October 2, 2015
The disconnect, as always, is in defining what "radio" is.
At this writing, I'm in the bowels of a convention hotel in downtown Atlanta, in the midst of the annual Radio Show, which is not, as the name would imply, a radio show in the traditional sense, but a show in the sense of a Car Show, or a Home Show, or any of those other things where there are a bunch of booths and people milling about. Call it a show if you want, but it's a convention, and as a convention, it's lacking in one area that is essential for a successful convention: fezzes. No sweaty guys from Nebraska wearing fezzes and causing a ruckus at the Holiday Inn lobby bar? Disappointing.
But I know that, because I've been covering the Radio Show since Marconi called a few of us wireless reporters to come around and write about the latest ship-to-shore transmissions. It's always been about station owners and GMs, transmitters and regulation and sales. The content, and I'll stop calling it content as soon as I come up with a better word that's equally convenient, isn't the main focus. It's the delivery mechanism, and that delivery mechanism's business model, and private equity's effect on that delivery mechanism, and measuring the effectiveness of the delivery mechanism, and selling ads to support the debt brought on by private equity investment in the delivery mechanism. And that's fine, because there's plenty to talk about regarding all of that.
It does remind me, though, that there was a critical juncture a few years ago that left our business lacking the unity of content and delivery. When digital options showed up, the folks in charge of the delivery mechanism decided that "new media" were the enemy, and in some ways, that hasn't changed; for every radio company trying to reposition itself as Just Like Pandora Only Better, there's someone here taking shots at "digital" for things like susceptibility to ad blocking, poor measurement, and even fraud. Why, THOSE guys aren't REAL radio, they insinuate. They're IMPOSTORS and FRAUDS.
Meanwhile, take a look at the "enemy," and note that they look a lot like... us. (In some cases, like myself -- see disclaimer below -- they ARE us.) Face it, to the consumer, streaming, podcasts, subscription services, satellite, they're all radio. AM and FM are radio. Audiobooks might as well be radio. It's what you listen to in the car, on the phone, through an app, on a radio, on those channels all the way at the bottom of the program guide on your cable TV service. It's recorded music, it's Spotify. It's all pretty much the same to them.
Plus, it's the same music, only some channels are customizable, some aren't, some have hosts, some don't. And it's some of the same people, too: Adam Carolla is Adam Carolla whether he was on 97.1 FM or now on his podcasts (only he can now speak the way real people speak, which is to say, he can swear if he wants). Same for so many other radio hosts now working online, from Leykis and Geronimo to Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick. "This American Life" is "This American Life" whether it's on WBEZ or your local public radio station or on demand, through iTunes or an app or on the show's website. Taylor Swift sounds like Taylor Swift on KIIS-FM, on whatever streaming services she'll permit, and on a download. ABC News Radio and CBS Radio News and Fox News Radio give you what's happening on AM and FM and streaming alike. It's all audio information and entertainment.
And the radio industry could have embraced all of it from the beginning. If the radio industry wasn't so caught up in the investment in towers and transmitters and licenses, we wouldn't have the split there seems to be today, the split that means I'm sitting through panels that treat radio as a monolithic technology that wants to be loved rather than the content that people ACTUALLY LOVE. Maybe it's because radio people -- industry geeks, of which I consider myself one -- really do love the mystique of the call letters and the signal hopping the skywave across "38 States!" like MUSICRADIO 77 WABC and BOSS RADIO 93 KHJ and so many others and don't quite accept that times changed and that mystique's been replaced by utility -- you listen to a station to hear the hosts or the music and not, as in the old days, because it's the 50,000-watt Good Neighbor or the Hot Rockin', Flame Throwin' Home of the Hits.
It's 2015. People don't reject listening to "Serial" or a Spotify playlist because it's not on a "real" radio station. People -- real people, not us radio geeks -- don't care about station or affiliation, they just want the entertainment and information they want, when they want it, however they choose to receive it, on whatever device they prefer. (Which is one argument in favor of getting FM chips activated on smartphones, I'll concede.) And all of it constitutes what we used to call "radio." There's just more of it now, too much to confine to a single delivery mechanism.
Which is a good thing for radio, even if it's received by some here as a net negative. More content, more ways to deliver and receive it, more choice, more opportunity... that's pretty cool. And, yes, how to best monetize it is still an open question, especially since there's so much user-generated or amateur content that much of it may never be monetizable (is that a word?), and there's a LOT of content out there through which listeners have to root to find the good stuff. No matter, there's still a business in all of this, and that's where radio should have taken the initiative and led the way. I'm gratified that some companies are finally going beyond just slapping an MP3 of today's broadcast show on the Web and calling it a podcast -- whether it's CBS with Play.It or Hubbard buying into PodcastOne or Scripps buying Midroll/Earwolf/Wolfpop, or individual stations producing podcasts separate from the on-air programming, the expansion of "radio" to encompass the digital side is welcome.
But for the moment, when we come to the Radio Show, we're still dealing with the old definitions of radio and broadcasting. Doesn't mean YOU have to define them that way, though. The future's a lot less scary if you aren't epoxied to a business model and beholden to your lenders.
Whether your show is on a "real" radio station or the Internet or exclusively in your mind, All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics has hundreds of items and ideas and bad jokes for your show prep needs, all up-to-date and available now by clicking here. And there's the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. This week, you'll also find "10 Questions With..." the versatile Joe Votruba, who wears many hats (figuratively. No fezzes to my knowledge) at New Jersey 101.5, including digital producer, on-air producer, host, and Lord knows what else.
You can follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, and my Instagram account (same handle, @pmsimon) as well? And you can find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
If you'll excuse me (and even if you won't), I gotta go wrap things up here in Atlanta. It was good to see so many of you here, and to those of you who told me you read this column every week... I am SO sorry. Really, really sorry.