From The Corner Office – December 2010

November 29, 2010

The New Pushbutton WarPeter Smyth

For those of you old enough to remember, radio stations used to engage in pitched battles to be the listener’s first preset on their car radio.  Back in those days, it was called a push button and was a mechanical device that stopped the tuning dial at your station’s frequency.  On most cars, there were six of them and, to really compete, your station had to own one of those six positions.  Many contests and promotions were concocted to encourage listeners to “lock it in and rip off the knob”.  It all seems quite quaint now with digital tuning, seek and scan, and tiers of presets now the norm on most cars.

A quick look forward reveals that there is another pushbutton war to be waged in the not-too-distant future.  Auto manufacturers, receiver makers, software companies and smartphone carriers are all jockeying to control consumer attention and choice with a new generation of connected in-dash devices which are far more complex than today’s audio sound systems.

The Ford SYNC is the first of these new devices that allows drivers to control a variety of functions through voice commands.  Ford and Microsoft were the first to market with this advanced system and they continue to expand and refine its capabilities.  It will soon be able to “read” your e-mail, creating an audio message from any incoming e-mail.  You will also be able to dictate a response and mail it off without taking your eyes off the road.

Smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and the Android are connecting either via Bluetooth or plugging into a cable on today’s cars.  In tomorrow’s car, the smartphone will become a fully integrated part of the in-dash information and entertainment system.  iPhone apps will be available and controlled by voice while driving.  Your car will be as connected and powerful as your laptop computer.

What was once the exclusive domain of local radio stations will soon explode into a universe of digital entertainment from anywhere and anyone in the world.  It is in this massively expanded universe that our radio brands will be competing for listeners’ time, attention and loyalty.  Some companies are already getting themselves into position for this new war.  In the next Ford models, Pandora will be integrated into the SYNC system, meaning that you will be able to voice command the service to skip songs or change channels.  Toyota has announced that it will integrate the iheartradio mobile app from Clear Channel into selected models in the coming year.  All of this technology in the pipeline is, of course, in addition to satellite radio and the legions of iPods out there with personal music libraries.

What we in the radio business will be facing is the need to re-establish our right to be the first “pushbutton” on these new devices in the face of myriad new competitors.  Some of you may think this is a mission impossible, but I do not.  I do believe that we will have to be at the very top of our game, but I remain convinced that radio has the assets to meet and conquer this challenge.  First, we are a trusted brand for our listeners:  we have been part of their lives for years and their relationship with their favorite station is an intimate and personal one.  We must continue to be good friends with our listeners.  Second, we are local:  we are the voice of our city or town, walking the same streets, going to the same concerts and sports events as our listeners.  In many cases, we are a primary source of local news and information that is not easily accessible anywhere else, especially while driving.  Third, we are free and dependable:  no subscription fees, no data plan costs, and we do not disappear when the power is cut off in a storm.  We are there to provide the needed information when emergencies occur in our areas.

This powerful legacy must be combined with new, original online offerings that respond to the consumer’s desire for more control, more choice and more variety.  We can no longer define our brands as simply an audio broadcast, but add audio and video on demand, give listeners a chance to provide feedback to the station, and even pick the upcoming songs.  All of these functions exist right now, but need to be gathered together, filtered and made convenient for listeners to use as they want or need.  Perhaps some of them will become subscription services; others may be only temporary services, designed for a specific event in our town.  We can use streaming audio, as well as HD Radio technology, to create new brands and new variations on our existing brands, and wrap them all into a more robust, interactive, and user-controlled presence for our stations on the “new pushbuttons”.

Radio has been America’s in-car friend since the first car rolled off the assembly line with an AM radio; we have competed with the 8 track, the audio cassette, the CD and the cellphone.  We certainly do not intend to lose our spot on the dashboard after all these years of entertaining and informing every driver and passenger in America.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this; drop me a note at AskPeter@greatermedia.com