Wish You Were Here
January 7, 2011
The link on the New York Times website this week described this week's International Consumer Electronics Show -- you can call it CES -- as "An Electronics Show That Media Companies Dare Not Miss." The article talked about how all the biggest guns in the media industry are here in Las Vegas checking out the new devices and making deals with the people who make those gadgets. They're meeting with cell phone makers, set-top box manufacturers, app developers, tablet and in-car entertainment system companies.
Say... isn't radio part of the media?
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is, but you'd be forgiven for not knowing that if you're at CES. "Radio," here, mostly doesn't mean AM and FM, and it really doesn't mean HD Radio, either. (More about that in a moment) No, "radio" on these devices tends to mean Pandora, or podcasts, or Slacker or Stitcher. And it means iHeartRadio but not the radio stations that populate that app. It's all, in fact, about apps on devices, not radios as you've known them.
But you know that, and I know that, and we've known that for a long time. That makes the relative invisibility of radio people here all the more striking.
Most of you are probably talent, or programmers, and that, for once, is a good thing for you. Being at CES is a stark reminder that what we've known as radio is not really what the NAB and the owners and top managers think it is; that's to say, it isn't the antenna and frequency and call letters anymore. It's the programming. It's always been, in large part, about the programming, but the future really is about content, not the stick. The stick's just one delivery system, and while it isn't dead and isn't dying as quickly as some think, it's clear that consumers are moving to other means of getting their entertainment and information, and that's where you and your content need to be. The new stick is the Internet, the new radio runs Android or iOS and fits in your pocket or takes a tablet form, and it does video, too.
Radio just isn't buzzworthy here. While television networks are in plain view -- NBC Universal has a nice big booth in the middle of the Central Hall, the names of Discovery Networks and ESPN keep coming up in every 3D conversation -- you didn't hear much about terrestrial radio. I'll hand it to Clear Channel for recognizing that it needs to do deals for iHeartRadio and announcing some device deals here, but that's still minor compared to the way practically every Internet-connected device proudly proclaims that it does Pandora. Radio still takes a low profile when it should be shouting about its new look from the rooftops. Instead of "hey, this new LTE phone will ship with apps that will give listeners (insert name of prominent radio personality or network here) on demand in digital audio," there's no mention of that. Pandora, yes. Regular radio content, no. And since you can't count on every smartphone user downloading your app at all, let alone using it, deals to have those apps pre-installed and made prominent in phone marketing are pretty important. The people who can make those deals from the carrier and manufacturer side are all here. Radio people? There are a few, but not many.
That needs to change. If all the CEOs and top management can show up at radio industry conventions where they end up meeting with each other, they can go to CES, and Mobile World Congress, and anywhere else they can show that radio is still an important medium, no matter whether it's delivered over the air to a "regular" radio or over the Internet to mobile devices. Considering how huge the push towards Internet-enabled car radios is at CES -- it is a foregone conclusion that practically all cars will allow you to use your smartphone to connect your car's audio and navigation system to the Net within a few years -- it's past due for radio to make sure it isn't overtaken by technology. What will radio do if Pandora and podcasts and an unlimited number of competing streams and customizable choices are in every car? We'll be finding out soon enough.
One more thing about that: Remember the story about how Apple was banning single-station radio apps from the App Store? And how that wasn't quite the case, but that they were just blocking apps that did nothing but stream a station? That's a huge point in dealing with the new app-centric world: It's not enough to make an app, you have to make a GOOD app. You SHOULD strive to make a GREAT app. That means more than just slapping something together that streams the station. You're no longer competing with the station cluster across town, you're competing with some amazing, compelling apps that do a lot. If your management is hesitant to spend time and money on an app because the revenue return isn't there yet, they're making a mistake. By the time the revenue is there, it may be too late to catch up.
Oh, yeah, there IS an HD Radio booth in the Central Hall. I checked it out on day one. Fittingly, part of the front of the booth is obscured by a wide pillar; inside, when I walked in, I found a couple of displays of the same Best Buy pocket HD units you've already seen, three cars parked in the middle with HD head units, and a display in the back of home stereo receivers with HD built in. I strolled around and the representatives on duty did not bother to see if I was interested or had any questions. The booth was mostly occupied by people working there, a cluster of which, in blue shirts, kept to themselves in a corner. It was like a particularly unsuccessful car dealership, one where the salesmen have given up and don't even greet you when you step into the showroom. Meanwhile, steps away, there were mobs at LG, at Panasonic, at Sharp, at Microsoft. Those mobs are consumer electronics buyers and marketers and manufacturers. They're the people you need to be excited about your product so they can spread the gospel and sell your wares. We knew HD Radio has no buzz; this was stark confirmation.
As I write this, there's still more CES left to go, including the entire FCC -- first Genachowski solo, then the other four as a panel -- discussing spectrum policy and net neutrality, a couple of issues of great importance to radio, considering everything we've already discussed about where the industry's heading. This isn't a radio convention, but radio should make itself part of the equation instead of ignoring it or, worse, fighting the inexorable move of consumers to wireless broadband devices. Nobody knows for sure what the future is, but chances are pretty good it's here.
Well, we're back to regular updates at Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports, even while I've been exhausting myself running around the Hell Convention Center (I believe it's larger than the state of Rhode Island). There have been some good topics for you this week, and next week will see the volume ramp up to full strength, so please come by and grab some stuff to talk about. (Fear not, I'll get back to the usual recap in next week's Letter) Meanwhile, there's a new "10 Questions With..." WVLY/Wheeling, WV owner and host Howard Monroe -- owner AND host competing with the big guys, that's an interesting perspective for sure -- and the rest of All Access with complete industry coverage that's bigger and better than ever. Check in several times a day for updated information, columns, charts, job listings, and more.
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Oh, come on, you're not expecting me to come up with a closing joke, are you? It'll take me a couple of weeks to get back into mid-season form. Patience.
Perry Michael Simon
All Access News-Talk-Sports