Life In The Slow Lane
May 30, 2014
Somewhere on the 110 freeway on the drive home from another meeting up in Burbank (motto: "We're Hot! No, Literally, It's Freakishly, Uncomfortably Hot Here!"), something occurred to me about how radically, in just a few years, things have changed for radio in at least one respect. First, some unnecessary detail: I drive an old car, and by old I mean it's a '99 Volvo. It does old car things, like burn through and slowly leak oil and have air conditioning that doesn't work and seems to be unfixable. That means I really don't like getting stuck in traffic on hot days, watching the temperature gauge like a hawk and sitting there in a standstill, sweating through my clothes, the (black leather -- great for desert climates!) seat, the floorboards, and the asphalt below. I want to keep moving enough to at least kick up a little breeze through the window. In Los Angeles traffic, that's usually not possible, but at least I want to believe it can be done, so I, like everyone else maneuvering the freeways, pay attention to traffic reports.
And that's what's changed. Back in the early days of this car, if I had to go from Burbank to my home, I'd get in the car and immediately start hitting the all-News (we had two back then) and major Talk stations, timing it for when I knew they'd have traffic reports (wait, is KNX on the ones or sevens? Who does them on the sixes? HIT THE BUTTON AGAIN), and waiting patiently through a lot of information about traffic way on the other side of the market before maybe getting word of anything on my particular route. Later, the routine would add a quick check of traffic on Google Maps, then a dedicated GPS (featuring the exasperated "reCALculating..." whenever I ignored its suggestions, but the radio traffic reports were still a major part of the mix.
Now? Take Thursday afternoon. After fruitlessly trying to cool down the interior by opening the door for a few moments (remember, black leather seats), I got in, opened the Waze app on my phone, pressed Navigate, pressed Home, pressed Go, and got turn-by-turn instructions for my specific route, including diversion through Glendale and Silverlake way off the usual track that helped me avoid a jam on the 5 freeway, and a suggestion to use the 110 toll lanes to skip another slowdown. Detailed and specific. Radio can't do that.
Or, more precisely, radio can't do that with business as usual. And that's a lesson on continually reviewing exactly what your strategic advantage over competitors -- other stations and other media -- is at any given moment. Radio used to be king of the hill for traffic reports -- nobody else could offer up-to-the-minute (more or less) reports. But now, that's gone. In fact, it makes you ask yourself exactly who's using those reports. Older folks who don't use their smartphones in the car and don't know about Waze, or Apple Maps, or Google Maps, or Mapquest, or any other traffic and mapping app? Maybe, but you don't have an advantage over those apps when you're cramming whatever information you can relate into a minute or two report, at most. And you can't give me -- anyone -- specific useful information for my route; I did check some reports on the rest of my drive out of amusement and heard about traffic in Diamond Bar and Santa Ana and Calabasas and many other places far, far away from where I was going, but not for my drive. My phone? Specific information, crowdsourced and accurate, right down to local roads, changing as conditions warranted. Guess who wins?
Which brings us back to strategic advantage. Okay, so, traffic used to be one, and now it isn't. But it didn't have to be that way, and it doesn't need to be that way in the future. And by that, I mean, radio DID have the pre-eminent position for traffic. You TRUSTED the radio stations that owned the traffic position in each market. Why, oh, why aren't there radio-branded traffic apps just like Waze or the other GPS apps that can take that trust into a new medium? In fact, that goes for all kinds of information -- news, weather, sports, snow closings -- for which radio used to be the leader. It's instructive to look at how one continued leader, WTOP in Washington, has taken its brand online and has maintained that authoritative position beyond the FM dial; WTOP continues to mean news and traffic and other information, regardless of medium, but they long ago pushed their brand instead of identification as a radio station. It makes sense to see your position as separate from your medium. You have to go where there's growth.
Yet, if I look at the radio news and information leaders in my market, they've been swallowed whole by their corporate identities. There's no KNX app, no KFI app. All you can do is use Radio.com or iHeartRadio.com or TuneIn, and what you get from those is the stream. The brands are being smothered. Are they saying that the station identities aren't brands worth growing? That I'm supposed to stop thinking of KFI when I want news or KNX for traffic and weather together? Why are they flushing brands after decades of growth and success? Why are they ceding those positions when they COULD use them to dominate their local markets -- would Philadelphians, for example, use Waze if they had a KYW app with a trusted local brand that not only gave them the route home but interjected news and sports headlines and texted them when their kids' schools are closed due to weather?
It's all, of course, a matter of radio realizing what it owns and what its strategic advantages are in the (CLICHÃ‰ ALERT) changing media landscape. The strategic advantage starts with the brand you've developed over the years, and continues with developing your content to adapt to technological changes like crowdsourced GPS apps or Twitter news dissemination or on-demand delivery and customization. It's not like radio can't do this, or isn't, it's that by being slow out of the gate, huge, dominant, viable brands are in danger of being smoked by upstarts who don't have the advantage of years of reliable service. You don't want to make the mistake so many newspapers made and are continuing to make. But time isn't waiting for the radio industry to realize that its future isn't in being a passive jukebox on the FM dial or even streaming; it's in leveraging its brands and evolving its content to fit changing technology and serve a changing audience.
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If you're going to be at next week's hivio conference in San Diego (or, for that matter, the Padres game the night before), I'll be there, too - see you there. If not, there's information about live-streaming at 22s.com/markramsey/hivio and at hivio.com. It's all about the future of audio entertainment content -- that used to be defined as just radio and records -- and new media and disruptive technology, and judging by last year's event, it's worth your time. Don't be shocked if next week's column picks up on some of the themes at this year's version....