Content vs. convenience.
Having something on your air that listeners specifically seek out vs. being the best available alternative wherever they happen to be when there's no better one to be had.
It's the difference between "good" and "good enough."
And understanding the difference between these two things is key to understanding what radio's future is, assuming we want it to have one.
The history of radio is quite clear on the matter: Content created the radio industry. Content created the demand for radios. Content separated the winners from the losers.
And what do I mean by content? I don't mean your special mix of the same songs I can get anywhere else – the ones I can personalize on my iPod or on my Pandora app without settling for radio's lowest common denominator, not to mention the advertising clutter. I mean the content that is yours and yours alone – in your market at least. The stuff that costs more – because it's exclusive and special and worth it. The stuff that's risky. The stuff that advertisers spend a premium on.
It seems to me that somewhere along the way radio forgot the clear relationship between risk and reward, between a dollar invested and two dollars earned.
Along that way, we realized that the airwaves were ours and ours alone. We realized that we had no competition for what we did, the way we did it. We realized that a listener's next best alternative was to fumble with dozens of CD's or cassettes – in case she even wanted to carry them. We realized that, since listeners had virtually no choice, there was no incremental value in taking the big risks on the content choices aimed at providing a distinction so attractive and so exclusive, loyalty and ratings and revenue would invariably accrue. We realized we could cut those expenses. And cut we did. We realized we didn't need the big talent. And the big talent began to vanish.
We got soft. We took the easy way out. We invented formats that were cheap to run and, occasionally, struck ratings gold. Even if that cookie jar of gold was contingent on us being the only folks with our hands in it.
We turned the business of radio into the business of listening convenience. The business of giving the average person what she is willing to settle for in environments where she has no other easy choice.
Or at least she didn't, until now.
We viewed other stations as our competition rather than the full scope of distractions available to an audience faced with ever-appealing new gadgets and gizmos.
We turned away from investments in technology as "too expensive" when nowhere along the way did anyone respond "compared to what?"
There are ways out of this fix, of course. It's by no means too late. And surely it's exacerbated by economic factors which are no fault of our industry.
But the light at the end of the tunnel will appear only when a radio industry leader stands up and shouts from its entrance: "We will invest in our future and create content worth seeking out, no matter where that content lives."