What's Old Is Sort-Of-Not-Quite New Again
June 24, 2016
I've been buying books lately, and by "books" I mean the kind that have actual paper pages and covers and ink, not the kind you read on something that needs to be recharged overnight. This is not an admission of latent hipsterism, mind you. I'm not doing it to be ironic or as a part of a lifestyle statement. No, it's because I noticed something about ebooks: I never get around to finishing them.
There's a reason for that, too. I have the ebooks on an iPad, and, let's face it, when you have a mobile device in your hands and you're reading, say, "Infinite Jest" (I WILL finish it someday. Someday...), the temptation to check your email or Twitter or fire up some music or play a game is way too hard to resist. Even on an airplane, I get maybe 10 pages further into a book before I end up mindlessly playing Free Cell until we begin our final descent. With an analog, tree-based book, you can just focus on what's in front of you. Plus, it just feels more comfortable in my hands, but that might be decades of muscle memory talking -- a Millennial might prefer the bright screen and solid heft of a tablet or the versatility of a large phone. And, it's easier on the eyes than staring at a backlit screen, which I already do all day.
But since we're talking all Back to the Future-like here, maybe there's something to be learned from that, and the small resurgence of vinyl records (hey, I'm glad I kept mine, even if I never play them), and the recent recovery in mall retail, and other little minor blows against technology. Retro is interesting, but in order for it to survive, it has to offer some tangible benefits that the replacement tech can't. Books don't need batteries, they're less harsh on the eyes, they look good on your shelf. Some audiophiles like the warmth of the sound of vinyl, and being able to hold an LP cover in your hands and look at liner notes and lyrics and the label spinning on the turntable are things that provide feelings digital downloads don't. And as for shopping, I do most non-grocery buying on the internet, but I'll be damned if I'm going to buy certain things without seeing them in person and trying them on first. In cases like these, old technology has its place.
And what about good ol' broadcast radio? What's its place as digital competition increases? I've talked before about broadcast radio needing to define its strategic advantages, and that's an important part of maintaining and growing audience for an older technology. One of the biggest strategic advantages for radio has been ubiquity and ease of use in the car, but that's endangered by the way the connected car dashboard's shaping up -- it's no longer quite as intuitive to just get in the car and hit a button and have your local station pop on, and it's becoming about as easy to hit a Pandora button or a streaming app button. And as new cars replace old ones, the new connected systems (I refuse to call them "infotainment" systems) will soon be as ubiquitous as AM/FM.
All right, then. If the technology itself isn't an advantage, what can draw people back? It goes back to content, doesn't it? If I know that I can get something I want, something demonstrably better than I can get on a podcast or stream (or, for that matter, social media), I'll turn on the radio. What's that magic content? It's not really content, come to think of it. I mean, take Thursday night, when you had the NBA Draft and Brexit happening. Did people NEED the radio for those? Nope, you had TV for live coverage and Twitter for analysis. Seriously, I was watching the NBA Draft (okay, I'm shallow, sports over actual things that matter, but I'm a Sixers fan and this was a big night, so, guilty), and there was no need to turn on the radio when I could just watch and follow along while Sixers Twitter fretted over a possible trade that never happened and everyone kept refreshing to see what @WojVerticalNBA was reporting.
What can radio do to get me to listen? It's about the personality. If there's someone I know is entertaining and informative, someone I cannot find anywhere else, I will use whatever medium I need to use to hear him or her. Simple as that. I can get the news, sports, comedy, whatever in a million different ways. If I want to hear a particular talent, I will use whatever options I have to listen. That's also an argument in favor of streaming and podcasting that same talent, but we've long established that the radio industry is best off as a content creating engine, not an antenna and transmitter owner. Still, if I can easily hit a button, pick up a local signal, and hear something live that I want to hear at that moment, I'll use it. And while it's still easier to just turn on a radio to hear it than it is to find the right app, search for the correct stream, and wait for it to connect, I'll use AM/FM radio. But if AM/FM radio doesn't have what and who I want, it doesn't matter HOW easy it is. I'm gone. I suspect that's the case with most people. You use what's easy, gets you what you want with minimum effort, and doesn't bring problems with it.
So radio can be like books and LPs, still viable to a small but loyal audience because they prefer that technology to the more modern iterations. Or it can up the ante and double down on talent and personality and render the whole tech issue moot -- if the content's good enough, it'll find an audience. If you build it, they will come.
Except on AM. That's more like a typewriter or a rotary phone. Making AM cool is way beyond my pay grade.
Helping you create the magic that keeps you relevant is All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes in bulk, all available 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 Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts. And please go check out "10 Questions With..." sports talk radio pioneer Len Weiner, now programming WAXY (790 The Ticket)/Miami and full of insight on how great radio is done.
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. That's new technology, even if podcasts have been around for a decade. Come listen, won't you?
Reminder: I will be at Podcast Movement in Chicago June 6-8 and The Conclave Learning Conference in fabulous Bloomington, MN (where Harmon Killebrew once roamed) July 13-15, and I'm on a podcasting panel at the latter. Come and say hello, won't you?