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How to Innovate the Radio Experience

Kaihaan Jamshidi is the Director of Strategy for Method, a brand experience, design, and innovation company and works with major companies like Nordstrom, Time Warner, AOL, TED, and many more.

What happens when a specialist in brand experience and innovation looks under radio’s hood?  That’s the question I set out to answer in this first of a two-part conversation (Part 2 will post tomorrow).

Today we look at innovating the radio experience.  Tomorrow we get deeper into the future of advertising on radio, and why the antiquated notion of media buying is an obstacle to innovation.

What follows is a highly edited version of our chat.  Click below for Part 1 of the complete (and fascinating) interview. Broadcasters should spend more time talking to experts from outside radio and less time talking only to each other.

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I have to say that radio, strangely enough, has not come across my radar as often as I expect it to, and I think the fact that you’re asking me these questions is actually really interesting in itself.

Why hasn’t radio come across your radar more often and why do you think the asking of these questions is so interesting?

Radio is defined as radio waves, it’s all about electronics, and so the reason why it exists was a technological innovation to start off with, but the way you experience in your life is not like that. One of my favorite things is waking up in the morning, turning on the radio and listening to my favorites shows and getting the news, so as a media opportunity, this ought to be really, really exciting. This ought to be something that everybody wants to buy into. But from a brand perspective, from a marketing and advertising perspective, the strange thing is there is not as much value placed on radio.

The value is placed on outdoor, the value is placed on TV. We are very seldom – if ever – asked to innovate around radio experiences. In talking to some radio companies about that here in the UK, the commercials don’t stack up for people. They haven’t quite figured out how to make the commercials really drive and work. And on the content side, radio has ended up in a situation where it’s able to run because of low cost content production and as soon as you start looking into alternative formats and creating more interactivity and making it more exciting, that low cost strategy starts to be challenged and nobody has really come up with answers yet.

Let’s back up. When you talk about the “radio experience,” what do you mean?

The “radio experience” exists from the user perspective. From your personal perspective what does it mean to actually listen to radio? It’s this little voice in my ear that while I’m doing other things, I’m able to sort of just absorb things and when something interesting appears, I can dial into it. I can absorb it. I can concentrate and when I’m not so interested or when I need to do something else, I can dial out of that and I can dip into something else. That’s unique. You cannot do that with a TV screen. You cannot do that basically on any screen at all. A screen demands your attention, so there’s a cultural thing, there’s a personal thing. There’s something that’s really special about radio and that is the radio experience, to me.

How does that experience change when we integrate the digital kinds of innovations that you were talking about earlier? Let’s talk about the wisdom of doing it and if we were to do it, how we would best do it so as to maximize our brand?

The wisdom of it is something that’s a really fascinating question because the whole power of the radio experience is the fact that it’s kind of low engagement for me in the sense that I don’t need to work very heard to enjoy radio. I flick it on and it’s the ultimate curated channel experience, so there’s a really deep, big, serious question:

If you start fiddling with that format, if you start saying you’re going to need to interact in order to get more value out of this, then suddenly it’s not radio anymore. Then suddenly it’s a website, suddenly it’s enhanced TV; it’s something else, but it’s not radio anymore. So then the question becomes is there a smart way of doing that? Can you keep the value of radio, can you keep what’s exciting about radio, but still add something, still take advantage of the opportunities?

I think one of the really lovely things you’re seeing is that because of the low cost of producing content, you can see much more podcast-style content starting to appear and more independent radio stations and things like that. So there’s a much wider range of content, of voices, of opinions out there. That’s a lovely first step.

Now, where can that take you? It can give me more local community insights. Because it’s easier and cheaper and for people to create radio content from all the world, I can get this little flavor of what’s going on in any place in world straight from the people that are in those situations through radio. If they try to create a video version of that, it would be much more difficult, much more expensive, much less live, possibly much less real, because it’s just more “produced.”

Okay, so could be kind of an interesting direction for radio but what the heck does that mean to Coca-Cola and other radio advertisers? I think that is where what’s possible bumps up against what is actually viable from a commercial perspective.

Everything is driven by the merger between the possible and the viable, right? How do you see that merge happening if radio’s answer is “more niches”? If that isn’t commercially viable, then what is?

That is probably the biggest question. Here in the UK, we created the UK Radio Player project – a central single platform for all IP radio players, commercial stations, etc. The vision was that by creating a single platform that everybody could buy into you could start creating advantages of scale. But what’s actually happened with that platform is that the interface itself does not allow for anybody to really innovate in the space. It collapses down all possibilities to selecting a radio channel from the interface and streaming it and that’s about it. There’s very little space to do anything interesting with that.

Speaking to some of the big commercial players, I think it’s been a huge disappointment. From the the user perspective, as soon as you stumble across this stuff, maybe you bond with it in one place or another but you don’t discover a world of opportunity. You discover a “thing” and that’s it.

I think it’s going to be necessary to start building a much stronger ecosystem to start either by creating some opportunities for different players to link up to each other so you can hop a ride and by entering the world of radio through one portal, you can discover other areas.

Now, if we’re going to create a platform which takes advantage of digital, what does that new “set” look like? And if it’s on my website and if it’s on my iPhone and if it’s on my tablet and if it’s in a box, sits where I sit and if it’s on my TV and etc., what does that look like? We need to make it an awful lot easier for people to actually access this stuff in the first place and there are still some real technical problems to overcoming this.

You said that in the UK, you’ve got a common player that has strengths and weaknesses associated with it. Here in the US, we have a small number of very large groups and an awful lot of smaller ones and we have a ton of broadcasters and a ton of stations, so the ability to herd those cats to any one common platform is almost impossible.

That being the case, I want to go back to something else you said which was if you start building in all applications and you do the video, you do the internet, at a certain point, you’re not radio anymore, and I want to ask you about that, because is that necessarily a problem? After all, what radio really has more than anything are these relationships with a large number of consumers and a large number of advertisers together, especially in local markets. So if we leverage those relationships across other platforms and across other media, isn’t that by one definition “radio?”

So that’s where I think it is: Who cares what the name is? So if you’re going to be a purist and try to compare it to the past, then in my view, you shouldn’t call it radio anymore because it doesn’t reproduce the experience which is “radio” and I think there is some value in that.

On the other hand, I think you’re absolutely right; who cares about the past? Push forward, create the future, create a new context, create new relationships with customers and do stuff that people are excited about. And if you want to keep calling it “radio” go for it. If you want to call it something else, so what?

The point is that it should be exciting for people and if it is exciting for people, they’re going to pick up on it and they’re going to enjoy it. For the user, there is definitely a massive value in pushing a button and just getting something, and there is a whole world of personalization in there. There’s a whole world of having a much closer connection to people’s behaviors and getting some of the “data exhaust” coming off these people and then being able to build services around that, right?

And then there’s the whole historical dea of a “channel” and a linear stream which has its place and is useful at times, but actually you can have more adaptive streaming where you’re more aware of people’s location, presence, context, what they’re doing, what they’re up to, what they like, and what they don’t like, and you can start chopping and changing what you’re offering to people and also offering options for people to change that on the fly and say “I like this DJ. I like what she’s talking about but I want a slightly different type of music,” and things like that. The technology isn’t quite there yet but in principle it is and that future is coming faster than anybody thinks.

[Look for Part 2 of this conversation tomorrow]

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