Keep Your Eyes on the Road Ahead

March 18, 2014

Peter Smyth

Many times, broadcasters get so caught up in the next ratings monthly or the next quarter’s P&L that they forget to look a bit further out on the road ahead to see what the next challenges are going to look like and to prepare for them.  Economics is the allocation of scarce resources; if we expend all our resources to make the month or the quarter, we will have little intellectual, brand or financial equity to put against the bigger challenges.

I just finished reading through Edison Research’s Infinite Dial 2014 report, which was underwritten by Triton Digital, and I must confess that I think this year is the tipping point for listener behavior and attitudes.  The trends which we have been keeping tabs on for the past several years are now facts, right there in black and white for all to read. While the full report is extensive, I want to highlight a few of the key findings.

The first data point that leapt out at me is that online radio (radio station streams as well as internet only services) is now consumed by almost half (47%) of Americans each month.   That is an amazing number.  Only five years ago, it was 27%; ten years ago it was 16%. Even more significant is that among 12-24 year olds, that number rises to 75% who listen online.  When you look at weekly consumption, the numbers hold up.  In fact, time spent listening online has again increased and is now 13 hours per week. That’s double what it was just a few years ago in 2009.  This is not just a passing fad; this is an established habit.  Millennials in that 12-24 age group have figured out how to get what they want, when they want it, and Gen X and Baby Boomers are not far behind.  The report shows 50% of these demographics are regularly listening online.

The driving force behind this dramatic shift in listening is, of course, the smart phone.  In the past five years, use of smart phones has grown 500% to now be in the pockets of 61% of Americans.  This growth is even more astounding when you look at younger consumers, 12-24, 78% of whom have a smart phone.  Amazing!  It proves the point that consumers of all ages will open their wallets for a compelling piece of technology.   The smart phone is now a majority-owned, mainstream item and with it comes all of the technological freedom packed into the phones and their app stores.   Tablet computing now clocks in at 39% of the population, another major leap toward mainstream.  Televisions are connected to the internet half the time and social media (including through mobile apps) are now a regular part of life for two-thirds of the respondents.

Whew!  But, as they say, there’s more.

In-car audio has joined the online revolution, with 26% of the study participants saying that they have hooked their cell phone to their car stereo.  Among 12-24s, that number rises to 43%.  And while broadcast radio still dominates in-car media both for usage and frequency, these new players and in-dash systems are not going away.  In fact, they are becoming more and more important in the new car-buying decision.  This evolution will have a different pace due to the long length of car design and replacement, but the respondents’ attitude is already reflecting the new demand for consumer control.

Not one of these trends should be news to any of us.  The only surprise may be the actual numbers and the acceleration of the pace.  The real question is, “What are we doing about it?”  There are a number of broadcasters who are wishing they could wake up from this technological nightmare.  Another segment of broadcasters is committed to bigger-is-better, combining their assets into networks for packaging.  A final group is working to diversify by investing in new online businesses that have little or nothing to do with their broadcast holdings.

I believe that we have to focus on our existing brands and expand and recreate them to become multi-platform, consumer-friendly audio companions to our local communities. We have to keep pace with the changing platform choices of our listeners and focus on what we do best – create compelling content that informs, entertains or brightens their day.  We have to carefully redefine our business model and recognize that we are well beyond the one-size-fits-all era of broadcasting.  We cannot continue to stuff more and more commercials into giant stopsets each hour.  We need to explore and try new things.  We need to be more personal, more responsive and more innovative about our ability to serve younger listeners.   We need to begin – right now – to create original content that lives online only in the digital world.  Then we need to use our broadcast megaphone to make sure that our listeners know there’s much more to our brand than simply the tower’s signal.

Some of these attempts will fail; some will succeed. That’s OK.  We need that information and experience to craft a long term digital strategy that works for both listeners and advertisers.  We probably will never have the nationwide impact of a Pandora or iTunes Radio, but we do not aspire to that.  What we need to focus our energy on is our local impact that we can bring to bear for advertisers and listeners alike.  We need to be the local media company that everyone trusts and relies on.

Look at the road ahead, not the rearview mirror.  Wandering aimlessly down the digital highway will get us nowhere.  Every station should have a transformation plan that extends over the next 24 months and is shared with, understood and agreed to by the entire staff.  Only then can the creativity be unleashed with enough focus to reach our destination.

How Do You Imagine Radio’s Future?

February 21, 2014

I found myself staring into the fire and wondering just what the radio station of the future would be like.  Not just in 2014, but in 2024.

Peter Smyth

Peter Smyth

I didn’t see any flying cars in our future, but I did envision some significant changes both in the way we operate and how we structure ourselves to do the job.

By 2024, we will be working for local media companies.  Yes, we will continue to produce audio and transmit programming through our towers, but that will only be a part of our media brand.  By 2024, online media will be at least 50% of our total audience reach and we will be creating personalized content for our many customers, both locally and worldwide.  By that date, our brands will be much more multi-dimensional and far-reaching than our city of license.  For travelers, college students, armed forces members and former residents now living elsewhere, we will be an on demand connection with their hometown.  We will produce audio, video, text and photographic content that reflect our brand’s involvement with and knowledge of our audience.  In fact, we will have to come up with a new term for “audience” because they will now be far more involved in the creation of our media brand than ever before.  Local media will have become personalized and participatory while maintaining the sense of companionship, location and lifestyle that have always been our strength.

Inside our radio station, now media company, the staff will be about the same size as today, but in a very different configuration.  We will first notice that today’s air personalities have become content managers.  No longer do they sit in one studio for a set period of hours and play back music or host talk shows.  In 2024, the media company is out of the building more than it is inside it, interacting with the audience.  Whether it is greeting members at the local concert venue or the sports stadium, reporting from a political rally, or sending out a live video feed of the traffic on the drive home, our media company will be wherever significant, entertaining or newsworthy events are taking place.

Our more powerful and integrated computer systems will provide a menu of options for audience members’ enjoyment or information.  With the adoption of addressable receivers, today’s broadcast stream will fragment into an on-demand world of bite sized information and entertainment that audience members can customize and personalize.  These preferences will be stored on their personal digital devices and will be synchronized at home, in the digital car, and on their wearable computer.  The combination of addressable broadcast and online, two-way communication will allow the station brand to provide a music and information mix that is always available and tailored to listeners’ interests.   If your music tastes run to country pop or alternative rock, from all hits to adventuresome new music, the presentation will adjust. Perhaps you want to see your music rather than just hear it; music videos can be streamed, providing a whole new dimension.  If you want your traffic updates as data and not interrupting your audio, it will be presented that way.  If your interests run to political news and world affairs, those stories will be presented first in your newscast.


In what was called the sales department, account managers will provide data-driven, highly targeted media programs for local sponsors and digital networks provide sponsorships and other integrated content for national advertisers in real-time.  The advertiser-generated content will take a variety of forms and today’s 30 second audio spot will be much more the exception than the rule.  As a result, only relevant and interesting products will be presented to individual listeners and will enhance and not interrupt their listening (and viewing) enjoyment.

Local advertisers will continue to be the bedrock of our business, but will participate in much deeper partnerships than today.  It will become commonplace that we will make our revenue based upon the advertiser’s business results.  We will be able to create and manage customer relationships on their behalf and leverage our relationships with the audience for everyone’s benefit.  Our knowledge will give us the ability to offer exclusive specials, deals and discounts based on individual interests and needs.

You can see that the tools and skills needed to power this media company of the future are quite different from those of today.  But the foundation for many of these dreams is being built today.  As we move from a one-to-many broadcast medium to a one-to-one future, data of all kinds will become the currency of communication. The more we know about each listener, the more we will be able to understand them and build branded content that will be interesting and enjoyable for them. We will need new tools to analyze, group, and simultaneously present different options and solutions to content managers and creators in order to challenge their creative juices and deepen their understanding of the audience.  We will need improved and networked storage of content to be able to access, on demand, the best possible offerings for audience consumption.  We will need to identify and ally with other local and regional content creators to increase our capacity.  And most of all, we will need talented, insightful, adventuresome and creative staff to conceive, administrate, execute and sell this media brand.

Is this version of the future realistic?  Who knows?  Perhaps it’s just a holiday daydream.  Some new innovation or creation in the next twelve or eighteen months may completely alter this vision of the future.   The path to the future is never a straight one.  But I do know that our proven ability to adapt has always allowed local radio to find its way forward in an evolving media universe.  It will be the challenge of our youngest staff and the coming generation of broadcasters to respond to these challenging times.  But it does all of us good to have a vision of the future to embrace and work to make a reality.


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