Radio Quicksand

By Mr. Mel

With record revenues and no end in sight, with consolidation producing mega-companies that swallow mega-companies, and with profits at an all-time high, we would seem to be at the brink of radio euphoria.

Actually, the future of radio may have more to do with quicksand. Perhaps you should hold off on those Caribbean reservations.

Problem number one is a combination of corporate greed and a disrespect for listeners. It is most glaringly evident in a commercial load that threatens to overtake programming in its quantity. What were once eight minute spot loads have often become eighteen. Combine that with promos, sweepers, jock talk, and endless sponsor tie-ins, and you might get 35 minutes of music an hour if you’re lucky.

While there is a certain disregard for the intelligence of radio listeners by too many radio managers, listeners are not stupid. Their reaction has been their longest standing one: punch that knob as soon as the music (or talk or news) stops. By creating two ten minute spot ghettos every hour, radio has conditioned listeners to get the hell out or be bored to death. Radio’s ironic defense to this punch-out syndrome is to put ten minute spot ghettos on all of their stations at the same time. It’s the no-escape defense.

Welcome to television, you say. Television spot breaks seem to be synchronized to the frame to occur at exactly the same time. Indeed television just expanded its prirne-time spot load by 10 to 50 seconds per hour. Still, it lags behind radio’s heaviest spot Junkies.

Listeners currently have another option that they have been exploring with greater regularity. That would be in-car compact disc listening. Better fidelity, no commercials, no assaults on your intelligence.

In October of next year, listeners will have a third option that involves better fidelity, no commercials, full identity of every song being played, even weather forecasts every five minutes. It’s called CD Radio. With 50 channels of music (artist/titles displayed on a two line text) that actually are produced (good news for radio producers) and 50 channels of news/information/sports that do contain commercials, this will be the most powerful assault on radio car listening since the inception of motor vehicles.

CD Radio could be retrofitted to any car with a CD player or cassette quickly and inexpensively. Ford will offer it as a built-in option on its cars next year. The cost will preliminarily be $10 per month or $300 in advance for three years. Is it worth it to get back eighteen minutes of every listening hour?

But spot loads are not the only way in which radio today disrespects listeners. The quality of the product is continuously sacrificed to increase profits. Sales and research drive the bus. Programming and production are, more often than not, passengers at the back. This is doubly dangerous. Not only does it diminish the current quality of product, but it severely impacts the meager talent pool for future radio. Once people leave this business, they rarely come back.

One of the quality cutbacks in radio content involves air personalities. Except for morning shows, they are virtually non-existent. What management has done is to rely more and more on imaging production to fill this void. Thus, the workload of imaging     producers is rising as fast as the spot loads. With fewer talented imagers producing more stations, the pressure index rises while the quality index falls.

Let’s face it. Radio doesn’t influence culture the way it used to. Younger audiences are more tuned in to the Internet for immediacy and ideas than ever before. The glamour level of radio is below the Mendoza line. Cool programming ideas, excitement and innovation, even spontaneity are hard to find in radio for the new millennium.

In short, radio is asking for it. When the recession hits, as it inevitably must, advertising will be one of the first areas to get whacked. Spot rates will come down, but adding spots will be difficult unless all-commercial radio is really the answer. Fixing the product problems will be more difficult than ever, and the mega-owners won’t want to because  cost-cutting will be more important than ever — especially when you’ve paid that much money to buy stations in the first place. Non-traditional revenue is the buzzword of the industry. How far can it carry a technology that hasn’t changed since 1917?

The good news is that radio will still need production and lots of it. If you’re already being worked like a dog, there’s not much more you can be expected to do. The bad news for those of us that love radio is that the people driving this bus don’t seem to care if it crashes. They are judged on returning profit today. Tomorrow, they will be happy to dance with the Internet while we try to repair the damage.

Radio quicksand. It may be here sooner than we think.

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