Detroit On The Rise

August 8, 2013

Peter Smyth

Detroit:  Auto Capital of the World.  Motown.

Detroit:  Bankrupt.   Crumbling.  Corrupt.

Detroit:  Comeback City.  Epicenter of Manufacturing Rebirth.

Whichever version of the Motor City you think is true, you’re probably wrong.  Because today, the Detroit area is simultaneously all of these as it goes through a wrenching metamorphosis that  offers lessons for all of us.

The story of Detroit since the end of the Second World War is the story of America’s heavy industry, big business, big government, organized labor and the computer-driven automation revolution.  As we all watched the American auto industry almost go under a few years ago, we are now watching the city go bankrupt because it relied so heavily on the old order of big business-big government.   There are enough sidebar stories to fill a book—the failure of US car makers to react to the challenge of the imports, the short term thinking of business leaders, the local politicians who believed that Washington would come to their rescue, the vanity projects labeled as renewal or renaissance, the outright criminal corruption, the foreclosures of the past decade and the unraveling social contract between races and classes.

But as the national media writes Detroit’s obituary, there is another chapter being written by those who live in that embattled city.  The automakers have transformed themselves to be more competitive and innovative than ever and now produce world-class products.   Entrepreneurs have re-inhabited a corridor along Woodward Avenue with startups, young singles, rehabbed lofts and nightlife.  Whether it’s the new Compuware headquarters downtown, the medical center expansion, Wayne State University’s building program or Quicken Loans offices, there are people who simply are not willing to give up on Detroit.  They are just that determined and tough.

I am familiar with this contradiction because we have radio stations in Detroit.  It has been a bumpy few years as the radio market contracted along with the local economy, but I am proud to say that we are reinvesting in our stations to better position ourselves in one of America’s most competitive radio markets.

It’s also the city where a large part of radio’s future path will be blueprinted.  As the automakers transform their product into the connected car, the dashboard is also being transformed.  Not only are HD radios turning up in more and more new cars, the entire center stack of the car dash is being re-imagined in new and exciting ways.  We are way beyond a simple Bluetooth connection to the smart phone; the dash is quickly becoming an integrated communications center and the heart of the car as a computer on wheels.  Data will flow seamlessly to and from the car, providing a sense of connectedness that has only scratched the surface.

Radio has a vital stake in this process, and I intend to be part of the first DASH conference, coming up in October in Detroit.   We radio operators need to engage and learn from the car guys, and there’s much they can learn from us.  The objective of this conversation is to give customers — theirs as well as ours — what they want when they get behind the wheel.   Like all new technologies, much of the initial experimentation focuses on what the technology can do.  Today, we can see graphically on a map display exactly where we made the wrong turn.  Tomorrow, we will not only see the streets and directions, we will be able to see traffic flow, businesses along our route, and tailored offers from our favorite merchants.  Yes, Starbucks will be able to reach out and offer you a deal on your favorite iced coffee as you drive by.

Of course, not everything wired into the car will be a winner.  Technology can do things that real customers do not want, or drivers should not access while they are fighting rush hour traffic.  Which features survive and thrive and which ones fall by the wayside of progress are impossible to predict.  As a result, the car is in for an extended period of innovation unlike anything since disc brakes and automatic transmissions.

The value of each car to local radio is immeasurable.  It is the “receiver on wheels” that makes radio a personal, everywhere companion.  It is in the car that radio makes its emotional connection with listeners, one at a time.  While I am confident that the radio dial will remain a prominent part of the car dashboard, we need to be prepared to offer new, exciting and different content that is responsive to new customer desires and demands.  We need to educate ourselves about the current thinking of the auto manufacturers but, more significantly; we must apply our creativity and update our own thinking.  We can never again take our place in the car dashboard for granted.

As Detroit digs deep to transform itself and set its financial and political house in a new direction, radio needs to find our new direction in the digital dashboard.