The New Radios


(By Steve Goldstein) Sometimes technological innovation takes away. Sometimes it gives. Digital has changed so much of media. The music business was famously rocked by theft and sharing on platforms like Napster. The movie industry filed suit against VCR makers, but later made billions with VHS tapes, DVDs, and streaming video. Print publishers now reach more people than ever — but they reach them online.

Today, television has evolved to a predominantly on-demand medium, having crossed the 50 percent threshold from live TV a few years ago. People watch shows at a time of their choosing, and programs like Grey’s Anatomy get as much as a 60 percent lift from time-shifted viewing.

So, where is radio in this vortex of digital change? It is at a remarkable point: If radio handles itself properly, the way the medium is accessed and heard could change profoundly.

Since Marconi, commercial radio has been making content for one-time use — on the air and gone. According to Nielsen, less than 1 percent of commercial radio listening in PPM markets is time-shifted. In an on-demand, Netflix-loving world, that doesn’t portend good things.

Although radio has held up well, most in the industry are now seeing the big demographic changes and new competitive platforms that will bring the coming transformation.

A few years ago, I started a company focused on content and strategy development for podcasting. That raised a few eyebrows, but today, 67 million people listen to podcasts each month, and that number is rising.

The catalyst for most of podcasting’s growth is the smartphone. According to Edison Research, one out of every five minutes of audio is now heard on a smartphone — and that number is likely to grow over the next few years, with 200 car models now having Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Smartphones have become entertainment hubs. And, not surprisingly, the highest adoption is among 18-34-year-olds. I watch my 20-something science projects (yes, my kids), and their expectation is that content will be available at a time of their choosing. And most of that smartphone listening is to owned and streamed music — very little is commercial radio.

But at the same time, another seductive change is underway in millions of bedrooms, kitchens, and family rooms across America: “Smart speakers,” or voice-assist devices, led by Amazon’s Echo, are on fire. These devices are the new home radios, and an important opening for radio to take advantage of new platforms.

Jacobs Media’s newest Techsurvey indicates that more than one in 10 consumers already have such a device, and 27 million more are expected to be sold this year. That same Techsurvey showed that consumers are increasingly comfortable using voice commands with their tech devices.

What do people do with voice-assist devices? They ask lots of questions, set timers — and they listen to audio. Streaming audio and on-demand news are top user requests.

Having such popular “new radios” appearing in homes certainly seems like it could be great thing for radio stations, which have seen at-home listening drop over the past several years. Being accessible on these devices and “checking that box” is great — and many stations have done so — but it’s not enough.

There is an endless array of good audio choices on “smart speakers.” Spotify, Amazon Music, Pandora, and, via TuneIn and other apps or “skills,” thousands upon thousands of radio stations are a simple voice command away. That means this is already a crowded field, and that means stations need to think about how they will distinguish themselves.

The biggest potential win is in the opportunity to share great, curated “bite-size” content and to develop original, device-specific content to entice people to engage with smart speakers. Local TV news has done a masterful job of using the same newsroom that creates the 6 o’clock news to develop distinctive content specifically for mobile apps. We like that type of thinking, for both smartphones and smart speakers. Each platform has distinct attributes, and just slapping broadcast content on them is not going to be enough.

These new platforms have opportunity written all over them: Most of the audience misses as much as 80 percent of a top-performing morning show’s content, so time-shifting is a natural fit. In PPM markets, content listened to within 24 hours is accretive to Nielsen ratings, effectively creating an opportunity for extra quarter-hours. That’s something radio has never had before.

Technology disrupts a lot of business — see Kodak and Blockbuster — but right now broadcast radio has a new opportunity to think beyond the transmitter and follow the audience to these “new radios.”

If you don’t believe me, just ask Alexa.

Steven Goldstein is CEO of Amplifi Media, a company specializing in strategy and content development for on-demand audio (podcasting). He is also a partner in SonicAi, a company that develops “skills” for smart speaker devices including Amazon Echo and Google Home. Contact him at 203.221.1400; [email protected]; Twitter: @sjgoldstein


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