Tag Archives: NPR

The Question Radio Itself Has Yet to Answer

86That was the subject of an email I received from a reader of my blog recently. The writer went on to eloquently state why he felt the way he did, even citing articles on the topic. He had my interest and I asked him if we could speak on the phone.

The BIG Question

This reader’s (who asked to be kept anonymous) big question was “What can radio do that other media can’t?”

And it’s a very good question.

In 2017 when many are using the internet for things that only radio could provide in the past, is radio’s future being the poor man’s smartphone, tablet or iPod when it could be more?

“NPR and SiriusXM, in addition to the new exploding podcast marketplace, have had no trouble creating personalities and programs,” but my reader writes “why does FM commercial radio continue to stick with playing the hits, past and present, at the expense of personalities, thinking it will make them money when the biggest radio companies have trouble paying off debts on the stations they seem to have paid too much for?”

Well it was a well-known fact all of my radio life that you make money in radio at the time you buy a radio station. Buying it right makes all the difference. And those big radio companies went on a buying spree using other people’s money (Wall Street) and it’s much like student loan debt, no one worries how much debt they’ve accumulated until they are asked to replay it.

Is Local Radio Local Anymore?

My reader quotes Westwood One’s Chief Insights Officer Pierre Bouvard from an AdExchanger interview as saying “A local radio station gives you traffic, sports, weather, great music, funny DJs and talks about your town,” he said. “Spotify has these robotic music playlists, which are awesome, but there’s no one telling you what happened at the Giants game last night.”

My reader says Pierre (who was my first Arbitron representative back in the 80s) makes a good point, but wonders if Pierre ever took the time to hear what passes for much of local radio these days. My reader feels that much of today’s FM radio stations do a combination of great music and robotic, Spotify-ish playlists, and relatively little in the way of “traffic, sports, weather…funny DJs and talk about your town” stuff.

Sadly, I’ve heard similar things said at radio meetings where the person starts off by saying “now don’t quote me on this, but…”

TELCOM Act of 1996

It was President Bill Clinton who signed the Telcom Act of 1996. That act was supposed to bring competition to the phone and cable television industries thereby lowering costs of each to the consumer. While that didn’t happen quickly (some might wonder if it ever did) it did cause the quick consolidation of the radio and TV industries. We went from a country where the largest radio operator could own 12AM-12FM-12TV stations to virtually whatever their pocketbook could afford. And with Wall Street Bankers waiting in the wings, what a company could afford was a lot.

Low Power FM & Translators

For the non-radio folks who read this blog, Low Power FM signals and Translator signals are virtually the same thing, with the exception being that Low Power FM stations originate programming and translators don’t. Both are received over the air on the FM radio dial. Both have increased the number of FM signals on-the-air in America today.

The latest FCC (Federal Communications Commission) report as of the end of December 2016 shows that there were 4,669 AM radio stations on the air in America. Over on the FM dial, 16,783 signals now beat the airwaves (FM, FM educational, translators and low power FM).

To put things in perspective, at a time in America’s radio history when the number of FM signals equaled the number of AM signals on the air, 75% of all radio listening was to FM. So you can only imagine what it’s like today.

93% of Americans 12+ are reached weekly by AM/FM radio says Nielsen.

So while the Telcom Act of 96 caused radio to consolidate under fewer owners who own more stations, adding to the signal overload was the advent of low power FM and translator signals. So much to program and no one home to do the work.

Enter computers, voice tracking, and syndication. This is same computer technology that is employed by Pandora, Spotify, Radio Tunes, SoundCloud and many others.

When TV Challenged Radio

In 1952 TV was born again. It was birthed just before World War II but the war years put broadcast radio/TV development on hold. After the war ended, things began to ramp up quickly for TV.

In 1953, Elmo Ellis was hired to fix 750AM – WSB in Atlanta. Ellis would write about “Removing the Rust from Radio Programming” for Broadcasting/Telecasting (now called Broadcasting and Cable magazine).

One of the points Mr. Ellis made was that a stack of records and a turntable do not a radio station make, though many broadcasters persisted in that very belief.

It was the very same philosophy I employed when I launched a “Music of YOUR Life” radio station. I felt that to be successful, you needed more than just Al Ham’s music list, you needed the personalities that complimented the music.

Both my reader and I are in complete agreement in that a radio station is more than just a song list.

Less Is More

The problem today is that with the “land rush” by broadcasters to own as many signals as they can, we have seen our country’s biggest broadcasters put themselves into a debt situation they cannot get out of and smaller broadcasters have signals and streams to manage but not the revenues to properly execute them.

If we go back to the beginning of broadcasting in America, we see that the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) that predated the current FCC felt that quality over quantity of radio stations should be the rule of measure. By limiting the number of stations, the FRC was attempting to insure the content of those stations on the air would be of the highest quality and also by limiting the number of stations; the advertising revenue that is the life blood of free over-the-air radio could be sustained.

What Can Radio Do That Other Media Can’t?

This brings me back to the question my reader originally posed and asked me to answer.

But before I do, I’m going throw that question out to my other readers – to date over 80,000 from all over the world – to weigh in with their thoughts.

What do you feel radio can do that other media can’t?

Is any radio station you know of doing it right now?

Is this a sustainable future for over-the-air radio?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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The End of Mass Media

84Jack Nicholson famously said in the movie A Few Good Men “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

I think he was right.

We can’t.

We say we can. We want to believe we can. But the reality is the truth is scary.

The Future of Mass Media

The reality is the future of our business – mass media – is that it won’t be all that “mass” anymore.

The future will be a media that is built around relevance and quality of message, not volume.

And that’s scary.

Not to just us broadcasters but to the ratings service known as Nielsen. We aren’t going to need to know the volume (aka cume) or AQH (average quarter hour) numbers in the future. The real value that we will deliver will be based on how relevant we are to our listeners and what value we deliver.

The King is Dead

Remember when the catch phrase of the day was “Content is King”?  Bill Gates famously said that.

There were others that felt that distribution was king.

Turns out the “king” is dead for both of these theories and the new king is relationships. And relationships are based on mutual interests and relevancy.

Facebook

What’s the power of Facebook?  Relationships.

Oh sure it uses complex algorithms to manage our relationships, but we are not smitten with algorithms we are drawn to relationships and we friend or unfriend based on the relevance of those relationships too.

Google gets it too.

Each of us is an individual and these social media companies go to great lengths to treat us in just that way.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Commercial radio broadcasting still strives to deliver the “one size fits all” solution. Those days are over.

Radio needs to build, as Seth Godin might say, tribes. People who believe what we believe.

Simon Sinek says that people aren’t attracted to what you do but why you do it.

What’s your WHY?

If there are enough people in your coverage area that will make you a meaningful size tribe of listeners, then do it. If not, find something else that is meaningful.

But trying to be all things to all people – the concept of “mass media” – those days are over.

Advertising

The 800 pound elephant in the room is how to pay for it. Ad supported media is being challenged by the internet in ways that Netflix, Amazon, Google and others that grew up on a different metric are not.

Today supply far outweighs demand in the advertising world.

Even those special live television events that were growing in audience every year are now seeing they’ve peaked. Nothing goes up forever.

The future is creating something relevant to the people you develop a relationship with. The value will be in how strong those relationships are not necessarily how big, in terms of numbers of people, they are.

The future for all media I suspect will start to look more like that of public radio or Christian radio. Each of these mediums has established strong relationships with their listener. They also don’t abuse those relationships with underwriting announcements that either doesn’t fit their audience or by unbalancing the content to underwriting ratio.

Commercial broadcasters seem to take the view that adding one more spot to the hour; the cluster etc won’t affect their audience. They would be wrong. It does.

Keeping things in balance and running seamlessly will be critical to broadcasters whether they’re being consumed over-the-air on AM or FM, or over the internet.

Sales people in this new world will be business evangelists that seek out business owners with innovative ideas and solutions to their problems. Businesses owners who benefit from these relationships with media sales folks will in turn reward the media enterprise with their support.

What’s your WHY?

But it all starts by first defining, as Simon Sinek says, your WHY.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy WHY you do it.”

Answer that question, and you will have taken the first step.

 

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Welcome to the Social Capital Age

64We live in interesting times. The internet has changed our world in a revolutionary way. In its current form the internet is now over twenty-years old. There are college students today that don’t know a period of time when there wasn’t an internet.

The 5 Media Revolutions

There are only five periods in world history where communication has undergone such a massive change to be called a “revolution.” The first would be the invention of the printing press and movable type. The telegraph and telephone would be the second time. The ability to take photos, record music and voice and create motion pictures would be third. Radio followed by television would be the fourth time and the digital/internet period – the period we are living in today – is the fifth communications revolution.

Each communications revolution brought with it a period of adjustment and made the world a little more connected. Entrepreneurs who could envision the future would leverage each media revolution to their economic benefit.

The Post-Digital Age

Once upon a time, people spoke of the electrical age and the computer age. You don’t hear anyone say that anymore. Slowly fading away are people calling things digital or internet. It’s when people begin to take a new innovation for granted that it begins to have social impact.

Social Capital vs. Technical Capital

In the previous four media revolutions, technical capital is what separated the winners from the losers. What makes the fifth media revolution so confounding to media professionals is that every new media device sold today creates not only a media consumer but a media producer as well. By 2020 it’s estimated that there will be nearly eight billion people living on planet earth and 65% of them will be connected to the internet. That means there will be over five billion people who will be able to create content and distribute it over the internet.

“The moment we’re living through

 is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.”

 –Clay Shirky

Professor Shirky also says that as these new social media tools get technologically boring, they get socially interesting. In other words, as the value of technical capital goes down, social capital’s value increases.

NPR Sees Large Ratings Increase

On Tuesday, October 18, 2016 NPR reported that its multiplatform journalism has seen a tremendous audience growth. NPR President and CEO Jarl Mohn said it showed that NPR was doing a far better job of its public service mission, community engagement and local impact.

What NPR is very effectively doing is increasing the value of its social capital. It is focused on its listeners who have an appetite for strong reporting and a need to be in the know.

Today’s media landscape allows one to convene an audience, but not control them. It takes discipline to understand this change in our 21st century communications world.

Advertising’s New Challenge

Older media folks still think of media in terms of radio, TV, newspapers, magazines etc. Today any person over ten doesn’t make this kind of distinction.

Radio to my college students is anything that they can get through any media device that is primarily audio-only. Satellite radio, Pandora, AM, FM is all radio to them. Likewise is the idea of ecommerce, mcommerce or brick-and-mortar, for today’s consumer it’s just buying stuff they want, when they want it.

Birds of a Feather, Flock Together

The concept of reaching a mass audience through target demos is over. It’s no longer about age, as it is state of mind. Today the game is about reaching a unique audience that is socially connected by their interests. Shared interests are the new “local.” The future is in the careful creation of the ad itself, which speaks to the interests of the consumer and then placing it in a media environment that is in sync with the product or service being presented. Podcasters are doing this quite effectively.

Media that defines what it is, monitors all content to be consistent with that definition, will be the media that wins for both its audience and its sponsors.

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The Outlook for Radio vs. Print

John Cassaday retired. For a quarter of a century he had an up-close and personal view of the communications revolution. For sixteen years he was the CEO of Corus Entertainment, a leading Canadian media company. When he stepped down from that position in March of this year, he was asked to reflect on the broadcasting industry. I was most interested in his thoughts about the outlook for radio.

What’s the outlook for radio?

Cassaday was asked that question by The Globe and Mail. He responded:

“Radio is probably the most sustainable traditional medium. It’s becoming the only truly local advertising opportunity.”

The thing that separates chronically positive people from everyone else is that while they know everyone has their problems – it’s a part of life – it’s that they keep in perspective, that adversity brings growth. But what happens if your medium is headed for a cliff?

What’s the outlook for print?

Print aka newspaper revenue was over a $65-Billion (adjusted for inflation) behemoth as the world approached 2000. The current trend line has it eroding to less than it was in 1950; a little over $17-Billion. But it’s worse than that.

NYU professor Clay Shirky sees print revenue headed for a cliff.  One of the tipping points will arrive when the cost of printing the paper is more than the advertising dollars/subscriptions that support its printing. But that’s still not the worst of it.

Shirky believes there’s another even more important tipping point that will occur before the one I just mentioned. That’s the one concerning the psychological threshold for the advertiser. The point where the amount of papers printed and distributed no longer justifies the investment in this form of advertising. How attractive will print advertising be when it no longer delivers the massive audience that an advertiser desires? That’s the point when revenues go from bleeding to hemorrhage.

One of the suggestions Shirky puts forward for newspaper owners is to get their best customers to think about getting the paper more as membership than a subscription.

The NPR Membership Concept

The concept of having people so loyal, so dedicated to the content you create that they want to be part of the family is the powerful concept that has been used by public radio stations to raise the necessary funds they need to operate. But let’s be clear, NPR has made a major investment in content creation and serving it up on any platform a member desires.

Much as HBO used to say “It’s not TV, its HBO,” NPR could just as easily proclaim “It’s not radio, its NPR.” And if you think that’s absurd, more than one focus group has shown that people, who say they don’t listen to radio any more, still listen to their local NPR radio station and support it through membership.

The iPad was never going to save newspapers

Shirky says you can add the iPad saving newspapers to the long list of cruel jokes Steve Jobs played on the media industry. Jobs was always about doing what was right for Apple. How do you think Apple became the most valuable company in the world?

Google+ is not Facebook

Even media companies that we think have all the answers, don’t.   Google+ was a bad Facebook. Instead of trying to figure out a new niche that wasn’t being served and doing an incredible job, Google created Google+. The world wasn’t asking for another Facebook. This isn’t all that different than HD Radio. The world wasn’t asking for another type of FM radio either. The digital difference for the radio consumer has never been seen as a “must have.”

Shared interests is the new local

It’s clear that while geography used to be the only thing that defined what it meant to be “local,” going forward local is going to come to mean people who share similar interests. To a substantial portion of the population, where they live may indeed be the very interest they share. But radio operators will need to clearly identify and serve those interests if they are to survive and thrive. Leverage the opportunity to deliver desired content to your “members” or someone else will.

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The Cockroach of Media

The new CEO of National Public Radio is a man named Jarl Mohn. Before his life in public radio began, he rose pretty high up in commercial radio, only then he went by his “radio name;” Lee Masters.

When he was recently asked if Internet radio would replace terrestrial radio within a decade, he responded with “Broadcast radio is the cockroach of media. You can’t kill it. You can’t make it go away.” But interestingly many radio companies are hiding the name “radio.”

National Public Radio isn’t called that any more. It’s now NPR. Clear Channel Radio isn’t called that any more. It’s now iHeartMedia. Even Radio Shack tried to jettison “radio” from its name and re-brand as just “The Shack.”

Most radio companies today prefer the term “media company” or “communications company.” Why is that?

The irony is when you look at pureplay Internet companies that stream music content, they glom onto the name “radio.” Pandora Radio, Spotify Radio, iTunes Radio, iHeart Radio, Tunein Radio – even the one I’ve been a subscriber to for six years changed its name from Sky.FM to Radio Tunes.

Petula Clark probably got it right when she sang “The Other Man’s Grass Is Always Greener.”

Commercial radio is suffering because it’s not as good as it can be. It suffers from a lack of innovation and investment. At the very moment that more commercial broadcasters are slashing budgets, eliminating people and consolidating operations, NPR is committing more money to be more local and live according to Mohn.

My university’s public radio service has a four person local news team. They don’t cover national stories, NPR does that. They cover south central Kentucky and they win just about all the news awards for their reporting every year. Their stories are detailed and well told. Their stories are readily accessible online in addition to being heard over-the-air.

Public radio is enjoyed by more people and earning a bigger share of the audience than public television. And when it comes to competing against commercial radio, the public radio station is in the top 5 stations in radio markets that have a public radio service.

Here’s the problem I see with future generations of listeners. Pureplays are redefining the term “radio.” To young people today, Pandora IS radio. iTunes IS radio. Spotify IS radio. Over-the-air broadcast is “media” that their parents still use.

When I was growing up I admit I didn’t listen to the radio stations my parents listened to. They had their radio station(s) and I had mine. But we both were listening to “radio.”

Radio turns 100 years old in the year 2020. To those of us who grew up with the service that began commercially in 1920 with the radio broadcast license issued to KDKA in Pittsburgh, we might see it that way. But to the next generation of listeners, radio might only be 20 years old; the same age as Pandora.

Call me sentimental, but I think that would be a shame.

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Hooked on a Podcast

Did you know you don’t need an iPod to listen to a Podcast? OK, if you’re reading this, you probably did know. I know my students know, because they are already listening to Podcasts on all kinds of devices that connect to the Internet.

I never really thought of hearing the end of an NPR story that I couldn’t complete when I was listening to it being broadcast over-the-air, on the NPR website, as a Podcast. It was just a way I could finish listening to something that had captured my attention. But that is a Podcast too.

To me, Podcasts were more along the lines of content developed to be delivered only via the Internet that could be

Then I heard the buzz about Serial. It premiered in October 2014 and season one was made up of twelve episodes. Serial is a spin-off of the public radio program This American Life.

By the time I joined the “party” of fans hooked on this Podcast it had ended. All twelve episodes had been created and streamed. The last episode had just been posted before I was getting ready to leave for my annual Christmas vacation back in my hometown in New England. The drive from Kentucky to my hometown is a 15-hour, two day journey.

My plan was to download the entire first season of Serial and listen to it on my drive. I actually own an iPod Classic 80GB so it seemed appropriate to go on iTunes and download season one into this device for my drive. I also knew that I would be able to complete the entire first season before I arrived home for Christmas. What was season one about? I actually knew very little about it other than it was not fiction, but a true story about a homicide and a young man sitting in jail as a result. I had also heard that it gave the listener a behind the scenes look at how journalists work when covering a story. Not “parachute journalism” that is typically what we see on the national TV evening newscasts, but real investigative, shoe-leather journalism. I was as excited to get on the road to see my friends and family for Christmas as I was to plug in my iPod and begin listening to the first episode of Serial.

Full disclosure, I did have a fleeting thought that I might not be engaged by Serial and a major portion of my audio accompaniment for my long drive might be toast. That didn’t happen. Actually, I experienced a totally different problem, that being getting out my car to fill-up with gas or stopping for a necessary restroom break and having to stop the playback of Serial while I was out of my car. Yes, it’s that engaging!

Sarah Koenig hosts Serial and she’s a fabulous storyteller. What this Podcast does is cover one true story, one episode per week, and no one, including the Serial Team knows where it will end until they get there. Because of this, listeners to the Podcast that might have intimate information about the story contact Sarah and her team with leads and information for them to pursue. Had I been listening in “real time” as each new week’s episode was posted I would have been able to contribute had I had such knowledge about this story myself. (I didn’t) However, because I had the entire season one loaded onto my iPod, I had a similar problem to the year one of my son’s gave me season one of the TV show 24. Knowing I had the next episode at the ready meant I got very little done once I began watching that DVD. The good news is when it comes to audio content; you can do other things while listening, such as driving 15-hours back home for Christmas.

I’m not going to reveal details of the story of season one in this post, I think you will enjoy it more the less you know going in. I will tell you that I sent in my donation to keep this Podcast going. Sarah only mentions this once during the twelve episodes, but it immediately resonated with me and I made a mental note to send in my contribution when I got back to “my old Kentucky home.”

So what did I learn other than a company called Mail Chimp was the major sponsor after listening to the Serial Podcast? That Podcasts are a serious challenge to over-the-air broadcast, they’re easy to use and addictive.

Podcasters are also not afraid to dismiss folks who may not like what the Podcaster is doing. Maybe that’s because the Internet opens up the entire planet to them and when you consider what a niche program can attract when the potential pool of listeners is in the billions, it’s OK if not everyone’s a fan.

UPDATE: The Maryland Court of Special Appeals on Friday, February 6, 2015 agreed to hear his case after two unsuccessful attempts to appeal his conviction over the past 12 years.

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