By Holland Cooke
BLOCK ISLAND, RI — A hundred years ago, radio was the newcomer. Thomas Edison had already captured audio, in 1877 via that first phonograph. Audio went live when KDKA reported that Warren G. Harding had won the 1920 presidential election.
In its 20th century heyday, AM/FM broadcasting became a high-margin business, surviving the advent of television (which launched by luring away radio’s big stars); and – for a while – the evolution of playback devices (8-track, cassette, CD). But there were already cracks in the dam.
The 1980s Walkman was grandfather to iPod, which begat iPhone and other smartphones that enable us to curate and tote the audio content that we choose. Streaming audio made AM stations’ programming available in workplaces where reception was unlistenable, if we wanted it there. But, as VCR adoption demonstrated, we were already becoming on-demand consumers.
Our timing couldn’t have been worse.
Just as new devices – and a new kind of radio, delivered via satellite – were stealing Time Spent Listening from AM/FM stations, broadcast audio became less-special. The 1996 Telecom Act triggered a feeding frenzy. Corporate mega-owners bought up stations, often bidding up prices to the point that the local programming which differentiated us from new-tech competitors was no longer affordable.
Today, most AM/FM broadcast hours are robotic. Morning drive is often a station’s only local show. Many music stations’ other dayparts are voicetracked in-house or beamed in from a network or the corporate mothership. On talk stations, automation board-ops syndicated shows, even play-by-play. When superstars like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston died, stations that featured their music sounded oblivious.
“Local news?” Too rare now, on radio. And while newspapers’ collapsing business model has clobbered their newsgathering, scrappy local news websites – some staffed by displaced legacy media journalists – are attracting clicks and local advertising dollars. Podcasting’s revenue graph is up-up-up, yet too few stations do it well.
Good News/Bad News
The Bad News: Edison Research tells us that over half of daily radio listeners only listen in-car. Don Draper awoke to a clock radio; today “there’s an app for that.” The kitchen counter radio was displaced by a little TV. Fewer Millennials and teens are driving than when we Boomers were young, and they grew-up without our AM/FM habit.
The Good News: eMarketer forecasts a 47.9% annual growth rate (NOT a misprint) for smart speaker sales, making stations’ streams user-friendly in-home…if users choose them from the thousands of audio choices Alexa serves up. And they will, if we communicate well.
More Good News: If your competition is mailing-it-in, every effort you make will be conspicuous.
And yet more Good News: Nobody is better positioned to play by the new rules and compete for listeners’ attention and advertisers’ dollars than radio broadcasters who communicate exceptionally. Yep, The Fundamentals. And doesn’t THAT sound like something you would expect from a consultant?
And that’s what you will find right here, beginning next week, when my weekly Monday Memo will debut. Each week, I will outline techniques proven to produce results, and how these timeless basics advantage us on the changing media landscape.
This coming Monday at Talkers.com: How smart stations score smartphone clicks and earn digital dollars podcasting.
Holland Cooke (hollandcooke.com) is a media consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet; and he hosts “The Big Picture” TV show on RT America. Follow him on Twitter @HollandCooke