This week's All Access newsletter sums up the NAB convention. Oh, well, it was an interesting career while it lasted:
The line that described the mood at this year's NAB Radio Show in Charlotte was this:
"If it makes you feel any better, we're all gonna die."
That was actually something I heard Chris Carlin tell despondent Mets fans on WFAN early Friday morning, but it applies to the radio crowd, too. I encountered a lot of people whose mood regarding the business and the future was somewhere between uncertain and fatalistic. But I'm here to tell you that there IS a future, that you shouldn't give up hope, that the doom and gloom, while partially justifiable, isn't the whole story.
First, though, just a thought on the industry's new public relations offensive: "Radio 2020"? They PAID someone for THAT? What the heck IS that? One less than Radio 2021? What does that MEAN? Apparently, it means that all the industry has to do is TELL people that radio's neat and ginchy and hep and funky fresh and it'll "reignite" consumers, who will presumably be pleased that someone is trying to set them on fire.
Anyway, at the unveiling, the assemblage was briefed on the "Radio 2020" thing (frankly, if I was starting a marketing campaign and the best name they could come up with for me was "Radio 2020," I'd be concerned), and we were told to heed the words of George Washington, who, in the freezing winter of 1776, wrote the stirring words, "Where did I put my teeth?" No, he wrote "Victory or Death." Those were the words left hanging in the air: "Victory or Death." How... motivating.
But there's a more accurate way to put the industry's dilemma: adapt or die. While the "Radio 2020" thing plans to tell people about "playlist variety and format diversity," which happens to be what you can also get from iPods and satellite and streaming, the message should be something else entirely. The message should be that the industry has to start planning -- should already have planned -- for the day when the license, antenna, and transmitter are not what defines the industry. What the "radio" industry has that can't be duplicated is content, not music playlists but personality. If you're a radio company, the assets that you control that can't be blown away by technology are the contracts you have with talent, with hosts and programmers and coaches and producers who can create material that people will want to hear, whether it's broadcast over a licensed facility or delivered as a podcast or streamed or played through a bullhorn on a city street.
Think of it the same way television mutated from three or four over-the-air channels to hundreds of cable channels. The programming doesn't need to be delivered over a broadcast TV station to reach people, to be popular, to succeed. And we're already seeing TV shows being delivered over the Internet via iTunes or YouTube other means. Younger generations don't see the difference between a show being sent to them over a TV station or a cable network or on a TiVo or through YouTube or iTunes -- it's all the same, a TV show. Radio will be there soon enough. In the meantime, despite some predictions that radio will disappear within, I don't know, ten or twenty years, remember: the radios in cars aren't going to disappear that quickly. The installed base is still massive and most cars aren't going to be sold without AM and FM anytime soon. There'll be more choice -- not just satellite, but iPod docks and WiMax -- soon, but AM and FM will still be available and free and viable, even with a shrinking slice of the pie. TV isn't dead just because you can get a TV show on your computer, and radio won't be dead just because you can hear audio from other sources.
And that means there's a future for talent, and even a future for radio companies that figure this out. Some won't. At the "Broadcast Financing" forum, the only mention of talent or programming at all was a mention of concern that talent costs could be driven up by the satellite merger. Or driven down. It wasn't clear. But talent, in that room full of your top bosses, is a line item to be reduced as much as possible to please Wall Street and private equity firms. (Exaggeration? The group heads on the panel said that they actually liked the "discipline" of those quarterly financial reports that have to please investors and analysts. If revenue's down, how else can they please investors? Yeah, exactly) Meanwhile, a panel with two successful syndicated morning shows and a top talk PD moderating it drew a less-than-packed house. I didn't see a lot of GMs there, and a few I did see were among the rare GMs who came from the programming side and understand the value of personality.
One last thing about personality, though -- in that big "Bedroom Project" study of young adults, the subjects consistently showed that they really didn't listen much to the radio with one major exception: morning shows with strong personalities. They mentioned their favorite shows by name. None are music-oriented. And one even said how she never listens to commercials except on the FM talker in her town, because she wants to hear what the hosts say when they come back on. I'd call that an endorsement for moving away from music towards personality and talk.
Bottom line: Radio's true asset isn't necessarily physical. It's content. Smart companies will snap up people who can create saleable, marketable content -- whatever the delivery method -- and will recognize that they have the advantage of brands and name-brand content and the goodwill and trust of the consumer to compete in a wide-open field. The people aren't going to be "reignited" about radio by a public relations campaign; they'll be excited when they get shows and content and personality that they like and want and can't get anywhere else. I'm looking forward to the day when the industry launches a campaign to point that out instead of "we're cheap, accessible, and easy to use. Oh, and we're now HD where available."
I gotta wrap this up and get outa Charlotte, so I'll dispense with the long plug -- just get on over to Talk Topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports for show prep, "10 Questions With..." KFXX (1080 The Fan)/Portland's Jason "Big Suke" Scukanec, and the rest of All Access for radio's best industry coverage and more stuff. I'll also thank Valerie Geller -- buy her book! -- and Bill White -- listen to WBT! -- for the shout-outs at convention panels. Go Phillies. Normal blather resumes next week.