Radio Facts: I saw this and had to tell Eric we think so much alike. Eric is one of the radio industry people who gets it and I always enjoy talking to him. I had written something very similar about syndication today as well. Eric runs Radio Ink, one of the few trades I respect and read daily.
When I was a 14-year-old kid, radio seduced me. I wanted to be a radio star because radio was where all my friends spent their time. Being in radio was cool. Many of us entered the radio industry inspired by various on-air personalities. I was inspired in the early '70s by the likes of John Records Landecker, Charlie Van Dyke and Fred Winston at WLS, Larry Lujack at “Super CFL,” and pretty much all of CKLW in Windsor/Detroit, all within the range of my hometown.
There were even some local radio heroes who inspired me, like Bob Dell at WOWO and Gary Lockwood, Chris O'Brien, Guy Hill, Jay Walker, and Bill Anthony, the “Live Guys” at WLYV, who were at every school dance and every event in town. I was attracted to the fun they were having on the air, their pranks, their relationship with the music, and the fact that they were stars.
Of course, these guys made it easy for me to break into the business by letting me watch them do their shows, sneaking me into the production room to practice being on the air, and letting me run the Sunday-morning church tapes to learn the board. I remember shaking when I did my first few live IDs. Before long I was doing weekends on the air with the help of these very giving local DJs.
Aside from the fact that there are few places to get this kind of experience in radio today due to voicetracking, automation, and network programming, I wonder if there are as many young teens inspired, as I was, to get into radio. I'm sure they're out there. But chances are they are being ignored and not given any opportunity. So where will they land?
When we wanted to get on the air in the worst way, my friends and I created an illegal low-power radio station with an old army transmitter (I hope the statute of limitations has expired). Today, if we were really driven to be on the air, we would have a potential audience of millions if we could get our stream online and find a way to spread the word virally. There are hundreds of thousands of online radio stations out there.
The Internet, of course, is where the personalities of the future go to become stars. But, unlike my generation of wannabe DJs, this new breed will be converging all media. We're already seeing it, among bloggers who write and produce podcasts and other forms of audio and video. Simple distribution methods allow anyone with talent to emerge on any number of platforms. I believe that hyperlocalism is the future because of the desire for local connectivity. It's already becoming huge.
Like the hyperlocal radio stations of the past, or local TV stars and newspaper columnists, these new web Radio DJs will be doing it all, on focused websites that are all about local entertainment, local news, local community events and affairs.
Burning the Ships
I know what you're thinking. “We'll do that. It's what we do best in radio, so we'll just extend our brand.” The problem is that this isn't about brand extension. If you do it, it needs to be about brand-shifting, where your brand shifts online and you're aware that the on-air brand will ultimately play the supporting role.
But most radio folks not only don't want to believe that, they simply can't. It's too radical. It will require real budgets, money invested in talent, and, when it comes down to it, you or your company probably won't or can't make the choice to support the new at the expense of the old.
John Temple, the former editor, president and publisher of the now-closed Rocky Mountain News, recently spoke at the Google Future of Media Conference at UC Berkeley, and he said that was exactly why his newspaper failed. Company executives simply could not believe the website would, could, or should become more important than the newspaper, so they didn't allow the site to make the moves it needed to. They always looked at the site as a supporting promotional effort rather than THE place consumers were going — for instance, if a reporter got a scoop, company executives insisted it be held for the paper rather than getting the news online.
Nah, It Won't Happen to Radio
I'm not one who hails the death of radio, but I do think that radio as an industry could place itself at risk if it's not willing to build new ships to sail on their own and not willing to — eventually — burn the old ships behind us. We can arrogantly say that what's happened to some newspapers (and more to come) won't happen to radio. That's what the newspaper people said.
Though it's not practical or smart to shutter our radio stations, it is practical to make sure we offer products consumers want and realize that we're not in the radio business, we're in the information and entertainment distribution/product-moving business. If consumers want hyperlocal online products, we should be building them. We have to be willing to let go of concepts like “broadcasting” and the belief that we are the experts that people want to hear from and that we decide what people will want to hear played or talked about. Radio must become totally consumer-driven, and each of us should be investing in Internet-only businesses that will stand on their own and not serve as radio support vehicles.
Relying on Our Past
I'm sure this all sounds very obtuse. I'm used to it. But there is an entire generation that thinks, acts, buys, listens, and responds differently than any generation before it. Your future and the future of the industry cannot rely on lifelong baby boomer listeners. It's time for bold moves, big investments (yeah, I'm a realist and I know no one can spend a dime), and the people who do that may become the hyperlocal media of the future.
Few in radio are doing it. CBS is working very hard and making some interesting decisions, and that leads me to believe they get it. Another company was doing it, but investors who could not see immediate returns opted out and removed the CEO. A couple of local, independent stations are doing it. Of 12,500 radio stations, I'm aware of maybe five moving in this direction.
Outsiders Are Usually the Innovators
Oh, did I mention that everyone in the tech world believes that two of the big trends of the future are hyperlocalism and the “convergence personality,” who is a writer, an on-camera talent, and an on-air talent (online), all rolled into one? The new communication vehicles will be created by someone; if radio wants to control them in local markets, they should jump on this fast. But, sadly, they won't. And it will take an outsider to do it and eat our lunch, much as Craigslist did to newspapers, which lost billions in classifieds revenue overnight.
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