March 8, 2013
The radio industry will take whatever can pass as good news wherever it can get some, so the report issued by Arbitron based on Census Bureau statistics about commuting, plus a study of Canadian PPM data showing people staying put and listening longer through traffic reports, provided a ray of light for the business. After all, the longer the commute, the better for radio, right?
For now, sure. Most cars -- we're focusing on driving commutes, because mass transit just gets in the way -- are yet to be equipped with Internet-connected dashboards or integrated navigation systems; they exist, but it'll be a few years before things like Ford SYNC reach critical mass. In the meantime, radio has an edge, with the largest installed base of in-car entertainment systems, ease of use, and audience. So, sure, the numbers look good.
On the surface. For now.
First, let's add mass transit back into the equation and note that in markets like New York and Washington where commutes are among the longest but there's a large mass transit infrastructure, time spent listening isn't on par with other long-commute markets with more driving, like, say, Los Angeles. If you're not captive in your car, you have more options than radio... and you're likely to use them, whether it's your iPhone or tablet or just burying your nose in Us Weekly (deftly hidden inside a copy of The Economist, in case someone you know sees you). So that's part one.
Part two is what you're serving up, and the options your listeners have to get that information. That traffic report study sure argues strongly that you should do traffic reports, but anyone should be able to see the handwriting on the wall for that. It's one thing when you have no other effective source for the information; you'll wait for Traffic on the 8s. But as in-car information systems proliferate, and as people get used to using their smartphones as GPS units, do you think they'll keep waiting for your reports? And in markets that cover large areas, radio traffic reports can be useless -- surely, it's easier for me to fire up Waze on my phone or check the red and green lines on Google Maps than to wait for traffic reports that can't possibly cover the entire Los Angeles metro in 60 seconds. What would you expect me to choose, wait at least ten minutes for a radio report mostly about a traffic hot spot in the Valley, 45 miles away, or an app that gives me pretty accurate information about the actual route I'm planning to drive, right away?
So the present is not as dire as the doomsayers would have you believe -- people still listen, still use radio for their long commutes. But the future is clearly not a growth proposition. The monopoly in cars is ending, and for some things, the other options are more attractive.
Except that there IS a way forward. Stations that have established themselves as trusted brands for entertainment and information CAN grow under the new order; As we've often discussed, they'll have to get themselves onto that dashboard and on those smartphones and into browser bookmarks, but once they are, there's opportunity. Let's take one obvious example: If you live in the Washington, DC area, WTOP pretty much owns the news brand in the region. You think of local news -- electronic, definitely, but I'd argue that it even eclipses the Post -- and you think of the station. So, if there's a WTOP icon on the dashboard and commuters need instant news or traffic, to whom will they turn? Same for the WBBMs and KYWs and KCBSes and WBZs of the nation -- the names mean something more than a radio frequency.
It also applies to entertainment, and this will be interesting for stations whose brands mean a music format. If you can get custom music, whether Pandora or Spotify or your own music playlists, a station had better give people a better reason to come to it than "more music." Because radio stations, in users' perception, DON'T offer more music, or better music, than a user's own iPod, or one of the customizable streamers. But personality -- funny hosts, strong production, local content -- IS a difference-maker. You can put all the radio station icons you want on a dashboard, but when there are other choices, people won't touch them unless you give them something more than a jukebox into which someone else is pumping quarters.
So those reports are nice for radio, but five or ten years from now, those time spent listening figures may look a lot less imposing. It's not too late for radio stations to establish their brands to maintain their position in users' perception, but it's more than just throwing an app up there, it's offering a reason to use that app. And cutting back on program and talent development now is only a guarantee that a commuter in 2020 will be listening to something other than a radio station on those long treks to work.
One way to create compelling content -- there's that jargon again -- is to find interesting and unusual topics about which to pontificate at All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, with hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind, available by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item. Free. Wow. Also, definitely read this week's provocative "10 Questions With..." Tom Leykis, and I don't have to explain who he is and what he's up to; You'd expect him to have plenty to say about radio and his move online and the future of both, and he does. Don't miss it.
And follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, and find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon. I also edit and write for the Nerdist.com website, part of Chris Hardwick's empire of pop culture. Join me there, too, won't you?
I have to admit something: I don't listen to radio on my commute. Maybe that's because my commute is walking from one end of the house to the other. By the time I would put the headphones on, I'm there. Also, the traffic reports never cover that route.