Radio from the Newspaper: Stop the Presses?

| July 31, 2013

By Holland Cooke
Consultant

BLOCK ISLAND, RI — The impending launch of a Boston Herald-based online audio stream points to an opportunity I’ve been recommending to local radio newscasters who’ve been getting fired right and left these past several years.  With hard copy media now so mature, yet still commanding such a big revenue share, rich media was always a logical line extension for newspapers.  They need it, they know it, and they know they don’t know how to do it as well as broadcasters do.

Even without the financial support and promotional heft a newspaper gives a netcast, non-AM/FM “radio” is exploding.

  • “The transmitter” has been there ever since we could save as .mp3.
  • “The receiver” became conspicuous a decade ago, when iPod was the shiny object.  Since then, smartphones have obsoleted such player-only non-AM/FM receivers.  As he’s described what he terms “the media station,” TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison has suggested that the P-O-D in podcasting might simply refer to “Programming on Demand.”

Newspaper: Friend?  Foe?  Frenemy?

Any of the above, based on local circumstances.  Many radio stations have forged mutually beneficial content-share and cross-promotion alliances with local TV stations too.  “If you can’t be home in time to SEE Eyewitness News, HEAR-it-here!”

In many markets, media competition has been a blood sport, so other-media synergy might be awkward.  When Lindsay Wood Davis and I have co-presented at various state broadcasters’ association conventions, he’s taken the counterpoint: “Newspapers are in a literal death-spiral.  Let’s get together in their moment of weakness and, as an industry, hold a pillow down over their face, OK?”  And I admit to chuckling along when he deadpans, “If they’re drowning, hand ‘em a hose!”

I disagree, based on how we, and they, got where we are today:

  • Newspaper circulation is a mess, although their actual readership is up…online.  iPad helps A LOT.
  • But digital dimes aren’t piling up as fast as hard copy dollars disappeared.  Lindsay calls newspapers’ now-failed business model “a simple but powerful formula, one we couldn’t beat.”
  • Traditionally, 50% of newspaper revenue came from Display ads (“that’s the part we compete with”).  The other half came from Classified (clobbered by Craigslist and eBay and Auto-Trader).

And we know radio’s tale-of-woe:

  • Big companies overpaid during consolidation.  Few industries exemplify what’s wrong with our economy better than radio.  Like homeowners being foreclosed out of unaffordable mortgages, radio’s mega-owners are struggling with untenable debt.
  • The only way they can keep paying is to compromise the product.  Just as iPod came along, music stations tortured listeners with too many commercials.  Employees who created the local non-music content that made radio special?  Gone, in one bloodbath after another.
  • Stations’ advertising lifeblood traditionally flowed from local retailers (hurt by big box stores and E-commerce) and car dealers (ouch).  Then, Recession.  

Glass-half-empty: Radio and newspapers are mature.
Glass-half-full: Both are “incumbent.”

Pure-play internet publications like Politico get lots of traffic from talk radio listeners, and their columnists are on cable shows right alongside pundits from major news magazines and other legacy media.  National political conventions and The Super Bowl began credentialing bloggers in 2008.

40,000 new blogs are created every day!  But who in your market knows they’re there if you don’t tell your cume, and/or the newspaper tells its circulation.  Mathematically “and” is more than “or.”

Something else newspapers and radio have in common: On its own, neither can afford to produce enough local content to remain conspicuously useful.  Something radio brings to the party: research-documented ability to drive internet traffic.  So, while newspaper adopting radio is useful to their purposes, I urge vice-versa too.

I’m encouraging experimentation, but what I’m about to share is not theoretical.

And Bonneville’s frustrating Washington Post Radio effort mirrors my earlier experience.  Before I hung out my consulting shingle (January 1, 1995), I spent 3 years as vice president of a new media unit at Gannett.  Based on my experience repurposing USA Today reporters and columnists to audio, I can offer you two fundamentals, the first-of-which you will discover quickly when you work with newspaper talent:

1. There are four kinds of people writing for a newspaper:

a) Those who want to help the radio station,
b) Those who don’t,
c) Those who “can talk,”
d) Those who can’t.

Ideally, you will find some who are (a) AND (c), AND happen to report on things relevant to your target listener.

2. Even among those who “can talk,” you DON’T want “to turn them into radio reporters,” for two reasons:

a) No matter HOW well they can talk, they’ll still sound entry level at best, compared to station talent around them.  Think how many years you and I invested in honing our sound and technique, learning to edit and other tools of the trade.

b) Their weakness is their strength: They’re newspaper reporters.  They’re not on your air because they can talk.  They’re there because they have equity as local bylines, and information you otherwise wouldn’t get.

Accordingly, the best way for the radio station to use newspaper reporters is as sources.

· Debrief them.  “MARK, HOW DID THE ACCUSED MURDERER REACT WHEN HIS PARENTS ENTERED THE COURTROOM?”

· The most we should ask, in production terms, is raw sound, if they record an entire event or interview.  Here in the digital age, it’s drag-and-drop, audio by email and on thumb drives.  We might simply ask the newspaper reporter to help us by flagging a key passage, i.e., “listen about 6 minutes in, when the victim’s mother started sobbing.”

At one client station – owned by the local newspaper – we actually moved the radio newsroom to the newspaper.  Saying that you’re “LIVE FROM THE HERALD NEWSROOM” as often as this new effort will send a useful message.  And The Herald’s radio stream has some catching up to do, after The Boston Globe’s conspicuous audio foray launched a couple years ago.

Based on a several projects I’ve been involved with, three tips:

  • If you move to the newspaper City Room, DON’T build a soundproof radio studio, off in the corner.  Work among them, and let listeners hear a busy ambient background.  Sound like you are where you say you are.
  • Buddy-up with the newspaper’s online desk.  Radio has more in common with its immediacy.
  • Bring bagels or donuts.  They’re REPORTERS.  And your station might have a trade.  The newspaper probably doesn’t.

What newspapers will learn – the hard way, unless you help – about radio.
Live radio doesn’t transplant to the cloud as well as on-demand content.  DO NOT expect people to sit in front of a computer to hear something in real time.  You’re talking to smartphones.

And even as custom apps/TuneIn/et al enable smartphones as “the new transistor radio,” users remain habituated to using the internet for pick-and-choose content when-and-where-I-want-it.  If you don’t believe me, sign up for Hulu+.  You’ll stop caring “what’s on TV.”

Radio talkers attempting to field calls online – even with a newspaper inviting callers – will sound real lonely.  Which is not to say don’t netcast live.  Just don’t ONLY netcast live.  When the show is over, loop it.

 tbugk

Read/see/hear more/more/more at www.HollandCooke.com, and follow @HollandCooke on Twitter.  And don’t miss HC’s presentation “New Talk Radio Jobs in 2014: Why, Where, How to Prepare,” at TALKERS Los Angeles, October 10.

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Category: Advice