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How Radio can stay “Relevant”

Last week I was interviewed for a radio show by an international broadcaster and she asked me one question that has haunted me for days:

“How can radio remain relevant to consumers?”

This question is innocuous on its face, but upon consideration, it’s remarkable.

Who would have ever imagined we would ask such a question about radio?

With hundreds of millions of distribution devices (i.e., radios) in every home work and car and almost universal usage of the medium, how could we ever question the relevance of our role in the lives of consumers?  And what does it mean that we do?

The dictionary defines the term “relevance” in two ways:  “Practical and especially social applicability or pertinence” and “the ability to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user.”

By these definitions, “relevance” is not about usage.  It’s not something measured in Arbitron.  It’s not something that is monetized.  Instead, “relevance” is why usage happens, it’s why something is worth measuring, it’s why monetization is possible in the first place.

“Relevance” is about what matters. And what matters is not limited to a world of radio station and PPM devices.  What matters is a function of everything else that matters and how radio compares to that everything else.

“Relevance” is also a moving target.  As consumers change, as their interests and habits change, as their choices change, so will change what fits their definition of “relevance.”

The fact that I was asked this question in the presence of radio’s immense reach and usage is a clear indication that even those of us in radio recognize that “relevance” is more than a talking point or a pure reflection of ubiquity. Tap water is ubiquitous, too.  But that doesn’t prevent us from buying 8.75 billion gallons of the bottled alternative in 2010 alone.

Maintaining “relevance” requires seeing the consumer’s world as it is, not as we wish it to be.  It requires recognizing that radio is not in the distribution channel business – it is in the audience problem-solving business across any platforms that are “relevant” to that audience and with content that sparks that audience’s interests and passions.

So how can radio remain “relevant” to its consumers?

  1. By understanding its consumers thoroughly and exploring the limits of what those consumers want rather than the limits of what broadcasters have always provided or have always monetized

  2. By ignoring radio industry talking points about radio’s ongoing influence as measured by Arbitron and focusing instead on where consumer attention – and the ad dollars which follow that attention – is headed

  3. By recognizing that there is no such thing as the “radio business” per se.  The value of being “media” is that you can enrich the lives of a large number of consumers in the presence of a large number of advertisers with whom you have deep relationships.

  4. By experimentation and trial and stubborn resistance to the notion that everything will be fine as soon as the world returns to 1999 or as soon as your group head retires, whichever comes first

  5. By investing in content, even on those distribution channels where the road to monetization is fuzzy

  6. By remembering that in business as in evolution, it’s not the strong who survive nor the most intelligent.  It’s the one that is most adaptable to change

“Relevance” isn’t easy to sustain.  It’s hard work.

But once lost, “relevance” will be gone forever.

Just ask your friends at the newspaper.

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