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Radio’s Online Future

I’ve been thinking lately about radio’s future online.

It’s easy to say “we need to be online.” It’s easy to say we need to be streaming. It’s easy to say wherever there’s a channel of distribution for our content we should be part of it.

This may be necessary, but is it sufficient?

I don’t think so.

I heard a story recently about someone on the left coast cruising down the highway with his new 3G iPhone listening to WBCN in Boston from two-thousand miles away via CBS’s slick new interface on AOL Radio for iPhone.

Very cool, I thought, but why was this person doing this?

Because he used to live in Boston. It was a listening occasion fueled by nostalgia, not preference or necessity.

In other words, it’s hardly something he’s likely to do often. In fact, he may never do it again. As a broadcaster, what does this matter to you?

I know streams, like their over-the-air counterparts, are primarily aimed at local listeners, but check your traffic. Does half of it come from outside your metro area, because it certainly could and it certainly might? What value to you is provided by these curiosity-seekers who will rarely if ever return to your brand? You wouldn’t block them out, obviously. But what do they matter, really?

And even the local listeners, with a world of listening options to compare your station to – any one of them more this or that than what you’re providing – why should they go online to listen to you when their trusty radios do a better, more reliable job of “streaming” the very same content (assuming your signal penetrates their location)?

I think we as an industry are missing the point of our online opportunities altogether.

If we’re going to be presenting content online, we need to present that which listeners can’t get elsewhere, including our own air. Just re-running the terrestrial station may be necessary but it is not sufficient.

We need to present content that listeners will seek out not because of signal trouble or because of curiosity and nostalgia half a world away. We need to present content that is unique and magnetic and destination-worthy in a crowded universe of choices.

We need to present content that is original to the web, not simply a repurpose of our terrestrial stations.

And that original web content should leverage all of radio’s inherent advantages over its competitors: The talent, the engineers, the producers, the music industry relationships. Everything.

This kind of content, promoted by the power of our stations, could become online destinations rather than new channels for the same old programming. Let me ask you, how many “Stars” and “Kisses” does the online audience need?

Yes, this new content would have to be monetized without Arbitron’s help and in addition to the station’s core brand.

But who in the world is better equipped to create new online audio-based brands than the experts in radio?

Think about that as you flip through your new iPhone to stream a station from some other place “just because you can,” not because you want to. Not because you ever will again.

There’s a difference between a novelty and the grassroots stage of radio’s next evolution.

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