you where radio stands? Is there any real difference between your typical talk show or morning show today and one from 20 years ago? Is anybody doing anything different?
Maybe you are doing something different, but you're in a minority. Radio today is pretty much the same as radio 20 years ago. It's mostly the same formats, largely the same people, and innovation is hard to find. Meanwhile, it's never been a better time to be a creative person, because the opportunities are endless. Unfortunately, those opportunities are mostly outside of radio. The barriers to entry on the Internet are nonexistent, and while the revenue may also be close to nonexistent at this stage, that will change. Yes, it's heartening to see young people at the convention looking to get a break into the radio industry, but I found myself asking who these people are and what motivates them. After all, it's easier to do your own thing in a podcast, on a stream, or on YouTube, and the rewards might be bigger in the long run. So, why radio?
There's an answer for that, too. The audience on radio is still bigger. There's more money there right now, too, even though it ain't what it used to be. And, for a lot of people, the romance is still there. Even with all the cutbacks, even with the lack of innovation, even with the celebration of mediocrity and the recycling of the same people for the same jobs over and over, there's something about radio that's still magic. Hallucinatory, irrational, romantic, call it what you will, but even now, there's something about being on the radio that you don't get from any other medium. Just don't ask me to define what it is, because, after several decades in this business, I still can't put it into words.
With all of that, I'm still concerned that this industry rewards mediocrity and ignores innovation. Even the slightest threat of an attempt at a different variation on a standard format draws criticism, derision, and ostracism. Any move of a talk station to FM still draws the "FM is for music" "waste of a station" response, and the death of every experiment seems to draw more than its share of celebration (or was I imagining the glee with which the demise of the Merlin FM news operations drew? Even if the stations weren't executed well, how is it a good thing that two all-local, well-staffed spoken word stations were shut down and replaced by music you can get on your iPod or streaming or Spotify or Pandora, only without customization or much personality? Has the need to make investors happy RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE OR ELSE led to it being impossible to get the time necessary to develop and grow a successful news franchise? Is anyone else disturbed by that?).
And with all of that, we get what we deserve: a dial filled with adult contemporary, top 40, and talk stations that closely resemble what we had 20 years ago. Is that the business young people want to get into?
Apparently, there are still a few who do. I'm glad about that, because radio needs all the young blood it can get. But if they believe that any new ideas they bring to the table will get a warm and interested reception from the leaders of this business, they're going to be in for a surprise. On the other hand, if they wait a few years, they might be able to buy stations and do things their way. The price of entry isn't exactly going up.
Ah, see? Too cynical. Maybe it's better that I don't talk to those kids. For the sake of the industry, it's better that they take their shot at making things work without a curmudgeon like me talking them out of it. You never know what can happen until you try. And maybe someone will somehow be allowed to put a new idea into play and radio will finally innovate again. It has to start somewhere, with someone, at some time. Maybe it'll start in Minneapolis, with a kid fresh out of school, at a Conclave. Or in a basement someplace, with someone with a computer and a microphone, when nobody's looking. Either way, the industry needs to be looking for new people and new ideas, Now would be a good time to start.
Typical self-aggrandizing plea for Twitter and Facebook followers at @pmsimon and www.facebook.com/pmsimon. Egregious plug for other employer, Nerdist.com, and its Nerdist Channel at YouTube. Pathetic mention of partly-abandoned personal site at pmsimon.com and half-hearted promise to get more stuff on there.
I'd wrap this up with a pithy comment about radio and innovation if I had time, but I'm still trying to clean up the mess that followed my trusting another innovator in upgrading my computer to the new Mountain Lion OS. Good thing I had a backup, bad thing that it'll take a week or more to recover everything. Kids, let this be a lesson to you: Back up that thing. Back it up real good.