Gary Kasparov vs. Big Blue

Recently I wrote a post about the vast opportunities being missed by “Talk Radio” and the degree to which more of radio’s future is a talky one.

That was followed by this note from my old friend, Philly PD Jim McGuinn:

I hear ya on the future of talk radio, but one thing I hadn’t thought about a lot till we were doing some research into Pandora vs. YrockOnXPN vs. other music media, and the topic of “lean forward / lean back” came up – in other words, some folks LIKE to listen to something where they don’t have to work at it themselves… ie, a well-curated station that fits their needs may still succeed compared to things where you need to do the work – and while many might say that Pandora does the work well enough from your initial input, most folks I know ultimately end up going away from Pandora – and I think it’s because a well-programmed station may be better than a computer – it’s like Gary Kasparov Vs. Big Blue… it’s not that EVERY chess player will beat the computer, but a GREAT one might. Maybe i’m biased cause I work at WXPN and YrockOnXPN, but I do think it’s still possible to do great music radio – you’ve got to have passion, you’ve got to have a feel for your audience, and you’ve got to spend time and brain power on it… I also have been spending time in Wilmington, Vermont and listening to The River, WRSI, out of Greenfield / Brattleboro, and they’ve got it – I can listen all day long… so, as a listener, I know it’s still possible too… The main point I’m making is that media like WXPN and Yrock are not for MASS audience but are for certain demos, which may be large enough to sustain… something… and that their keys to success are that they ARE NOT mass produced / lowest common denom / over researched – but rather based on building trust in risk-taking while allowing the listener to ‘lean back’…

Well you’re right, of course, Jim. And while I argued that Talk (or, more accurately, non-music) Radio would dominate a larger fraction of radio’s future than its present, that’s not to suggest that music radio won’t matter at all.

But the direction of the trend is clear, I think. And our industry is not doing enough to uncover opportunities in that arena.

Your “lean forward”/”lean back” analysis is similar to what I described as “listeners” vs. “hearers.” While there will always be those who want a passive music experience to wash over them (“hearers”), that doesn’t mean they will seek out that experience from radio.

Furthermore, the interest in and value for a “curated” experience varies widely. And the folks most likely to seek out this experience are exactly the folks who tend to value their OWN control (i.e., iPods) over yours and mine.

So yes, there will always be a market for great music brands with a bench of music experts and the tender loving care and passion to create a radio station worth listening to, no matter how many iPods one owns. I hope that never, ever goes away. Because if you’re not programming a radio station out of that inspiration you are better off doing something else.

The long-term losers will be those music-only stations that are most easily substituted by alternatives, the “weak brands” that are as successful as they are because they’re ubiquitous and easy rather than worth listening to.

Their day is coming.

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