(By Eric Rhoads) In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan wrote, “When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffeehouses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.”
Several years ago, when I met Barry Manilow, he told me that the biggest moment in his life had been hearing his song “Weekend in New England” on the radio for the very first time. Being on the radio was the big dream of his life, and in spite of all the things that have since occurred in his career, he said nothing topped hearing his own songs on the radio.
Radio is a recurring theme as artists around the world have spoken of the special moments in their careers. It’s not unusual to this day for country artists to thank “God and radio” when accepting awards. And for good reason. Radio remains, in spite of all the other new influences impacting music discovery, a special place for musicians.
What concerns me as a radio “lifer” is that we as an industry may be ignoring those other influences and pretending that everything is the same as it has always been. Nielsen tells us radio listening has not faltered, and has even grown. But I can’t help but wonder: If radio had a true sample of all persons, rather than a small sample representing the whole, would we still be as strong as we once were?
Since there is no logical way at the moment to find this out, should we assume things are as good as ever? Or should we assume that many things are eating into our audiences?
I think we must assume that all these other wonderful technologies are gradually stealing our listeners.
Let me first ask this: What if we had a record of actual listening (not estimated) for all persons using radio and found listening had dropped by 50 percent? How would we react? Would we do anything differently? I suspect we would.
The instincts of a lot of us, based on our own private samples of one or two high school or college kids, tell us that the smartphone has replaced everything and that radio is not on these young people’s radar. Though Nielsen data says this isn’t the case, I cannot honestly tell myself that it’s likely we’re really as strong as we once were.
But where we stand on that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that our content is so fresh, so engaging, so unique that it is pulling in new interest from audiences. I wonder, as I hear the formulaic radio we’ve all produced for decades, if we can’t make it better. As I listen across America’s dial through the TuneIn app, I’m still hearing the same positioning lines, and even Star Wars sounders. With few exceptions, not much has changed since the 1970s.
Further, our overconfidence in our position, combined with a lack of cash, means we’ve become an industry that tells everyone else why they should advertise — but don’t do it ourselves. We’ve seen a decrease in promotions, on-the-street visibility, and talent appearances.
If we knew our audiences were gone, would all that change? Would we fight to get them back? Why, then, are we not doing that now? Why are we not fighting to keep them?
Since our rivals want our audiences, and have lots of play money (financing without the need for immediate profitability), we should be protecting our turf with our lives, because one day something good could take it all away. Perhaps the next panel of Nielsen households won’t show radio listening levels so high.
I encourage you to enter 2017 with a sense of paranoia. Gather your team and ask, “If we were in the battle of our lives to keep our listeners, what would we do?” You see, you probably are in the battle of your life.
Or of course you can remain overconfident, keep your head in the sand, and do nothing — but you might feel foolish one day soon when you find your listeners have left you. History is littered with dead companies and whole industries that thought nothing could touch them, that nothing would ever change. That is, until one day, it was all gone.
Radio is very viable, and presumably still strong, yet you should fight every day like it’s your last. Because keeping listeners is 100 times easier than trying to get them back.
Eric Rhoads is the CEO and Publisher of Radio Ink. He can be reached at (P) 561-655-8778 or e-mail [email protected]