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As Long As FM Radio is on Sprint Phones….

Last week one of the radio industry’s big headlines was the preliminary deal struck between Sprint and various players in radio to provide over-the-air FM on Sprint devices via the Emmis/HD Radio NextRadio platform.  I haven’t seen much thoughtful analysis on this yet, so here goes nothing.

On the surface, this is good news.  After all, it means more ways for listeners to listen to the stations they love and more ways to interact with those stations.

Looking deeper, however, we need to keep this announcement in perspective. Consider these apparent facts:

  1. Although details on “what’s in it for Sprint” are so far nonexistent, the deal likely makes it possible for Sprint to share in any incremental revenue driven through the platform. This would not be unfair, of course.  But it comes at a cost.

  2. The introduction of over-the-air radio to mobile phones may expand offerings thanks to HD channels, but it also shrinks offerings compared to what’s available on conventional radios and apps because the implicit message is that “AM need not exist.” AM is not just second class in this model, it’s kicked out of class and in detention.

  3. The presence or absence of radio has not been shown to “sell” mobile phones in the U.S., meaning YOU are the sales agent, just as you were for all those HD radios that were available through Sharper Image, so get ready to fill those empty avails now with promises of great new radio-packed phones.

  4. The new features made possible from the NextRadio platform appear to be built primarily to enhance the advertising on our stations, not to provide listener value apart from that advertising. While providing interactive opportunities for our advertising is certainly a good thing (just ask any station which is a mature user of TXT), that’s not the same as giving consumers more of what they want from radio in the first place. Nor is it technologically novel. Indeed, it seems to me that all of our advertising should be built to be multi-platform and interactive regardless of whether or not our stations live on their own platform on a Sprint mobile device.

  5. Technology is driving towards empowering consumers to take control of their own experiences and reflect their own tastes, but this technology – since it matches what’s currently on the radio precisely – is blind to who you are and deaf to what you want, apart from the excellent ability of radio to please most of the people most of the time.  It doesn’t know anything about you, it doesn’t match the ads to your behaviors and interests, it knows where you are but doesn’t particularly care, and it is distinctly non-social.

  6. Technology is also increasingly about pull – about content that demands attention and drives interest and usage.  But where is the “pull” here? This is technology all about the form of the experience not the content of that experience.  That is, it’s not a better experience (unless cover art and artist/song names are sufficiently “better” to you), it’s primarily an experience with better ads.  Where’s the element designed to make consumers excited enough to demand this and to talk it up with their friends?  Indeed, is this made with consumers or broadcasters in mind?

  7. To some degree this announcement seems to be off-trend.  In a summary of the week at CES, USA Today outlined five “must-know” things. Among them, “the Internet is everywhere” – as in “all kinds of devices – including cars.”  Ideally we should be adding more Internet to radio, not simply more radio to Internet or to Internet devices. Another must-know from the piece: “Gadgets for your wrist.”  What happens when Sprint and other devices become less important as the “mobile gadget” looks less like a phone and becomes more wearable?  In fact, the one mention of “radio” in the piece was a reference to Hyundai unveiling cars with 3-D gesture control so “drivers could perform simple tasks such as changing the radio station with a swipe of their hand.” Well, there at least we solve a consumer problem if not an industry one.

So summing up:

Is the appearance of radio with a more digital-friendly appearance on mobile phones good news?  Of course.

But don’t imagine that this substitutes for ever-better on-air content.

Don’t imagine that this substitutes for the demand of consumers to create their own experiences in conjunction with yours.

Don’t imagine that this means quarter-hours will fly back to radio from Pandora or Slacker or Apple Radio or Podcasts or wherever else those quarter-hours choose to stray.  These services offer new value to consumers, not just advertisers. They’re built to “pull,” not “push” (just like great radio).

Don’t imagine that this means I’m more interested in the ads you air than in the ones that are relevant for me.

The future of radio will look less like “the past but on more devices” than many broadcasters think.

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