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Here Comes Radio’s Fork in the Road

Every once in a while I write a post that's entirely too long but also too important to ignore. This is one of those once's in a while.

This morning I was listening to one of my favorite radio shows via the magic of time-shifting.  I was enjoying it thoroughly.

What that show was doesn't matter, because we all have our favorite radio shows (and I really do mean all), and yours are different from mine.

What does matter, however, is whether or not such shows represent a dying breed, the last unicorn in an ever more fantastical media universe.

We are approaching a turning point in radio – a fork in radio's road.  Not unlike the fork radio once faced after the introduction of TV, when our dependence on national weekly shows yielded to a different dependence on local – mostly music – programming.  A fork not unlike the one AM stations faced when confronted with an alternate band – FM – that not only played better music but played better music that sounded better.  This fork yielded AM talk and a plethora of niche AM stations targeting niche audiences.

So here we are again, another "strategic inflection point," as Intel's Andy Grove would call it, although this one is "strategic" only if we invest some strategy into the inflection point.  That means we have to step back from the abyss and think for a few seconds about where the winds of change are carrying us and what we need to do to take control of our own course or risk flapping helplessly in the stiff breeze.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a very good programmer who told me his well-known morning show would probably have to take a bullet because PPM was evidently showing that without one or two more panelists tuned regularly to his morning show, the show no longer mattered to an audience of tens or hundreds of thousands.

This story is playing out elsewhere.  Even Ryan Seacrest and Kevin & Bean kvetch that, in effect, they're paid nowadays as much to be the custodian for a mic as to actually talk into it.

This is not the fault of PPM per se.  All ratings are estimates, after all, some more accurate than others. It is our fault – ours.  Because of how we respond to those ratings and what pool of money we perceive our future to be swimming in.

For example, which of the following radio environments is likely to generate better results for an advertiser?  The FM shows and hosts and entertainers listeners are most passionate about or the shows filled with music and a minimum of interruptions?  (By "results" I mean the ring of a cash register and by "advertiser" I mean the client who cares about results, not necessarily the agency who may care only about placing a buy at the lowest cost).

Before you answer "the dollars will flow to the show with higher ratings, regardless," consider the steady march of advertising dollars out of radio altogether.  This is not a march out of radio per se so much as it's a journey out the world of cost-per-point.  It's an exit from of the world of reach and into the world of results.

Now, who will get better results for the client?  The show folks care about or the one they listen to but don't?

"This is an academic point," you may say.  "The agency buyers still gauge us on cost-per-point."  Sure, but what that buyer isn't telling you is that her slice of the agency's pie is shrinking, with more of it going to that other buyer, the one who doesn't know your name and deals in the world of results and with digital platforms.  After all, to the client – the agency's client – results do matter, now more than ever.

So down we tumble into the rabbit hole.  Cost-per-point is less important than ever, that segment of the dollars is getting smaller, our wagon is hitched to ratings methodologies that reward massive and often dispassionate cume, so we shut down our talent or stop nurturing talent or stop attracting talent or eject our talent or cost-cut our talent.  And we're left with another slice of another musical pie that is one technological revolution away from being redundant to a zillion other similar slices for an audience with limitless choice and the intention to exercise every ounce of control that the universe now bestows upon them.

Well done.

This is not intended as a swing at big-cuming radio stations filled with music.  Some of these generate authentic passion and loyalty, especially if they target genuine music fans.  Clearly, however, in the long run many alternatives can copy your music or value-add your music and chip away at your audience.  No competitor can copy whatever's between the songs, unique to you, worth listening to, and worth coming back for.

Fans are the future.  It will be better to be the favorite of some of the audience all of the time rather than all of the audience some of the time. Station management should be compensated based on how many "fans" they have and how effectively those fans are monetized.  Indeed it's only a matter of time until some enterprising broadcaster makes part of the compensation contingent on the number of Facebook "fans" your brand has as a fraction of its cume.

Meanwhile radio's entertainers get grayer and grayer.  While I don't have statistics on this, I am guessing the average tenure of today's radio stars is somewhere between ten and twenty years and getting longer. We're not attracting and nurturing talent, so we're not getting it.  And some of what we have is being pink-slipped prematurely without recognizing that cost-reduction is the fool's path to value and failure is often nature's path to success – just ask the always pricey and often-fired Howard Stern.

If TV shows were evaluated the way radio talent is, NBC's highly rated The Office would have been scrapped after its first six episodes tanked.

And so we come full circle.  I'm listening to that great radio show.

Wondering if it's an endangered species.

Don't let it happen.

Down one fork is a future where radio – in all its forms and channels – matters to a passionate audience.  

Down the other is a world of background and convenience listening – the entertainment outlet of last resort.  A world of aging audiences and diminishing interest.

Choose your path now.

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