02/23

A Choppy Stream Ahead for NextRadio

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With a great flourish, the powers-that-be behind the NextRadio app have announced that this week shall begin a thunderous effort to enlist one constituency so far utterly lacking in enthusiasm for NextRadio’s product: Consumers.

And so begins an onslaught of over-the-air radio spots designed to lead consumers to download an app that will not work on most of their phones, meanwhile attempting to incite rage that the “choppy, buffered streaming radio” that wireless companies “want you to pay for” is no substitute for comparatively crystal-clear FM radio, even though the content being consumed on those streams is proactively selected by consumers, generally different from what’s listened to over the air, and not often very “choppy.”

And, of course, this is being done in the form of a series of 60-second spots, exactly the type of content most folks who stream radio are trying to avoid in the first place.

All of this is happening under the assumption that more promotion – more publicity – more awareness – is the only thing holding back a flood of listeners from rushing to a NextRadio experience.

But where is the evidence of this?

I have analyzed actual metrics for NextRadio previously, and they are somewhere between disappointing and frightening. I don’t understand why the NextRadio folks don’t report on a narrow subset of consumers – folks who have Sprint phones and have downloaded the app, for example – to illustrate actual usage among actual test segments of consumers over time. Why haven’t they done this? Is it because the disappointing realities of consumer usage are being shaken off in the hopes that greater awareness will solve what is fundamentally not an awareness problem?

This kind of “rush to awareness” was the same medicine prescribed for the rollout of HD radio in that on-air advertising juggernaut, which pushed consumers rather unsuccessfully to retailers like Circuit City (pre-Chapter 11), Sharper Image (pre-Chapter 11), and Radio Shack (pre-Chapter 11).

It’s the same kind of “rush to awareness” that sparked the “Radio Heard Here” campaign a few years ago. And as time spent listening slips nationwide, how’s that campaign working for you?

By no means am I against the notion of a better FM (and AM, frankly) experience on mobile devices. In fact, I’m all for it. What I’m against is doing what won’t work by putting the interests of a legacy business model linked to big towers in empty fields ahead of the wants and behaviors of flesh and blood consumers. Consumers are in control, and they speak loudly every day. Are you listening?

Most marketers will say it’s a bad idea to tell consumers they are fools for consuming things their way, not ours. People who stream aren’t stupid, and we shouldn’t use our advertising power to suggest otherwise.

eMarketer recently reported that the trend in digital radio listening is headed toward 191 million monthly listeners by 2019 – an increase of 2 – 5% per year, every year:

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Are all these millions of consumers simply wrong-headed? Ill-informed?

Or is the new NextRadio effort simply flat-footed and naive?

Advertisers seem to be catching on, at least. Reports eMarketer:

As digital radio continues to mature, advertisers are increasingly looking at the entire radio universe as a single budget item rather than segmenting it by platforms such as traditional, digital and satellite. “We are looking at all radio-type advertising as audio,” said Ed Gold, advertising director at State Farm. “When I look at my overall budget—that which used to be called the radio budget but is now called the audio budget—we are going where the consumer is, so if more consumers are going to digital radio, we are following them.”

In light of this behavioral shift, what’s the smartest move? To embrace consumer behaviors and put our content where those consumers want to be? Or to tell consumers they’re stupid and rationalize it as “education.” Streaming = bad. Conventional radio = good. We are right, you’re wrong, Mr. Consumer. And if you haven’t switched to streaming radio for more content choices, more personalization, more interactivity, and a less cluttered environment by now, maybe our 60-second spots that disparage your audio entertainment decision-making will make the switch easier.

As Bill Freund, EVP of Clip Interactive wrote me:

The big mistake they are making is they are positioning other forms of listening like streaming on Web, Mobile or Podcasting as negative with this messaging, and they are further fragmenting and confusing the medium for advertisers and listeners. Additionally, with this negative messaging about streaming bandwidth and buffering, they are only going to further alienate the other carriers like ATT, Verizon and T-Mobile. What radio needs to do, is to make all forms of listening rich, engaging and interactive, and look to position them all as positive ways to listen, whether on Broadcast, Web, Mobile, FM Chip or On Demand/Podcast. It does not matter how you choose to listen as long as the experience and content is a really good. Right or wrong broadcasters have invested a lot of time and money in web, mobile, podcasts and their existing apps and desktop infrastructure. So why go on air and tell people not to stream? It makes no sense.

And the wireless companies aren’t stupid either. They succeed only at the whim of consumers. If consumers clamored for FM radios built into their gadgets wireless companies would be only too happy to provide them. And they wouldn’t have to be paid to do so as Sprint is for NextRadio. See, consumers buy tech gadgets for the “hot new thing,” not for the reliable 100-year old thing, no matter how much a part of their lives it is. Millennials are not going to rave over newly activated FM chips – radio – on devices that are built to facilitate empowerment, personalization, communication, and connection. A mobile phone may be used as a radio, but no wireless company and no U.S. consumer wants to think of their mobile phones this way. Yet that’s exactly the story embodied in the phrase “FM chip.”

So haul out Erik Estrada and any other voice actor from pre-millennial (if not medieval) times if you like.

It’s not CHIPS that foretells the future of radio, it’s value – value defined by consumers.

What if a tiny fraction of the energy invested in this initiative were poured in the actual content that we want listeners to discover, seek out, love, and come back for?

Imagine that kind of next radio.

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