Punch A Higher Floor
April 22, 2016
The answer I found to how radio can still be relevant going forward did not come at the NAB Show, where what's left of the convention's interest in radio has shrunk to postage-stamp size and consists mostly of people in suits repeating the phrase "93% reach" plus engineers drifting over to the drone vendor booths. The convention has become resurgent in recent years by moving away from the "B" in NAB and going where the growth is, in video production for online and SVOD and movies and VR and whatever else is next. It's been a brilliant move, but it leaves radio in a corner of the North Hall evoking Chip Diller at the end of the parade in "Animal House," insisting that everyone remain calm and that all is well, while the cool kids are in the Central and South Halls playing with flying stuff and 360 cameras.
The answer was also not coming from the panels and sessions, even though there was increased focus on podcasting -- say, do you think there might be something to that nowadays? -- and "digital," however you define that. I was particularly concerned that the FM-chip-in-smartphones card is still being played as if it's the ace up radio's sleeve when the whole plan might be taken down by one simple thing: the tuners need your headphone cords as antennas to work, and the world is moving towards wireless Bluetooth headsets, which are cheaper than ever. The new iPhone is likely to not even have a headphone jack; you might have to use an adapter to use anything with a cord. And when I asked about it at a NextRadio presentation, the answer was that users with Bluetooth headsets will probably need to attach a cord to their phones, dangling there to serve as an antenna. Nobody is going to do that, ever. And when I suggested that, the answer was, well, it'll probably be more suited to in-home use. Ah.
No, the answer came Thursday, in the midst of tragedy. As the news of Prince's death spread, I noticed something interesting on social media, something that wasn't even coming from radio people. I saw people talking about how stations in their markets were playing Prince, playing everything (okay, not "Darling Nikki," but all the hits and some deeper cuts), playing his music out of format. Someone gave a rundown of what songs were playing on which stations in her town at the same time -- it was Prince across the dial, a roadblock of purple. You could go to Spotify or Pandora for it, you could go to the newly-returning-to-music MTV (when, that is, they weren't mistakenly playing a Will Smith video- Fresh Prince, y' see), you could go to your own music library, but you did go to the radio, because at a time like that, the radio is the community. It just seems right. You get the music, you get hosts being genuinely moved by the moment, you're sharing the emotion. A logarithm can't do that. You have to wait for a podcast to catch up, and it won't have the music. Social media isn't quite the same, and your experience will be different from someone else's depending on who you follow. When something in the news deserves a shared experience, radio can be exactly what people are looking for.
And on Thursday, people were looking for it, radio provided it, and that did not come from a convention session or the guys in suits or the business plan for the towers and transmitters. Private equity did not know it was buying that, investors don't grasp that it's what the industry was built upon, the digital folks only know it as 1s and 0s, but that's radio, that's where the relevance is, that's what we know how to do that people still want. That 93% reach means nothing without engagement, without a reason to turn an incidental listening experience into a longer session with real attention being paid, and while our leaders tell us that all we need to do is cheerlead and tell the public how great we are, it's the programming -- the ability to provide a connection that people want and need and crave at precisely the moment they look for it -- that makes radio what it is. Take away the transmitters and licenses and stick it all online and it's still what radio can do best. Even under the burden of debt and with all the cutbacks, it's what radio does that competitors can't or won't do.
But the drones were pretty cool, I'll give you that.
You didn't need help knowing to talk about Prince, but when you DO need help coming up with stuff to talk about, All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics is here for you with news items and kickers and bad jokes for any kind of show, and you can get it by clicking here and at the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. And there's the new Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, a division of Legendary Pictures and Legendary Digital Networks, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Because I had to skip last week's column -- travel, conventions, and life got in the way -- I did not get to thank everyone for coming out to a great Worldwide Radio Summit in Hollywood last week, nor did I thank the incredible Chris Hardwick, Dave Anthony, Jackie Kashian, Alison Rosen, and Katie Levine for joining me on our podcast panel and making it live up (and then some) to my goal of an unconventional convention panel. If you missed it... well, be there next year. Seriously.