Radio’s Future, Medium-Rehr

NAB head David Rehr’s opening address at the NAB was marked by the kind of rampaging boosterism for which he is rightly famous.

The danger, I think, is akin to telling a student how marvelous he is so as to raise his self esteem without him necessarily doing anything worthy of esteem.

There’s lots for radio to be proud of, to be sure. But let’s review some of Rehr’s comments:

We also learned from these consumers that being local, in and of itself, is not what defines radio’s value. It’s the accessibility and the connection with radio personalities. And it’s being everywhere and available to everyone. A radio is not a jukebox.

How, then, to explain the primary lesson of PPM, which is that “clutter kills,” and “clutter” is being interpreted widely by the radio industry as “anything between the songs”? What do we learn from a station like Philadelphia’s music-heavy WRFF and its rise in the ratings other than – for those listeners – radio is indeed a jukebox?

Rehr is ultimately right, of course. What’s between the records does set us apart. But what’s between the records is shrinking fast. Exactly how long will we embrace the kinds of differences PPM and cost cutting are strongly motivating the radio industry to banish?

“If you’re listening to radio, you want to hear a human voice sharing that same moment in time that you are. There is power in that personal bond. A CD doesn’t have that connection. An iPod doesn’t have it. No, our model is not broken.”

What Rehr is arguing here, it seems to me, is that nobody is better at being radio than radio is. Well, okay! But that’s not the point, is it? The point is that there are more options out there besides radio with their own value propositions and their own strengths and weaknesses. And they are nicking away at radio’s audience.

Rehr also talked about the Radio 2020 initiative, launched at last year’s NAB Radio Show, and reiterated that program’s goal of seeing radio incorporated into “every new gadget, everywhere,” particularly handheld mobile devices.

The challenge is not simply to “incorporate radio” into “every new gadget” but to leverage the power of radio’s content and brands and benefits via those new gadgets. For example, if I want personalized traffic from my mobile phone, do I need a radio station on my phone giving me traffic? Or do I want the local traffic-oriented radio station to provide traffic-oriented digital services on my phone which may have nothing else to do with radio per se?

“As aggressive local broadcasters, we are going to make radio new again. We will be reinvigorated. We will remind our listeners, and ourselves, of the value of this great medium.

It must be NAB’s role as a lobbying arm that predisposes it to see PR as a hammer and every challenge as a nail. You don’t reinvigorate by saying you will. You reinvigorate by doing what’s reinvigorating.

When that happens, you don’t need to “remind” listeners of anything. Nobody wants to be “reminded” of stuff they already take for granted. They want to hear about what’s new. And that, my friends, is radio’s true challenge.

Radio can make much more headway with its audiences in a new media world by grabbing opportunities which satisfy listener needs in new and exciting ways. This is what CBS did with last.fm. This is what Radio One did in its dive into social networking.

Actions speak louder than words.

Wouldn’t it be great if the NAB could outline ten clear actions every radio company must make to leverage the huge opportunities in our new media world and exactly how to accomplish them?

That way, we could check off those actions one at a time.

And that kind of progress is a reason for self-esteem.

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