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Technology is transitional

Nothing is forever. And that which is relatively new is in particular danger of being replaced by that which is even newer.

Much like the process of evolution itself, technologies adapted to a certain extent for a certain audience are supplanted (or at least marginalized) by technologies which are better adapted for that same audience.

You probably don’t use the same toothpaste you used a decade ago because the kind you use now didn’t exist. You certainly don’t drive the same hybrid. You probably don’t write many letters, since email is so much easier and faster. You get your TV, your movies, and your audio entertainment in places and from sources that would be unthinkable even ten years ago.

So what does this mean for radio and its competitors?

If all technology is transitional, then even radio is transitional. To date, we have exclusively owned the audio entertainment and information pipes into the homes, workplaces, and cars of listeners. Yes, they could listen to cd’s, but cd’s are what you already own, not what you haven’t discovered yet. And cd’s contain nothing “between the songs” – a big reason why radio has listeners at all. The pipes were all ours.

That exclusivity has made radio largely immune from transition – in the same way a population of animals survives on an island because competitor species can’t reach the island. In biology it’s called “geographic isolation,” and the radio industry has been likewise holed up on an island big enough to be populated by 800 million radios in the U.S. alone.

All well and good.

But the party’s over.

With the advent of Internet radio and satellite and podcasting radio will, for the very first time, be subject to the pressures of evolution. And even in our case, technology will prove to be transitional.

The good news is that technology transitions for our competitors, too. And those competitors generally don’t have hundreds of millions of ears tuning in every day.

Satellite radio, for example, is scrambling to embrace the Internet because they correctly foresee that the net will be in every vehicle on the road – just as it’s already in most homes and workplaces. The whole notion of programming from “the bird” is extraordinarily transitional. I wouldn’t be surprised if “satellite radio” eventually has nothing to do with satellites just as “newspapers” may eventually have nothing to do with paper.

HD, of course, is launching at exactly the time that the full capabilities and scope of the Internet are coming to be known. The net is, at every level, a bigger threat and a more promising opportunity than anything else on radio’s radar, including satellite and HD. As Peter Childs commented on this blog: “Every dollar spent on HD is a dollar not spent on the real battle.”

What’s going to happen is this: In a shockingly short span of time – perhaps five to ten years – the Internet and/or other wireless-based audio entertainment and information channels will be widely distributed substitutes for radio as we know it today.

And your content will either be there or it will not be.

The opportunity for our industry is not to load up on more stations in every market (that’s like a threatened species deciding to breed faster – it doesn’t remove the threat, it just multiplies the meat). The opportunity is to load up on more avenues of distribution that are not part of the radio band. The opportunity is to build content that listeners want wherever they are and whatever they’re listening to us on – and to make that content available everywhere.

This is not cliche-speak. This is a point of view with very specific actions required on our part – and we, as an industry, are generally not doing them.

If you think all you need is a website and some podcasts and a frequent listener club, you’re wrong.

We need to get busy.

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