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In the past, radio was the best and only way to get "immediate" or at least timely information about world news. There was no CNN. No email to communicate with loved ones. Radio was a lifeline.
Today, radio is defined by ...
Scaled down workforces.
"Local" programming from out of town -- out of state and across the nation.
"Local" news from regional newsrooms to save money.
"Local" decisions made by corporate officers somewhere else.
No Internet strategy.
No mobile content plan.
No fun. No focus. No future.
That's radio today as consolidators are changing the face of broadcasting to suit their needs -- shrink the business so they can remain in business.
But it is my view that what is expedient for consolidators who currently are in over their heads with debt, is not the best thing for their companies and the industry if radio is to find a place in the digital future.
A week hardly goes by as we hear of another new misguided plan to make it easier and cheaper to run radio.
But today, I'd like to share some thoughts of what radio can morph into -- with the right leadership, commitment and vision. If you're like me, you'll consider the possibility and wish you could oust the rascals who are hunkering down instead of ramping up.
So, here we go:
1. The radio station that I envision is local. Because technology now allows radio to be broadcast from very efficient spaces, the operator of the future will open satellite offices (sorry about that word) in and around the service area. Oh, I have replaced "listening area" with "service area" because in the future a successful radio operator will service their community in many ways beyond the terrestrial signal. We'll look back on the past as being primitive when we limited ourselves to where we stored our broadcasting equipment. Of course, technology also allows broadcasters of the future to work out of a single room in a far away place, but that strategy fails to take into account the need to have direct contact with your audience.
2. A local executive manages several streams of income simultaneously. The existing terrestrial signal, any Internet streams separate and apart from the terrestrial stream, numerous mobile initiatives, an "app" division, digital publishing, music discovery, at least 50 podcast franchises just to whet your appetite.
3. The operations manager (also local) coordinates all the content and scheduling. If there are 50 podcasts a day, five days a week -- he/she coordinates studio and production time. Some content providers will be working from home. Whereas now, everything in a radio station has to do with putting out the terrestrial signal (increasingly imported from elsewhere), the ops manager of the future will balance all content all the time.
4. Account execs will morph into service reps who are trained -- there, I said it, trained -- to sell the differences and benefits of packaging various forms of digital media. They will be very professional and will look to provide ways to support local advertisers as they step into the digital beyond. In my vision, the local manager would never pressure the local "sales" manager to fax out specials to boost income by the end of the week. Instead, they would be encouraged to sell digital solutions as they develop for long-term, in-person relationships.
5. This hub then becomes a social network hybrid. If it is installed at an all-news station, for example, then everything this venture does is brought together in a real, live dialogue with people. When they want news, they go to the new social network. When they want to talk about the news, they access the network. Report news? Yes. Ask questions? Of course. Post video and pictures...now you're getting the idea.
6. Podcasting development is on my front burner. Even before five years comes and goes, I see operators with at least 50 podcasts that are not amateur shows, but moneymaking franchises. (By the way, one of my clients launches in a few weeks with such a franchise). Imagine, if you will, 50 moneymaking morning shows. In order to accomplish this, you can't be doing radio programming on a podcast. It's a different animal. Takes some learning. And you'll be doing it for chump change if you don't learn how to build a franchise through ancillary forms of income. Oh, did I mention -- I'm taking away all recorded commercials no matter how much money is offered to stick them in my podcast listeners' ears. You do the math -- 50 "morning-type" podcasts times lots of money streaming into your coffers.
7. And what of terrestrial radio? You don't need to wait five years to see how few people actually need to have you broadcast to them. In the future, they will be the program director. To temp them into listening, the terrestrial radio station is broken into 30 minutes segments -- different programming that is not -- I emphasize not -- going to be rerun or made available online. Now, a lot of radio people are having heart attacks when I say 30 minute segments but in my world you will want to train listeners to point their addiction at you over the air with content they can't get elsewhere. By these standards, most existing terrestrial stations should just pull the plug. But, if I'm competing against lost consolidators, I'll let them pleasure themselves by broadcasting to a world that needs to tune-in for something unique. Music alone is not unique. That's why we have iPods.
8. Broadcasters think Internet streams are terrestrial radio stations on the cheap. Not in my view. My music discovery stream has no licensed music on it. It is local -- featuring local artists and intelligent people talking about the music, genre and artists. But I also envision a news/talk stream that has programs as short as five minutes and as long as 45 minutes, on various topics by various experts who have earned the right to be speaking. In a day, 100 different "shows". I'd employ my podcasting standard of "not sounding like radio". The stream would be so rich, it would be addictive. On weekends, no reruns. No syndication ever. No radio stuffed into an Internet streaming format. My God, no recorded commercials no matter how much money I have to turn down.
9. My station of the future would also enter digital publishing with music, video and text onboard. Not a newspaper or present day newspaper website operation -- they aren't going to be around in five years. But a part of the social networking hub that will allow specialty publishing to thrive. I'm seeing a subscription model. Two years ago I couldn't imagine anyone paying for content on the Internet. Lately I have come to believe that we must accept that the Internet is a delivery system. That content must be addictive and compelling. And if it is, people will subscribe at a fair price. Advertising will not be banner ads -- they are as ineffective as 30-second radio spots in a six-minute stop set. If you own, Indianapolis Newsbeat -- you'll crave new technologies to expand the franchise.
Presently, we look at the radio format as the ultimate destination.
It is not.
What we will do in the future is aggregate content around brands that we either currently own or seek to own in the future. Terrestrial broadcasting (revised as I have suggested above) is only a part of the "radio station" revenue stream which in essence is no longer "radio" but multi-functioning content powered by social networking.
I could be wrong.
But I don't think the radio we are broadcasting today can be a growth business in the near future. In fact I know it when it comes to Millennials. They have moved on.
Therefore to let them go without engaging them where they live leaves you with the stuff the Museum of Radio & Television is made of -- yesterday's accomplishments not tomorrow's successes.
This all can't happen soon enough for me because I know in my mind and in my heart that talented radio people (managers, sales managers, programmers, talent, sales people, support personnel, tech types and others) are exactly the ones to reinvigorate this vision of "radio".
I have a friend -- a station owner -- who loves the concept but is constantly crying about how much money he is losing so he can't invest in the future. Of course, that means he'll succeed at losing more money.
And it may not be radio owners or top executives who can bring themselves to this very different interpretation of radio's future.
Could be entrepreneurs -- young folks, doing it all without the terrestrial signal. Still, current radio station owners who have station brands have a huge advantage.
But they also have a big disadvantage -- no guts.
Kids have guts. They eat peanut butter. Haven't had their families yet. They've got everything to gain. Less to lose.
One of the reasons I am a firm believer in content providers as opposed to traditional broadcasters is because sociology and technology are now colliding constantly. Fifty years ago they thought radio would be around forever. Now, we're wondering.
This is Memorial Day Weekend.
The White House Commission of Remembrance for this heroes holiday went to every radio station, every consolidator --you name them -- and asked for one minute of time.
"Americans wherever they are at 3 p.m., local time, on Memorial Day to pause in an act of national unity (duration: one minute).The time 3 p.m. was chosen because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday. The Moment is an act of national unity in which all Americans, alone or with family and friends, honor those who died for our freedom."
The Commission wrote.
And received not one response.
Apparently a lot of radio executives running their own show their own way these days need to stand by the white markers at Arlington National Cemetery and rethink why their stations exist.
It's more than the "500 Greatest Hits of All Time" or the "History of Rock and Roll".
Once again radio's silence is deafening.
So, I thought I'd throw these ideas in the form of a strategic planning "grenade" to shake the industry awake.
Radio is declining not simply because of new technology and not only because the next generation is wired like no one that preceded it.
But because broadcasters have lost their way.
They saw themselves as station operators, then cluster managers and group consolidators and while they were busy playing monopoly they forgot the audience.
This Memorial Day as I remember my father who fought in Europe during World War II for four years in a row without one visit home to the states, you may be remembering your loved ones as well who fought in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever.
When we lose touch we die.
The same is true of radio.