Adapt, Revise, Survive
April 26, 2013
One of the best things you can do for your career and your life is to recognize the basic fact and time-honored cliche that things change, and that you need to change with them. Too often, I see the radio industry slow to accept the obvious changes in how consumers use, perceive, and need what radio offers, and a couple of things from the past few weeks got me thinking about that again. I could go on and on about this stuff, but maybe it's better to be blunt. So, one at a time:
1. AM is not going to be revitalized. Forget it. I sat through the same "AM Revitalization" panel at the NAB Show as everyone else whose coverage you may have read. I heard all the rhapsodizing about growing up with the local AMs and listening to the ballgames on the AM band. Hey, I grew up with AM, too. But "revitalization".... Really? On which planet? In a room full of license holders and engineers, sure, you'll have ears eager to hear that there's hope. Nobody wants to believe that they own something that's moving inexorably into obsolescence. But AM is not going to grow ever again. It will not grow if it's all-digital. It will not grow if everybody increases power tenfold. It will not grow if the government mandates AM tuners be implanted in people's heads. Okay, that might work, but it's not going to happen. Revitalization is a fantasy for people who have investments tied up in licenses, transmitters, facilities. The band will live with a handful of major stations which can't move to FM and a whole lot of brokered, ethnic, and/or turnkey syndication formats, but, in general, for anyone under 50, it's not an option.
2. FM shouldn't be too complacent, either. Sure, it's not plagued with the "nobody under 50 goes there" stigma like AM, but it does have an old-technology image that, once implanted, is hard to shake. Look, once upon a time, AM was dominant and FM was that weird experimental band with AM simulcasts, Classical music, and "Easy Listening," meaning dental office music. Today, it's the dominant band, but streaming and customizable audio and podcasts are more familiar to younger audiences. Do you expect them to ditch their custom options when they reach 30 years old? Are they all going to suddenly turn into their parents and settle for plain ol' commercial radio? What do YOU think? I don't expect the demise of FM anytime soon, but its strategic advantages were much greater over AM than they are over streaming, and the negatives are greater, too.
3. Harping on radio's value in an emergency is not necessarily the best way to define broadcasting's benefits. I understand the negotiating value in Washington of telling everyone how we need to be in every device because EMERGENCY EMERGENCY EMERGENCY and furthermore EMERGENCY. Radio is essential in people's lives SANDY SANDY SANDY DID YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENED WITH SANDY EMERGENCY and therefore radio is EMERGENCY EMERGENCY GIVE US THINGS. Okay, fine, but, first, we've already seen that it's not like every station or even every market is ready to provide that valuable information, so why should a station or cluster that isn't going to be a go-to source for emergency information benefit from cellphone access? Second, radio is far from the only, or in some cases even best, information source in an emergency; Boston proved that the best information was coming from listening to another kind of radio, police scanners. In fact, when a hillside caught fire in my neighborhood Thursday, it didn't even occur to me to turn on the local L.A. radio stations, but I sure did want to hear the L.A. County Fire Department scanner, and other information was coming in via Twitter. Also, pushing the emergency thing raises the question: What are you doing the other 99 percent of the time, and is positioning radio as an emergency utility really going to benefit you when there is no emergency, which is most of the time? If cellphone users are listening to Pandora or Spotify and only tune to your station if there's an earthquake... well, you get the idea. You have to do better when the chips AREN'T down, too.
But this all comes back to "things change." You have more competition from other technology, some of which is better at some things than radio is. The industry should be identifying its strengths and adapting to the new business structure rather than holding on to the old model and harrumphing to legislators when it turns out that competing is hard. It helps to rethink the model as producing content suited to all distribution means and working with the measurement companies and advertising industry to adapt it all to new consumer and client expectations. What? You've done things a certain way for 50 years and it's unfair that new companies are coming in with no regulation and taking your business? As my dad used to tell me, kid, life's unfair. Doesn't mean you can't succeed under the new rules. You just have to do a little rethinking.
One thing that would be a good change is an end to breast cancer -- that's one difficult segue right there -- and, every year, Fran and I walk in the Revlon Run/Walk for Women in Los Angeles, which is coming up again on May 11th. If you're on the fence about donating, and you're unfamiliar with what the Entertainment Industry Foundation does with the money raised, click here for a list of projects they support -- basically, it's a combination of major research into things like genetic causes of breast cancer and better, less toxic treatment of all women's cancer, and support groups for women who get cancer. This isn't a wear-a-pink-ribbon-and-feel-good-about-yourself thing (although the event IS a feel-good thing, I'd say) so much as it's about finding out more about the disease and coming up with better ways to fight it. (And the EIF gets high marks from the charity ratings organizations, which is good, too.) So, if you can, please donate: go to do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon2013. Thank you!
Time to remind you about All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where there are hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind. Get ideas for your show 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.
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). I was at the taping of this week's episode with the dapper Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the adorable Gillian Jacobs (Britta on "Community"), and it's a lot of fun. You should watch.
Oh, and if you haven't signed up for next week's Worldwide Radio Summit in Hollywood, go do that now. It's May 2nd through 4th at the fabled Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Lotta powerful and interesting radio people are gonna be there. And to balance them out, I'll be there, lurking in the back of the room, bringing just the right amount of sinister to the proceedings. Seriously, if you can be in L.A. for a few days, it's a chance to network with some of the biggest names in the business. See you there....