by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.
Now that the dust is about to settle on the mega monster radio consolidation of all time, now that radio revenues are at an all-time high and individual station prices have approached $400 million, it’s a good time to look at where we are and where we’re going.
While I’m certainly no stock sage or market clairvoyant, it seems that radio’s success these days is a wee bit shakier than the corporate types would like to admit. Let’s look first at the myths.
1. Radio revenues are up sharply with no end in sight. When you look behind the numbers, you see that dot com advertisers account for virtually all the gain in spot revenue. Now that Internet companies are being held to some sort of fiscal sanity criteria, there is a chance for revenue slippage ahead. Not to mention the launch of satellite radio in January and the increasing competition from the Internet itself.
2. Listeners are happy. I’m not sure that radio pays any attention to this myth, because you never hear the satisfaction of radio listeners being addressed. Oh, the customary platitudes are still around, like “you can only get ahead by serving the listeners.” But then you look at how anti-creative the people are who are saying those things, and you don’t want to believe in Santa. If listeners are happy, why are they listening less? (Check out radio’s non-existent numbers after 7 p.m.). More importantly, why isn’t radio management more concerned about it? Indeed, why isn’t there more effort expended on making listeners happy (improving the product) than on endless marketing schemes?
3. There are still lots of cost-savings in radio operations. This is only true to the extent that radio operators are willing to get rid of their sales staffs. Having already pared every other department to the bone, radio super-corps can only pare the commissions paid to salespeople. It makes sense in that having an oligopoly means the clients have fewer choices, and you need to spend less to entice them to go with you. Many radio producers will take a small bit of satisfaction in this process of parity.
4. Other forms of entertainment are not worthy competitors to radio. This is apparently based on radio’s longstanding theory that you are a prisoner in your car. Sure, you might listen to a compact disc once in awhile, talk on the cell phone to your favorite supermodel or just enjoy a moment of relative silence on the highway of life. But in the end, you’ll get your escape, your information, your para-social interaction from your old buddy on the AM or FM bands.
The only media that have changed technologically as little as radio are of the print variety. And there’s just not much you can do with the printed page. When it comes to technology, television is finally embracing woefully overdue high definition. Movie theatres have improved screens, seating and certainly the sound quality of the product. Even the infant Internet is delivering better sound quality than it did two years ago.
But radio brings you technology from the 1920s. While speakers and amplifiers have improved, radio can’t take any credit for that. The NAB has stalled digital radio for almost as long as they held back high definition television. The result is that radio has played into the hands of satellite audio almost as if following a script. Content will be addressed momentarily. But the sound of audio in cars will change forever and soon. Why have all three American car manufacturers already placed their bets on which satellite audio provider will win? Their cooperation is crucial to the success of satellite, and standardization of the technology to receive either of the two competing services is only four or five years away. The poor audio quality of FM radio will really come to the fore compared to satellite.
5. Radio is driven by content. Wow, this myth is just plain stupid. Television and cable are driven by content. New shows and concepts are constantly being tried, often at great expense. Even the print media constantly take chances on new publications, new designs, new approaches to readers.
Radio, with the exception of news and talk, may not even have content as we know it. The non-advertising content of 80% of radio 90% of the time comes from record companies. Radio gets this content free and usually dislikes the record companies for not putting out better product and giving more of it away to radio.
Radio, instead of content, has formats, formats that never change, formats that are as rigid as rebar. How many new formats have you heard in the last decade? Jammin’ Oldies hasn’t caught on quite like the Millionaire. Some of television’s best efforts fail (Sports Night comes to mind), but radio has stopped any effort to improve content. And while every other media, including the Internet, pours millions of dollars into content, radio does literally nothing.
Just as with the stock market, there is a day of reckoning, a price to be paid for failing to improve the quality of the product. And now, the mandates for the future.
1. Play hard. This is a war of attrition. Only the strongest will survive in radio. You have to be better, more clever and more resourceful than your competitors. You will need flair to stand out in a sea of mass production. Don’t be afraid to push the limits or you may end up out of the business before you’ve given it your best shot.
2. Please the boss. This is the most difficult mandate because no one knows who the boss is anymore. Is it the Program Director, the General Manager, the regional marketing manager, the cluster manager, the national Program Director or Randy or Mel? You have to be politically aware but not so eager to kiss butt that you chap your lips for no good reason.
3. Please the listeners. This is the hidden strength of radio’s Production Directors. You know how to entertain, to inflame, to draw out what passion exists in radio’s listeners. You are the last link of corporate radio with listeners. Most importantly, except for some morning shows, you are (in music radio) the content of the station. You must curry favor with listeners by challenging them and dazzling them. Then you will be better insulated from your boss, whoever that turns out to be.
4. Please yourself. This should probably be the first mandate. In a medium that thrives on formatic rigidity, pays scant attention to the customer (listener), and is relatively content-barren, who’s to say what’s right? Programmers have very little time to oversee and/or worry about production. Managers don’t care because they don’t see it affecting the bottom line. Take advantage of this laissez-faire window and do it the way you think it should be done. You might be a hero; you might be a casualty. But at least you’ll have fun trying.
And in the end, since you have no real control over the destiny of this medium, having fun is a better way to pass the time than any alternative I can think of.