The Big Box Theory, or Why Radio Is and/or Isn't Dead
August 24, 2012
This week, we saw articles proclaiming radio dead and articles proclaiming it alive and well. Does it always have to be one or the other? Because the truth, as always, is somewhere in between.
Let's illustrate the situation by first setting forth the situation as I see it. Back in school, teachers used to explain economic theory by creating little stories that invariably involved widget manufacturing, and if that was good enough for them, it'll do for me here, so gather 'round and let me tell you a little story....
Once upon a time, there was a widget store. Call it Ye Olde Widget Emporium. It was a local widget store right there on Main Street, practically right next door to you, and it carried widgets you couldn't find anywhere else, locally-made widgets. The people there knew you, and even though it was owned by someone from out-of-town and you knew of other widget stores, it was local, it was reliable, and it was convenient. So you went there all the time.
Over the years, the store changed. Some of the widgets came from out of town, for example. The staff turned over, and the new people seemed not to care about customer service quite as much. But you kept going, because you didn't have any choice.
And then, someone built a big warehouse widget store in town. It didn't have staff that knew you -- they didn't even have a staff, it was all self-service -- and the widgets were also shipped in from someplace else, but the price was right and the selection was way, way better, and somehow they figured out automatically what widgets you'd like from the widgets you'd already picked. And your kids really liked the place, too, so much so that they called the other store "old" and rarely went there anymore. You felt guilty, but you started to buy your widgets at the new place.
The original widget store didn't take this lying down. No, they'd do whatever it took to get you back. And after much deliberation and gnashing of teeth, this is what they did:
1. Fired most of the local staff.
2. Narrowed the selection.
3. Told the media that business has never been better.
4. Come up with a "digi-widget" that isn't as good and nobody likes, but, hey, it's digital.
5. Hinted strongly to the government that their widgets should be made mandatory for all.
And Ye Olde Widget Emporium lived happily ever after. The End.
No, actually, Ye Olde isn't all that happy, but it's not The End yet, either. But every time I read an impassioned "defense of radio" column, it reminds me that the industry's responses to the huge challenge from the Internet and changing consumer preferences has been weak. Yes, there are great stories out there -- the growth of FM sports radio, for one -- but there's still precious little imagination and creativity being used. In fact, "creativity" is practically nonexistent, and when you hear the theory that the "big personalities" of the recent past probably belong on podcasts or satellite and you see the "future" being guys who can read items off TMZ and intros to Nicki Minaj records in the space of a few seconds, it's easy to say radio's dead, pull the plug, bury it.
Yet, it's not dead. Even with younger listeners not flocking to radio (and, let's be honest, you can wave around all the numbers you want trying to show the converse, but just ask your kids and their friends what they think about radio), the game isn't over. But it will be if radio doesn't give people a better reason than pure convenience and ubiquity to listen. The advantage of being the only entertainment in the car or on the nightstand is gone; the advantage of being the easiest option will soon be gone. And with all else being equal, it'll be the quality of the product that keeps radio relevant or kills it off. Can that product win the battle if it offers nothing but the same music you can get anywhere else? Can it win if it's forced all the personality off to podcasts? Can it win if it doesn't offer local information you can't get anywhere else? Can it win if it's blanded out in fear of advertiser resistance? Can it win if it doesn't have anyone in charge to make sure that the content is relatable to people under retirement age? Can it win if it's so voice-tracked that, as I heard a jock say recently, they take requests and promise that maybe they'll play the song next week? Can it win if even the music selection is so unimaginative that you can, as I did, go from one station touting "radio's biggest playlist" to another that "plays what we want" and hear the exact same song at the exact same time, and that song is Sugar Ray's "Fly"? (Absolutely true story, and they were no more than 2 seconds off)
It all comes down to content. For all the talk about changing consumer preferences, compelling content -- not a jukebox, but personality and information and humor -- is, ultimately, the differentiation radio needs to survive. The first step towards winning, or at least not dying, is to make the best widget you can. Let's hope we get back to that soon.
Helping you be creative and different is what we do at Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports, where there's so much material for radio shows of all kinds that you're bound to find something interesting to talk about that isn't the same old stuff you find elsewhere. That's the goal, at least. Click here for that, and follow Talk Topics at Twitter at @talktopics for direct links to every entry. Also, you'll find "10 Questions With..." KILT-A (Sports Radio 610)/Houston PD Gavin Spittle, who has some insight into how to win in a fierce four-way format battle (soon to be five-way!), plus, as always, you'll find industry news first/fastest/best at Net News, which you can also follow on Twitter at @allaccess.
I hope you didn't get the impression from this week's column (and the decade's worth of columns that preceded it) that I'm not an optimistic guy. I AM optimistic. For example, we (in the U.S.) have a long weekend coming in just one more week. If that's not cause for optimism, I don't know what is.