Friday, May 13, 2011

5 Way To Save Terrestrial Radio (And Do We Even Want To?)

iPads, the internet, Wii, cable and a myriad of other devices all vie for our attention. And in that epic battle for mindshare, terrestrial radio, one cannot fail to note, has fallen far behind.

As Gawker’s Guide to Conquering Media says, “local radio stations and their shitty playlists and 25 square miles of coverage will soon be obsolete.” Leaving aside the fact that I am probably the only person on the planet who has actually read that book – the authors make a solid point. Other than for NPR and possibly, if you live in DC, Don Imus: do you know anyone who listens to terrestrial radio on the regular anymore? Your crazy right-wing uncle may possibly listen to Rush Limbaugh and Hannity, but that’s only because they are set in their ways. They need someone to speak to their anger. But very few young people listen to the radio other than 12 year old girls for pop but they don’t know any better and will outgrow it in a year or two.

What will happen to terrestrial radio? It is dying and if it doesn’t do something fast it will either cease to exist or -- worse -- become utterly obsolete.

Here are five ways to save terrestrial radio:

Hire Bloggers with Social Media Cred

Hiring Perez Hilton to do a nationally syndicated radio show is a good idea that should be replicated across the medium. Hilton offers far more interesting content than Ryan Seacrest (no mean feat, that), who also has a nationally syndicated show, but is saccharine and tailored to twelve year old girls and people who think like twelve year old girls. There are thousands of ambitious bloggers -- cough, cough -- out there that bring with them an audience and have the potential to be the next Howard Stern. Gossip bloggers, particularly, are a strong match for the medium. So are, I’d imagine, political bloggers with strong opinions like Andrew Sullivan and Markos Moulitsas and Liza Sabater and Baratunde Thurston.

It's a no brainer. The old business model of stations hiring journeymen-- and journeywomen -- that travel across the country working their way from overnights to morning drive in hopes of reaching market one are over. Kaput. It would be smarter in this digital age to pair up bloggers with broadcast professionals -- a strategy, incidentally, that "urban" stations have been doing with rappers for years -- letting the show become an audio extension of their work online. That brings the bloggers' audience along for a continuing media narrative across platforms.

And stations should not only hire bloggers, but bloggers with a following on social media. This works along the same principle as CBS hiring Ashton Kutcher to replace Charlie Sheen because he has more than 6.5 million Twitter followers. A shrewd move, Viacom (but it doesn't make up for letting Stern go to satellite).

The Talk Format Lives

The reasons to listen to the radio for music are small. The highly affordable iTunes and the ubiquitous YouTube make it so that a person can pretty much listen to anything they damn well please any time that they want. Why would anyone want to listen to some lame DJ play the same Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars song ten times a day? We are not twelve year old girls.

The other reasons for listening to music radio – curation by an informed source – probably is not going to fetch the millions of listeners that the new terrestrial radio stations of the future are after, no matter how good. Little Steven's Underground Garage or even Bob Dylan on XM are marvelous experiments that are barely a blip on anyone's media radar. Their audience is small (but passionate) and not particularly demographically desireable.

But talk radio is original content and has -- depending on the talker -- real value to a listener. Dependes, of course, on the blogger.

Read Live Commercials

In TJ Walker’s great piece on Jason Calacanis’s talk show and what it does right and how it will be the future of all talk shows much of what is said applies to terrestrial radio. The most interesting observation he made though is that in the future only live commercials will matter. This is especially true for radio. Walker writes:

He Reads His Ads. Why is this a plus? Isn’t this what old time journalists consider un-dignified and unethical? With Calacanis, he claims to only promote advertisers he personally uses and that he thinks would be helpful to his clients. His not afraid to personalize the ads by even doing chimp noises to promote his advertiser Mail Chimp. Furthermore, his ads aren’t disrupting the viewer or the show because they are relevant to the show and his viewers. I would argue that Calacanis is MORE ethical than a CNBC host who is content to take a pay check while cutting to a commercial from BP or the Doritos Company, ostensibly with his hands clean.

In the last days of Howard Stern’s show on terrestrial radio there were regularly scheduled over 20 minute blocks of commercials. Can you imagine that? Granted, Stern had a large salary back in the days of CBS radio – reportedly $22 million a year – and he has a larger one now, but come on: 20 minutes of commercials? That is just an insult to the listener and an act of unpardonable greed. Viacom was making tens of millions of dollars a year on ads on the four plus hour show. Even Stern bitterly complained at the time about the amount of commercial blocks and how it was literally transforming the content of his show. The paucity of commercials was one of the major reasons he went to satellite (that, and an $80 million a year paycheck; though less than that now). Andrew Davidson reviewed Stern's satellite show in 2006 and contrasted with the old format:

During the show, there are commercials. However, the commercials are nowhere near as annoying, long, and constant as they were on terrestrial radio. On terrestrial radio, a commercial block could literally be 20 minutes long. That doesn't happen on Sirius, it's maybe 7-10 minutes at most, and some of that is live commercials so it's still Howard and Robin talking. They usually play pre-recorded bits, prank calls, etc during the commercial breaks too, it's not totally commercials. Also, they are not constrained to have commercials at set times, so a good interviews and bits are never interrupted by a mandated commercial break.

I and many listeners to Stern on the commercial radio tuned out the commercials. Who wants to hear about Taco Bell and endless car dealerships at 7 in the morning? But I and many listeners tuned in for the live reads.

Social Networking

It is almost cute that Rush Limbaugh still takes phone calls on his show. It harkens back to a kinder, gentler age when men smoked cigars and drank brandy and talked about their railroad holdings while the women played canasta in the parlor (Averted Gaze). Most young people in the money demo nowadays don’t use the phone all that much, except of course for text and checking the web and pictures and games. They do, however, use their smartphones for social networking, and that should be incorporated into how any new show on terrestrial radio interacts with their audience to enhance the content and increase their program's engagement.

As great as the Howard Stern show on satellite is, it could even be a better program if they incorporated social networking – Tweets, the conversation on an official Howard Stern show FB page, say – into the program. But I get it. Part of this is generational. Those guys are old school (most staffers are over 50 and married and with families in the suburbs). But if the medium is to survive and to remain digitally relevant to a newer and younger audience – it must incorporate social media aggressively.

Be Web Ready

Terrestrial radio shouldn't just be vaguely aware of the fact that the internet can multiply audience – it must be ready to take maximum advantage that the internet has to offer. One of the smartest talk shows anywhere is The Daily Show, which has bite-sized, delicious, embeddable clips of the best moments of the previous night’s show at the ready in the morning to be spread virally and conversated about by the watercooler, ensuring that they are a part of the pop cultural and political conversation. That's what I call hunger.

The Charlie Rose Show, by contrast, despite all of his chatter on TV about using social media and the web, is always rather late to the party with his show and it is nearly impossible to embed them in a blog. Again, generationally, Charlie Rose is showing his age (and he shouldn't; or at least he should hire staffers to make him look that way). And so despite the fact that Charlie Rose has some of the most powerful and most interesting people on his show five times a week often breaking news, the show fails miserably at being "web ready." Charlie Rose is a social media tragedy.

A radio talk show can only properly be construed as a television talk show without the visuals. In that sense, embeddable clips – perhaps with animation? – of the most buzzy moments of a radio can and should be put on the station’s site. And the social media director should be spreading the clip – via Twitter and FB – in the hopes of it going viral.

Because viral clips grow audience.

Do I think terrestrial radio will survive? I don't know. I have a certain nostalgia of the medium from when I was a child, and would certainly like it to survive so that my future children could share in the experience. And I believe these to be the five wisest ways to preserve it.


scory said...

Ron - all interesting comments, but what I think you miss is that the best content still draws an audience, regardless of the media. The editorial/curatorial role has an important part to play in maintaining an audience. If you look at radio stations pursuing a hybrid model (Los Angeles/Santa Monica's KCRW is a great example) they carefully curate and edit their on-air content, while having added digital delivery through multiple platforms and engaging social media through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. The Guardian appears to be starting from a different medium but is ending up in much the same place.

What you hit on the head is how to grow audience, and your comments on Charlie Rose are right on.

As for Mr. Rose, well, great editorial and curatorial ability (and there is, on his staff) can't make up for not embracing interactive and participatory communication. While I'll happily argue that Rose is Ed Murrow for the late 20th and early 21st century, what he and his staff have failed to do is just what you've pointed out: expand the conversation. Not using social media appropriately will hamper any effort to recruit new audience, and may cause him to lose existing audience as older viewers adopt, accept, and ultimately demand social media components.

The Corsair said...

Thaks for your thoughtful comments SCory. I promise to check out KCRW on your recommendation,