Of Pipes And Programming
April 12, 2013
All right, I think I have this figured out.
No, really, I do. It came to me while driving home from the NAB Show in Vegas this week. It was striking to me how much of a balkanization there is in the radio industry: This convention was for owners and managers and, to a lesser extent, engineers. There are shows that draw more talent, and a few -- the Worldwide Radio Summit coming up May 2nd-4th in Hollywood is one, to throw in a plug for All Access' own show -- where you get both, but something that I think is missing is a way to get everyone to brainstorm the future of radio together. At the NAB Show, all the talk seemed to be generated in a top-down manner, meaning that all the solutions being discussed, from FM chips in cell phones (and the appurtenant apps) to "AM revitalization" (really?) served the purposes of the people who own licenses and transmitters but don't seem to be meeting a consumer desire or need and don't really address whether what they're serving up on those signals is what the public wants. That discussion was totally absent from the whole week, while on the other end of the convention center, people on the video side were talking about content creation and serving it up in whatever form the public wants. Radio's a decade or more behind that curve, and I didn't get the sense that there's a push to do more than just catch up to the times in radio right now -- while the industry's talking about the marvel of putting album art with their signals, people are increasingly embracing customized listening and time-shifting and other options.
So, what to do about it? How do we drag this industry out of that room where people are debating how to rescue their investments in dog AM signals and get moving faster towards the future? I think the key lies in a better understanding across the board of what it is that we are. At the NAB Show, "Radio" means transmitters, studios, call letters, watts. But that's not a promising way to look at what we are for the long-term. Nor are we merely a conduit for ads, although that DOES pay the bills. We are, first and foremost, entertainment and information, and we are now in a more competitive environment for that. What we should be doing is, in addition to the kind of thing I saw in Vegas, talking about the evolution of the business into, effectively, a production rather than transmission industry. The NAB Show is for the people who own the pipes, but the pipes are now commodities -- there's no more scarcity. Anyone can get programming of any kind to anyone else. Now, the issue is what you're producing and how to get people to consume it in large enough quantities to monetize it. And that's a topic on which talent, programmers, and consumers alike should be weighing in.
It's not like there's not information out there on which to start the quest -- Jacobs Media's been dutifully cranking out a ton of important information in the TechSurveys, for example -- but most of the panelists I heard over the course of the week were looking at the business in a what's-in-it-for-us manner and not from the perspective of consumers who can get customized programming, for free or via subscription, on any device they want and, increasingly, in cars. Sure, you can get into phones and onto dashboards, but what are you offering that someone else can't? THAT'S the conversation that SHOULD be happening and isn't.
And while we're talking about customization, I'll throw out one idea that occurred to me that I haven't seen or heard yet. If what we have to offer that the Pandoras and Rdios and Spotifys of the world don't -- yet -- is personality, why aren't we looking at customizing that? Wait, hear me out -- say I like to listen to, oh, let's say Ryan Seacrest on my drive to the office, but I can't stand Top 40 music like KIIS plays. Say I like Country. Why can't I customize a stream to take Ryan's breaks and combine them with a Country playlist? Why can't I say to my phone or dashboard, give me John and Ken or Jim Rome or some other talker but insert Alternative music between segments? Why can't I specify that I want WIP sports talk with Chicago traffic and weather breaks? We have a ton of strong programming material, yet we persist in making people get it how WE want to serve it up, not how they may want it. The technology is here. It can happen. Just throwing it out there.
And if the big radio companies are worried that this means curtains, it does not. It's the same as how music labels are positioned in an age when everyone can post their music worldwide -- sure, you can throw your music on Soundcloud for free, but the labels are the ones who can help you get the kind of massive success you can't achieve on your own. Radio companies are the same -- yes, you can do a podcast, but having the marketing clout of a trusted brand is a difference maker between a podcast that has an average following and a podcast that's a huge success with potential for monetization. That's why there are podcast networks (obligatory disclaimer that my other work is for Nerdist, which has one of those growing podcast networks itself). But radio companies can bring marketing, sales, and production expertise that will be valuable even when every sentient being on the planet is posting a podcast every week. That's part of radio's future, too, but it seems like the industry's slow getting there. Shouldn't every big station not only, as they do now, offer podcasts of their shows, but offer non-broadcast shows and streams as well under the same brand, with material unavailable elsewhere? Shouldn't a talk station be producing more shows than what goes on the broadcast signal, promoted on the air and online, serving additional niches of the audience? Again, just throwing it out there.
Sorry for the jumbled thoughts, but conventions have that effect on me. And after a week when all the solutions I heard for radio's troubles seemed not to really address what people are looking for in audio entertainment, I thought I'd try to get the ball rolling here. I might be way off base, but at least I'm trying.
Another reminder: This year's Revlon Run/Walk for Women in Los Angeles is coming on May 11th, and I'll tell you again that my wife Fran, a cancer survivor of seven years, and I will be participating once again -- we walk every year to celebrate survival and raise money through the Entertainment Industry Foundation for research and services dealing with women's cancer. Your donations will be appreciated, and here's how to do that: go to do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon2013. Thank you!
Somehow, despite my travels, I was able to keep updating All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics with hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind, and you can take advantage by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item. It's free. Also, don't miss "10 Questions With..." Brett Winterble, who's hosting on both broadcast (at KFMB/San Diego and other stations) and on satellite, and who's worked with people like Rush Limbaugh, Roger Hedgecock, Curtis Sliwa, and others. He's making noise as a new name in the business, and we've got him here this week.
And follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and visit the other site I edit, Nerdist.com. And please watch "The Nerdist" on Saturday night at 10p (ET) on BBC America (or Sunday at 7p (ET) on Space in Canada). Jon Hamm this week!
Okay, no conventions for a few weeks, at least, not until the Worldwide Radio Summit. Oh, you haven't signed up yet? Click here for information. Let's keep the conversation going.