Making Your Own Future
January 9, 2015
This week's International CES had a message for the radio industry, but it wasn't anything that happened in the exhibit halls, or the panels, or in the coverage you'll read and see everywhere else. Sometimes, elbowing my way past booths crammed with gawkers staring at people using treadmills (seriously, there were mobs watching someone running on a treadmill, which is... what's the polar opposite of exciting?), I thought that CES is the world's biggest photo opportunity for local TV reporters to pose wearing a VR helmet while saying things like "what will they think of next?" And the stuff you've heard -- 4K TVs, connected cars, drones -- is stuff that was around last year, too, That's all well and good, but I think the story is a little beneath that surface.
First, the bad news for the consumer electronics industry: People aren't excited about replacing their HDTVs with 4K Ultra HD sets. Tablet sales are off. Smartphone growth has slowed and cheap handsets are flooding the developing markets on which the industry was counting to provide growth. Not good.
But there's another story, and that's the part that interests me far more than the stuff you'll see in other reports. It's about an industry that has some excitement for the future, based not on selling more devices you won't want but on expanding its self-definition. It was telling that Gary Shapiro, the head of the CEA, proudly noted that ten auto makers were at CES this year, a record. It was notable that half of that opening keynote was devoted to Ford touting its efforts to solve worldwide problems of mobility, from traffic in India to parking in San Francisco. It was important that the buzz was about Mercedes-Benz' luxury self-driving car. Sure, you heard about the push for "wearables," like fitness bands, which a) you'll stop using in a few months and b) are just waiting for the Apple Watch to blow them all away. But "consumer electronics" now means cars, and, just as important, how Ford (and others) are using electronic sensors to collect "Big Data" about drivers' behavior. And more traditional CE manufacturers are using sensors to collect data, too -- put aside the Big Brother aspects of that and think of how that can alter a company's mission, taking it from mere maker-of-things to...
To what? Well, that's wide open. And that's the main thing that stayed with me when I drove home from Vegas. An industry has opened up the definition of what it is. Sure, it has problems -- you can't tell me that slowing growth in its hottest segments and general lack of enthusiasm for two consecutive Big Initiatives (3D and 4K TVs) aren't troubling -- but there's a focus on the future, whether tricking out cars with sensors or collecting data or, with 3D printing, potentially completely disrupting the retail and distribution chains the way the Internet disrupted so many other categories.
And that's way more interesting to me than the robotic pets and even the digital dashboard. Radio'll be on the digital dash as long as consumers want it there, and 'if you do your job right, they will. (Besides, radios were optional for years -- I don't remember the radio industry of the '60s up in arms because radio wasn't automatically included with a car's base model.) No, what I found interesting is how the CE industry is trying to redefine itself. It's not restricting itself to its old business model, it's looking to create new opportunities. (Shapiro's talked about this in past years with the mantra "Innovate or Die" -- turns out that they're taking it to heart.) What seemed weird a few years ago -- what's Ford doing at a consumer electronics trade show? -- now seems logical. It's not "we don't do that," it's "hey, what if we can do that?"
Radio can do that, too. Already, we're seeing some radio people -- not all, just some -- realizing that "radio" can include streaming, podcasts, anything that's audio. But is that all we can do? When the folks from Google said at CES that video is by far the most engaging medium and is projected to dominate advertising and marketing, should radio be happy just generating visual-free content? Who says the radio industry -- however you define "radio" -- can't do video, too? Or better websites than what it's doing now? Is there a law against it? Is radio's business just generating audio, or creating content, or being a marketing solution, or providing distribution, or.... what? What are the limits?
The trick is to define what your business can do better (or cheaper, or both) than anyone else, and expand from that. So the people who made radios and TVs moved on to make mobile phones, and from that to sensors that will ultimately change cars, and in turn will change traffic patterns and potentially development of communities and entire economic categories. Maybe radio can't replicate that kind of progression, but if you tell yourself you can only play 10 songs an hour and say a few bland words in between because that's what you've always done and that works for the audience measurement system you use and that's your business model and you're sticking to it, you can't expect to grow.
And that's why I'm no fun at CES. The Bluetooth toothbrushes and Beats headphone knockoffs and scooters with swappable battery packs don't do much for me. It's about the possibilities, and the excitement about the future that I wish radio could harness.
So, I'm back from the holiday break and CES, and so is All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with hundreds of items and ideas there, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else, as well as serious stuff. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
And follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, my Instagram account (same handle, @pmsimon), find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and at some point, I'll be updating pmsimon.com again.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Oh, yeah, Happy New Year. Only a week and change late. And thanks to Ray Steele at WIBC/Indianapolis and Heidi Harris at KBET/Las Vegas for letting me blather about CES on the radio this week - I do that kind of thing, too.