Thursday, May 7, 2009

Radio: The Original Social Medium (and wireless before wireless was cool)

There was a time, not long ago, when radio was “cool.” It was creative and fun, and run by people who valued those traits above all. Even better, it was a great, high margin business.

I’m not talking about the 1940’s; I’m talking about the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. This isn’t another “yearning for the good old days” piece. Instead, this is about radio’s future. But let’s look (or listen) backward first.

Radio was Facebook and Twitter before there was an Internet. It connected. It was one-on-one between the DJ and his/her listener. It set the tone for a community’s entertainment and informed it of the day’s news. It introduced new music. It was Facebook. It was fun and exciting. The DJ was “my DJ.”

But radio lost its focus:

“Just play the hits . . . do what’s safe.”

“No one wants local news anymore; besides, it is too expensive.”

“Let’s voice track the shift and save a few bucks; no one will notice.”

“Flying the morning show to the movie premier (or awards show, or NASCAR race, or fill-in-the-blank) is too expensive.”

And if that weren’t enough, we ran too many spots. Way too many spots.

Little by little, we chipped away at the cherished, intimate connection with our listener. And then it was gone. We became jukeboxes. Satellite radio won a PR war that radio didn’t even know it was fighting, repositioning the entire radio medium as “old” and “over.”

My own teenage daughters prefer their iPods; I bet that yours do too. Radio is boring.

So if my premise that we truly are (or were) the ultimate social medium is correct, how do we regain our footing? I’ll leave the specifics to the industry’s creative types, but here are a few starting thoughts:

  • Bring back the stars. Find and hire talent; nurture them.
  • Take some chances. Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
  • Break some rules. If a listener just wants more hits, she’ll get an iPod.
  • Use the social networks to inform the tribe that you have something new.
  • Get radio on all appliances. Have you seen the selection of radios at Target lately? Compare to the iPhone.
  • Get the kids involved again. Listeners and staffers. Are the “kids” on your air staff all in their 30’s? Newsflash: they’re not kids!

Twenty years ago, every radio station broker knew ten GM’s working to own their own station. Today, those same GM’s simply want to make it to retirement (if they haven’t already been fired). There is no “bench,” no farm team. We are living a brain drain, or more accurately, a leadership and creativity drain. It is time to reconnect with our listener, with our tribe.

“What’s hard now is breaking the rules. What’s hard is finding the faith to become a heretic, to seek out an innovation and then, in the face of huge amounts of resistance, to lead a team and to push the innovation out the door into the world.”

Tribes, Seth Godin, 2008. http://www.amazon.com/Tribes-We-Need-You-Lead/dp/1591842336/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1241701570&sr=8-1

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

George

Media Services Group