January 30, 2015
It's unfair, I've decided, to liken the people who steered the course of the radio industry over the last couple of decades to dinosaurs. They're more like frogs.
I'll explain. You know that old anecdote about boiling frogs? It goes something like this: If you boil a pot of water and then drop a frog into it, it'll immediately jump out. But if you put the frog in a pot of cool water and slowly bring it to a boil, it won't notice until it's too late and you get the boiled frog you wanted. (And exactly why did you want to boil a live frog? You're sick, you are.) Now, this may or may not be true -- I don't think anyone really wants to test the theory -- but you get the idea. Sudden change in temperature means sudden change in plans, gradual change leads to complacency and dinner.
I thought about change this week when my car died. It was an old car -- a '99 Volvo -- but its demise was sudden. I hadn't really thought much about replacing it, mostly because I've been unimpressed with the cars presently available and affordable. They all look kind of alike, they're either unreliable and fun to drive or reliable and boring to drive, and I didn't really want to have to pick one right now. Besides, my old car was doing just fine.
Until it wasn't. And now, I have to make a change. It's not optional, and I'm not happy about it, but you do what you have to do. A lot of life changes are like that -- you get fired, you get a surprise diagnosis from the doctor, you win a prize in the lottery. Things happen, good and bad.
The change in radio wasn't sudden, even though there were a handful of us who saw the train coming and yelled about it a little. In fact, the changes haven't yet fully set in. The world has changed how it consumes media, yet because radio still has an audience, the industry hasn't had to consider radical changes. And that, I think, has delayed, possibly to the industry's ultimate detriment, the kind of adjustments that it needs to make.
What kind of changes? Well, let's first ask what radio's competitive advantages were and what they are now. Back 20 years ago, no medium was more interactive. None was as ubiquitous. People got their news first from the radio, and used talk radio as the first place to react and hear others in the public react. It was the fastest and most expressive method of disseminating opinion -- aggressive talk hosts blew away newspaper opinion columns or milquetoast TV commentators. For music, it was the ultimate discovery tool for practically everyone. You heard it first on the radio. And what your local station played probably influenced what you liked and what you still remember.
Now? Interactivity means social media, where engagement is way more widespread and measurable. Ubiquity? Your cell phone gets the Internet most everywhere (leaving your complaints about your carrier's data coverage aside for the moment). I don't know about you, but Twitter is by far the leading place where I hear about breaking news. (Especially earthquakes; when I feel a tremor, I go right to Twitter and see if all of my friends in the area have tweeted "EARTHQUAKE," which they've invariably done.) Opinion? Social media. Music discovery? It's still a player, but so are suggestions from Spotify and Pandora and all the other streamers.
Radio's primary strategic advantage is really convenience. As long as the easiest and quickest thing to do when you get in your car or sit down at your office desk or fire up the toaster oven is to flip on the radio and passively listen to whatever's on the presets, there'll still be a sizable audience available. And, to go back to the car thing, as long as the car manufacturers still can't quite grasp what people actually want on their dashboards (hint: touchscreens REALLY suck when you're driving), FM is still the most likely option people will use. (It's amazing how many reviews of cars involve complaints that the systems don't easily link to phones via Bluetooth, frequently crash, or are otherwise unreliable. Not ready for prime time, indeed.) So there's that, I guess.
The biggest problem with the changes, though, is that the advertising community -- the agencies and the clients -- are also in the pot of slowly warming water. They can't quite settle on whether they want CPMs or engagement or both or neither. They'll do per-inquiry, but they're not sure where the pricing will settle. We're 20 years into the Web and things are still confusing and unsettled. And that's because nobody's HAD to make those calls. The water's not boiling yet.
And if, indeed, the currency is going to be engagement, what then? Have your stations really adapted to a world where your listeners respond not with a phone call but with Facebook comments and Instagram comments and tweets and memes and videos? Or are you still throwing out topics, giving out phone numbers, and waiting for the lines to fill? Are you hiring not only people who are good on the air but who are good at social media? Are you implementing video into your strategy? Does your station have a staff of people dedicated to social media and the online experience? Is anyone at the station monitoring the online stream to make sure it's not as screwed up as usual? Are you still thinking of what you do as purely radio or are you adapting to a time when the lines will finally not just blur but disappear?
All I'm saying is that radio's not dead, but the fact that there hasn't been an implosion doesn't mean that you don't have to start changing to adapt to the new world. Let's face it, nobody likes frog soup. Especially the frogs.
As things change, you need even more and better material to stand out. And All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics has hundreds of items and ideas to make your show better, 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. Also, this week, you'll enjoy "10 Questions With..." "Caravan to Midnight" host John B. Wells, who's growing a pretty sizable following both on the broadcast and podcast/video sides with his own brand of talk about alternative news, the paranormal, conspiracies, politics, religion, and everything else that makes listening to the radio in the wee hours a habit.
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.
And now, 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. The flagship Nerdist Podcast celebrated its five year anniversary this week, so if you had any questions about the longevity of the podcast medium, there's your answer.
Remember, this week, I'll be on a panel at Talk Show Boot Camp in Atlanta on February 6th and 7th, about "Talk Beyond Politics," and I found out that I'm on a panel with Bubba the Love Sponge, Mancow Muller, Doug Stephan, and Danno Wolkoff, moderated by Carolyn Fox. Will I get a word in? Will there be shouting? You gotta be there to know for sure. If you're interested, it's at the W Hotel in Buckhead and you can get more information about registration and stuff at talkshowbootcamp.com, so do that and I'll see you there.