By Holland Cooke
BLOCK ISLAND, RI — Long-time-no-convention, pick an industry, any industry. Ours hopes to rally again for an October 2021 NAB Show in Las Vegas, a town that would kill for a crowd. Meantime, as Zoom stock has nearly quintupled in six months, we convene the way we work, online.
Radio Show – Audio/Streaming/Podcasting – Produced by RAB and NAB
The weeklong cyber-conference kicked-off yesterday with NBC senior business correspondent and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle moderating “CEO Town Hall,” a panel discussion with Cumulus Media’s Mary Berner, Entercom Communications’ David Field and iHeartMedia’s Bob Pittman; dress code Coronavirus Casual.
Sound Bites From C-Suites: Upbeat
As life was upended during the shutdown, “The audio platform has remained extraordinarily resilient,” in Berner’s view. Yes, in-car listening got whacked early-on, but “was more than offset by streaming listener increases, listening on more in-home devices, more podcasting. And as Americans are getting back on the road, broadcast radio listening has made a near-complete recovery.”
Pitman sees present day “like after 9/11, advertisers just disappeared for a little while, until they could figure out ‘What’s the message I need in this new world?’” And almost every TV commercial we now see gently relates to listeners’ coping. Pitman reckons that “this is a time of disruption. That’s actually good for us. In down times [advertisers] say ‘OK I’ll give it a try.’”
Having worked in both media, he notes that “for about the same weight level [as TV] you get about the same results [from radio] for about a third the price.” And, as station reps know: “We don’t have a problem holding onto people who spend money on radio. We have a problem getting them to just try it.”
The New Normal will be neither.
David Field believes that “Times of disruption are also times of opportunity;” and “as we come out of this as a nation, the radio industry and the audio industry has a chance to thrive.” Note: “radio and audio,” the manner in which all three panelists itemized their assets in this session. Those towers out back are now merely one column on the spreadsheet.
“Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Field admits. “You have to focus on: How do you want to come out of this? Where do you want to be on the other side? We know there’ll be another side. We know that the ride getting there will be bumpy.”
Berner, whose company has been selling tower sites, sees another economy in the broadcast-from-home mode we’ve been in: “None of us will need the real estate footprint that we thought we needed.”
“We keep people company wherever they want us to keep them company.”
And when the shutdown hit, people “suddenly needed to be kept-company,” Bob Pittman recalls. And loyal to those AM/FM towers, he notes that, “unlike other media, people don’t come to radio for an hour, and that’s it for the day. They’re checking-in all through the day.”
Still, he crows that “NOTHIN’ has the growth rate of podcasting.” And he ticked-off instructive moments from a hopscotch resume: “I was there in ’87 when cable networks got a big boost…with digital in ‘97-98…2001-2002 it was Search…’08-09 was Social…and this time it’s audio, probably specifically being led by podcasting.”
Remember Hiney Wine?
New Orleans, 1980: As a newly-appointed PD, I was dazzled by what was then called NAB’s Radio Programming Conference. No one hotel could contain all the hospitality suites; and the Exhibit Hall was a colorful bazaar of goods and services that local stations exploited to compete with each other.
Back to the future: The local stations are now co-owned and mostly automated. The most formidable audio competitors are digital. The robotic ones execute better than radio’s sloppy streams; and podcasting’s galaxy of stars includes names like Hillary Clinton, who debuted on iHeart’s platform the night of the first presidential debate.
As the virtual Radio Show continues, I miss what’s not there: us. Regardless of how good the formal agenda is, I always found the most valuable aspect of a convention was the convening, meeting and knowing each other. As post-consolidation cost cuts cut-out travel expense, and ultimately thinned programming ranks, conferences were already challenged. Now, the virus. Here’s hoping we’ve licked it a year from now, for NAB2021. I miss ‘Vegas, and seeing you.
Holland Cooke (HollandCooke.com) is a media consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet. He is the author of the E-book “Multiply Your Podcast Subscribers, Without Buying Clicks,” available from Talkers books (click the banner on this page). And he hosts “The Big Picture” TV show Friday nights at 7ET on RT America. Follow HC on Twitter @HollandCooke