Radio and the End of Personalization

There is a sense of inevitable satisfaction in the idea that we can get from digital platforms exactly what we want whenever we want it, right?

We lean forward with Netflix and find precisely what we want or what Netflix tells us we will like because of what we have watched previously.

We want that one song from Spotify, and so we find it and listen to it.

We want to create a Pandora station that sounds just like one of our favorite artists so it hews as closely as possible to that expectation.

We swim in a bottomless digital lake of recommendation engines, each looking to offer us something like what it knows or thinks we want based on what we have purchased, viewed, or listened to before.

So where does that leave radio?

Radio is a linear platform, where you get what we have and only that. And it’s produced not with your own personal tastes in mind but with the tastes of the collective you – an audience at scale. The “lowest common denominator,” so-called.

But it’s not only that. It’s also sprinkled with new content or fresh content or tangential content or peripheral content – “surprises” we might call them. Songs that add “spice” to the whole and make that whole more “interesting” based on the expertise and the instincts of the human beings who program the station.

You see, whether digital platforms wish to acknowledge it or not, there’s a danger to being rewarded with only what you already like. In the literature they call it a “filter bubble.” The stream of filtered content chokes off serendipity, chokes off surprises, chokes off unexpected delights. It sends you down a rabbit hole of self-satisfying sameness.

The technologists call this “overfitting.” It’s when the model so accurately predicts things that you are very likely to prefer, it ignores that which you don’t know you’ll like until you experience it first. And this is the great danger inherent in personalization: By making things intensely personal you can actually make things intensely boring.Great danger of personalization: Making things personal can actually make them boring. Click To Tweet

Who hasn’t gotten bored of the same Pandora station they once created with such delight?

Who hasn’t seen one too many sequels of a favorite movie franchise?

Consumers don’t want only stuff that’s similar to what they already like, they also want stuff they don’t like at first but will learn to like in time.

A lot of relationships (and marriages) begin that way, after all.

So does every hit movie or TV show that isn’t based on a pre-existing hit movie or TV show.

In a world of filtering and personalization, consumers – listeners – will value that which stands out; that which provides a bit of challenge and a dollop of surprise. It’s why every listener says they want “variety” in their radio stations – they are literally telling you to avoid the boring drumbeat of sameness.

Computer algorithms and music genomes are really good at reflecting your preferences back at you. They’re not so good at predicting what you don’t like but will.

That’s where radio can come in.

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  • Jim Coda

    Much like I do not own an mp3 player. Well, I probably do on my phone and computer, but not on purpose and never use it. Run through the songs once or twice and it is predictable – “boring” This is also a lot of confusion with Programmers that want personality, but not over 20 – 30 seconds because focus groups think air personalities talk too much. (?!) If we didn’t and didn’t add our perspectives and tastes to the mix, Pandora and Spotify would be all there is. We would have been out of business with the Cassette tape.

  • That’s true, Jim.

    I think it’s important for broadcasters to focus on the value they add to the table and not diminish the value of personalized offerings in the process. The reality is that there is room for all but that some of the juice (maybe most of it) for digital platforms will come at radio’s expense because that’s where the ears are.

  • Great insight here Mark. If everything was tuned to give us only what we already liked, Henry Ford would have given us a faster horse and Steve Jobs a new walkman and Blackberry. There is radio programming designed to reflect tastes and another approach is to shape taste. Both can lead to discovery, but the latter is always the bigger opportunity for radio because it is much harder for the algorithms.

  • Great point.

  • Frank Converse

    So you finally did a 180, For years you’ve been preaching about leaning forward, Did you finally discover the obvious?. Good for you., you’re learning. Not everything is based on an algorithm or previous purchases. The real job is to put something together that sparks the imagination of the available audience. Not easy but it can be done.

  • Well, Frank, the obvious is that personalization and algorithms are not going away. The obvious is that the freedom to choose will demand choices. The obvious is that radio broadcasters need to grapple with consumers who demand much more than their linear streams. The obvious is that, while there is an argument for the spice of curated content, the obligation is on that curated content to be spicy.
    All that is what’s obvious to me.

    Thanks for the note! 🙂

  • kdardis


    About “…focus groups think air personalities talk too much.” There’s a portion of this that you left out; focus groups think air personality say too little in all that talk.

    When is the last time you’ve had a “theater of the mind” moment” with a radio station? When is the last time you heard someone mutter how radio produces “compelling content”? The two are like oil and water in today’s audio entertainment.

    Frank Converse’s “The real job is to put something together that sparks the imagination of the available audience” is a glowing example of how easy it is to claim you produce quality programming. Yet, with all the cost cutting and reduction in work force, those who have done creative know a content producer doesn’t have time to be compelling across 3-6 stations.

    Those who know, who have participated in creating radio programming, never said radio will die. We said it has lost relevancy to a large portion of the 35-and-younger crowd (better known as tomorrow’s audio consumers). “Music of Your Life” is an appropriate analogy on reduction of a base for broadcast radio.

    “We would have been out of business with the Cassette tape.” Not seeing the difference between that and what’s happening today is a major problem you won’t realize until you have your Kodak Moment.

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