By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

As radio twists and turns amid a litany of changes, it is becoming, not coincidentally, more entertaining. Not really to those who listen to it, but more to those who are practitioners of a once dynamic art.

The state of radio. The almost-flat revenues of 2004 and the generally declining state of radio industry stock prices have far-reaching implications. The status quo is suddenly not such a fabulous place to be. Rumblings are common and rather pointed throughout the industry, as evidenced at the recent NAB Radio Programming Conference.

An unlikely voice for change, RAB President/CEO Gary Fries issued the following challenge: “Make room for the strategists. Get rid of the whiners.” No further identification of these people was provided. But unless the strategists are people we don’t know, that could be a problem. The current strategic thinkers in radio have done nothing to distinguish themselves. In fact, it’s probable that listeners have more creative ideas about radio than the people who have been masterminding this vanilla odyssey. Radio has been managed “not to lose.” When you pursue that strategy long enough, of course you do.

Numerous executives at the conference waxed emotionally at a panel about making radio “hip” again. They cited the success of MTV, the need to appeal to a younger demographic, the fact that too many Program Directors have been lemmings and the need to be oriented toward listeners rather than the marketplace. Are these the whiners referred to by Fries or is it just more talk-the-talk for peer and public consumption?

Those lauding the medium, not surprisingly, included Clarke Brown, President of the radio division of Jefferson-Pilot. In accepting the National Radio Award, he said that radio relates to listeners in a personal way. “We’re too humble… This is still a great business, we’re still having a great time, and radio is still the most effective and efficient medium around… So get the word out. Radio is forever.” So are death and taxes and war, but I don’t see anyone promoting them as too humble. As for relating to listeners in a personal way, does he mean “the greatest hits of the 80’s, 90s and today?” Finally, when it comes to having a great time, is that a greater time than in the past or a greater time than being unemployed?

You don’t know Jack. Well, perhaps that’s not true. Jack is the only new music-based format to cause a stir in radio since urban oldies came and went. The President/CEO of Entercom, David Field, touted Jack, along with Dave, Air America (the liberal talk network) and All Comedy Radio, at the NAB conference as part of the positives taking place in radio. He calls these examples of “breaking the rules. I think we are going to create a dynamic wave of new content for consumers.”

While none of these formats have yet to have a significant impact on listeners around the country, it is nice that some of radio’s leaders are acknowledging the need for new approaches. The better news is that there should be no shortage of proper first names for formats, given that Alice, Bob, Dave and Jack are the only names off the board at this point. It should be noted that during the last few years network television has come up with several radical new formats that have found great success. I’m pretty sure that Monk is the only series using a single name. I believe it’s actually a last name, but there is still time for television to hop aboard the radio bandwagon.

Howard Stern defection. Though this is not quite on a par with say The Simpsons moving to DirecTV only, it is nonetheless of more than passing interest. Now the only truly big-name draws in radio will be right-wing talk show hosts. Stern’s intensely monitored deal with Sirius could be worth $500 million, but the notion that it will draw one million new listeners to the service is a long-odds bet at best.

The most interesting reaction to Stern’s 2006 voyage into subscription satellite comes from Judy Ellis, the COO of Citadel. She is quoted as saying, “I’m going back over all of the minutes he’s spent outside of his allotted ad time talking about Sirius, and I am going to charge Stern for all of that time.” Though this might make Stern Citadel’s biggest advertising client, it is infinitely amusing (pun intended). It would seem that Stern’s content has consistently been focused on one topic over any other: The life and career of Howard himself. Quite possibly an offense, but quite probably not billable.

Indecency. With Stern joining Opie and Anthony in satellite city (albeit at different ends of town), the FCC may find slimmer pickings when it comes to fining radio stations for violating indecency rules. This is good news for those who wish to fast-track radio’s ‘family values” theme. There is, of course, no research showing that listeners want, wanted or will ever want family values radio. But radio, which micro-researches the best way to identify a frequency, didn’t need it here. In this case, family values are a form of spin – justification for a lack of creativity and good PR for those who are unwilling to avoid content that they feel is indecent.

Several panelists at the NAB conference indicated that the FCC’s crackdown on indecency had led air talent to rely on the old standby of insensitivity (be it racial, religious, etc.). The challenge of how to offend people without involving the excretory process is worthy of some serious research of its own.

HD Radio. Color television is here. Really. In an age where consumers can watch incredibly defined images on their computers and television screens, radio is approaching the audio quality of MP3. Imagine the clarity of Rush Limbaugh’s voice. The highest-testing 312 classic rock songs of all time never sounded like this before. Best of all, HD radio will be backward compatible with the analog signal that thrills 290 million people per week. As Cumulus Chairman/CEO Lew Dickey pointed out, “HD Radio is not going to be disruptive to our medium. It will be a tremendous boost.” Who wouldn’t want to pay for this kind of cutting-edge excitement?

Fewer commercials. Okay, this is ground-breaking. An enlightened industry bows to the number one complaint of its consumers. Wait a minute. Maybe it’s nostalgic. Remember all those “commercial-free” slogans of years past. Hold on again. Maybe it’s not fewer commercials, but shorter commercials. After 80 years of contending that a 60 second commercial does no more damage than a 30 second commercial, radio has unearthed startling evidence that this may not be true. That was followed by a second Nobel nomination for determining that the fourth commercial in a stop set may not have the same listenership and attention as the first commercial. And now, advertisers have the gall to say that 80 years of getting a 60 for the price of a 30 is good enough for them. Don’t change the rules now. Then they just become unreasonable and say that they are not willing to pay a premium to be the first commercial in the stop set.

Maybe radio needs new advertisers who get it. One that comes immediately to mind is Howard Stern.

At the risk of once again not being invited to give the keynote address to the RAB, I’m going to throw down with the whiners. If sports executives who field miserable teams are held accountable, if television executives who sign off on enough flops are fired, if presidents… (okay that’s another issue). The strategists who turned radio into a car utility should not be allowed to “fix” it. They are visionaries on the order of Mr. Magoo. It is time to bring in the whiners. These are the people who came for the passion, the creativity, the listener. The whiners have myriad ideas based on their desire to see radio succeed beyond the next two years. The whiners paid their dues while the managers reaped the stock options and golden parachutes. Whiners don’t own enough stock to play it safe for the dividends.

In the event that radio does come back, it will be for love and not for money. One thing we know is that exciting, vibrant, innovative radio finds its own revenue stream. And when it does, there will be a large posse of whiners whose hands I’d like to shake.

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