August 23, 2013
There's nothing wrong with radio that a little self-awareness couldn't help. That became apparent to me with the rash of breathless news this week from the -- oh, I hate this cliche -- Powers That Be. (That be what? I know, it's from the New Testament, but I don't think radio CEOs were ordained by God. I could be wrong, though) Anyway, we had the Sprint announcement, which I thought we'd heard about ages ago, in which some phones will have FM tuners and that app installed, which they were treating as if radio was finally becoming "new media." And then iBiquity sent out a press release celebrating the fact that -- sit down, this is shocking -- you can feed an analog FM translator with HD2 or HD3 channel programming and show up in the ratings, maybe. Wow. So, you can possibly, theoretically, make money from HD2 multicasting if you CONVERT IT BACK TO ANALOG with a couple hundred watts? Outstanding.
What these stories tell me is that the folks who run radio might do well to take a few seconds to look in the mirror. It really does help to know what you are, and what you are not. Here, let me hold the mirror up for you (and by "you," I mean the radio industry, not you individually, silly):
You are not new technology. You can put tuner chips in whatever you want -- phones, tablets, "Star Trek" communicators, whatever. You can make yourself as digital as possible. You can add album art, data streams, anything, and you're still radio and still not new technology.
You ARE still viable, efficient, effective technology. You can't compete in some areas -- signals are still geographically restricted, they're subject to atmospherics and electrical interference and multipath, they can still sound not-so-great or worse (ahem, AM). But I have a bluetooth-enabled, late-model, bells-and-whistles-encrusted car stereo, and it is still easiest to just hit the tuner and pick a local signal when I'm doing what I do the most, which is just running local errands. Radio technology offers entertainment with the least work. That has great value.
You are not new media. Repurposing your content by throwing it online doesn't count. And radio websites... for shame.
You CAN BE new media. And this is the most important part: You ARE, or SHOULD be, your talent. So much of the industry's focus has been on saving the towers and call letters and transmitters and history that it forgets WHY those call letters and towers and transmitters have value in the first place. And it should be obvious. Why did some stations achieve legendary status while others with comparable signals and sign-on dates didn't? It was the programming. Then as now, people listen to the content, not the history, not the technical facility. The latter can help or hurt, and so can marketing, but the programming, the content, the personality are what makes the legend. And if that's the case -- and it is -- then that's what radio should be taking into the new media age. Set that talent and personality loose with new technology and see how that goes. Hire people who can create content that works as podcasts, as streams, as website posts, as video. Don't restrict yourself to one broadcast signal and try to cheap out by slapping that everywhere. Take advantage of the new technology using the talent you've developed, people who know what the public wants and likes and who can give that to them.
Oh, right, you fired a lot of those people. Well, that's another column. But until then, the point is, you don't want to try to be what you're not. You're not Pandora or Spotify, iHeartRadio notwithstanding. You're not YouTube or Google. But you don't need to be any of that. You can be the best generator of content for every possible medium, especially but not only for audio. The trick is to be self-aware, and to know that what you are and what you're selling isn't restricted to those expensive licenses and signals that are losing value. It's not even the brands you have now. It's just that you've built content-generating operations that you SHOULD be using for way more than just AM and FM. THAT'S radio's future. See? There IS a future, as long as you know what you are, what you aren't, and what you can be.
And to create that content, you need stuff about which to wax eloquent. (Or flatulence jokes. Whatever works for you.) So, go to All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where you will always find stuff to talk about, available by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where every story is individually linked to the appropriate item. And do not miss "10 Questions With..." KIRO/Seattle morning co-anchor and MyNorthwest.com's "News Chick" blogger Linda Thomas, who is living proof that you can take your skills -- in her case, her news sense and personality -- and adapt them to media both old and new with great success.
The biggest news for me this week is that I mentioned that I had a topic in mind last week, and I actually remembered what it was this week. That's a major accomplishment for me. I should send out a press release about it.