And The Children Shall Lead
August 14, 2015
They announced the "Sesame Street"/HBO deal the other day, and by the tone of the reaction, you'd think that the world was ending. I don't mean the obligatory "dark, gritty reboot" jokes, either. People treated the deal as the end of an era, fretted that kids would somehow be limited in their access to the show, that kind of thing. Never mind that the episodes will air on over-the-air PBS nine months later; the very idea that "Sesame Street" had gone to pay-cable was anathema to those brought up with the certainty that TV institutions like that would always be on your trusty local broadcast station, first and foremost.
My reaction was different. Mine was... indifference. And that's because the concept of shows airing on channels at specific times is no longer the point at all. Wait, let me illustrate it in another way: Remember a few years back when SiriusXM announced a strange side offering, a backseat video service aimed at children, streaming kids' TV channels to back-of-the-headrest monitors? With practically no fanfare, that service is ending this December after they stopped offering the equipment with Fiat Chrysler vehicles in 2011. The reason that failed is the reason that the "Sesame Street" news isn't that huge to me, and it's something that applies to all media, radio as well as TV.
See, we've been in an on-demand world for a while now. I knew that back when the Backseat TV thing was announced. We don't have kids, but most of the people I know do, and I observed our nephew, a tot at the time, and how he watched TV: He wanted "Thomas the Tank Engine," and he wanted it NOW. So he got it NOW on DVDs and through the on-demand part of his cable system. When they traveled, it was all Thomas, all the time, on portable DVD players. He eventually grew out of Thomas, of course, but now he's accustomed to getting the shows he wants, when he wants them, on a tablet or a phone or, sometimes, a real TV. Generations of kids are getting everything they watch on demand, out of pattern, disconnected from "channels," and they're growing into adulthood with that expectation, too. To kids, "Sesame Street" isn't on PBS or HBO or any channel, it's just there when they want it, on demand. All they have to do is search "Sesame Street" and they'll find it. They don't have to wait for channel 50 to air it, they don't have to DVR it. Adults are getting into it, too, or maybe you haven't noticed the binge-watching phenomenon, or the rise of Netflix and Amazon Instant and Hulu. Yes, watching on regular channels on schedule on a big-screen TV still accounts for the largest amount of viewing, but that's changing, and it's why TV ratings have a C3 number to account for delayed viewing. The people are speaking, and they want things their way.
Which brings me to radio, and where things are heading. I'm going to briefly contradict myself to point out that in a lot of use cases, specifically in the car, regular ol' broadcast radio has the advantage and is the clear leader among choices when it's a short ride to the dry cleaner or the grocery. It's the easiest option for whatever audio you want -- it requires no Bluetooth pairing, no effort, you just turn it on and hit Scan or a preset button and presto, you have music or talk or news. You don't get precisely what you want, maybe, but it's good enough to get from here 5 minutes down the road to Trader Joe's. But besides that, and especially for spoken word audio, the oft-stressed "live and local" really doesn't beat "what I want, when and where I want it." If I want a show about the Jacksonville Jaguars and I want it to start right this second, podcasts will let me do that. If I want to hear nothing but Jimmy Sturr polka music, any of the subscription music services will give it to me. If I want... well, you get the idea. Consumers aren't at the mercy of stations or channels anymore. Technology is allowing the on-demand category to blossom.
Radio's gotten a little luckier than television in this regard, because it still requires some work to get a podcast, and until there's an intuitive, easy, built-in Android app as there is (I know, the Apple app is a little clunky, just go with it for now) for iOS, podcasts will still not reach critical mass. But it's coming, just as Netflix streaming wasn't really compelling or easy and then it was. And when on-demand audio is ubiquitous on phones and on the dashboard, radio will....
Well, what WILL radio be? We don't know, but what we DO know is that the radio industry can be proactive now. The first step, as I've said before, is to stop treating on-demand and online programming as "not radio." It's technically not radio because it doesn't usually come through a radio receiver, but consumers don't care about that distinction. It's all the same to them, and all the same in a practical sense. And, yeah, the moves being made by some radio companies lately -- Scripps buying Midroll, Hubbard buying into PodcastOne, CBS launching Play.it -- indicate an awareness that podcasting is a thing, or at least it's something worth using to hedge your bets. I don't know whether that's enough, though, and there's more to consider, especially when radio thinks about slapping a whole three-hour show onto iTunes and calling it a "podcast." It's not just about people getting their programs when they want them. It's about WHAT they want, too. This requires rethinking what radio in general and talk radio in particular is producing, from length and frequency of episodes to content and form.
In short, what the people want is not necessarily what radio's been pumping out for decades. The power is shifting, and when I see some "experts" advising stations to just concentrate on their REAL business of broadcast radio, it seems to me that they're looking at the present and past with no conception of how things have changed even in the past year. I'm heartened by what I perceive as a growing awareness on the part of radio groups that they need to address the situation, and I'll just offer this: You can't force people to take what you want to give them when and how you want to give it to them anymore. They have choices now. More than ever, you have to figure out what the listeners want AND how they want it delivered, because THEY have the power now. Just like their children have the power to watch Bert and Ernie when and where they want, on whatever device they prefer. The sooner radio adapts to that reality, the greater opportunity there'll be for growth.
As a host, you have the power (okay, horrible segue into plug coming right now) to talk about anything, and at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics (see, what did I tell you? Horrible), you'll find hundreds of items and ideas and bad jokes, available now by clicking here. And there's the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Oh, yeah, sports radio consultant Owen Murphy somehow got me to do a video interview, and you can see it here. I can't vouch for my own coherence, but Owen's fine, and if you want to place a face and voice to this thing (you have been warned), watch it.