(By Radio Ink Publisher Deborah Parenti) Last week, Radio Ink ran a series of interviews with radio group owners focusing on deregulation; specifically, what they would like to see the FCC consider when it reviews the ownership caps later this year.
As we found out in that series, many of Radio Ink‘s rank-and-file readers believe lifting current ownership caps will simply give more stations to the bigger groups and nothing will really change. There is skepticism from some corners as to whether owning more radio stations than the law currently allows will result in: 1) more revenue for the industry overall, or, 2) better service to the community.
All of this reminded me of something I wrote over 10 years ago which also raised some questions, ones that still seem to remain topical.
Someone once commented that “God must love radio more than any other media — because He made more radio than any other media.”
That’s “a good thing” because someone needs to love it. Good intentions aside, radio’s stewards seem to have lost that basic instinct since the Telecom Act of 1996. While many were busy perfecting the art of making the deal in the early, heady days of mergers and acquisitions, far fewer expended similar energy in executing the results of those deals. More than 20 years of attention deficit disorder have placed the industry behind the proverbial eight ball. Today’s bottom lines point to eroding loyalty, uninspired product, and a growing stewpot of confusion among advertisers, thanks to mixed signals and incomplete passes at fixing what got broke. Radio needs to address those issues and close the sale again with its audience and its advertisers — and it needs to do it now.
Before problems can be tackled, however, they must first be identified.
The biggest challenge facing radio today is eroding audience interest. Nothing else is as imperative as maintaining, engaging, and growing the listener base. After all, listeners are the product radio delivers to advertisers. Without listeners, radio pricing collapses. It’s that simple.
Understanding why audiences aren’t listening longer, however, is not quickly fixed and requires thinking beyond the obvious. Certainly, radio did itself no favor by increasing commercial loads on the heels of consolidation. In trying to enhance revenues, no spot was “too many,” driving listeners to distractions — distractions frequently found in other, newer media. Luring them back for the long term, however, takes more than simply reducing loads. If “product is king,” then product must be compelling. Think about what you tell a client whose advertising brings customers to the door but can’t get the customer to buy? The greatest advertising can’t make a bad product good!
Speaking of advertising, where is it? Cutting promos as part of cutting spot loads has helped result in cutting the medium’s throat over time. While radio has, for generations, been a primary medium, today’s younger demos have found little to encourage interest or inspire loyalty. The previous assumption was that they would tune in and turn on to radio like their predecessors. No intense efforts were made to market to this group. The result? There are just too many other imaginative choices and radio hasn’t competitively delivered with the product or the marketing.
The issue of spot loads continues to take center stage, as does the clamor to “clean up” the radio environment. That’s great in theory but no problem is that simple and too much emphasis on any one element at the expense of the others can be a mistake.
Such a preoccupation also assumes two things: that listeners are satisfied with what else airs between those breaks — enough not to be lured by other media — and that spot length trumps unit count perceptually among listeners. The jury is certainly out on the former. As for the latter, however, consider the terms in which complaints about commercials are typically expressed. It’s not how long (minutes) the break went — but how many commercials (units) were heard. If perception is reality, two cleverly scripted 60-second commercials may be more favorably perceived than four 30-second, although equally well written, ones.
Catastrophic events such as last year’s devastating hurricanes, demonstrate that radio has the heart to respond and adapt to circumstances beyond any mortal control — to take the media lead and carry the day with the masses. Whether it possesses the soul necessary to extend that energy to the more mundane challenge of the everyday is the real character, and creative, test. It’s like cable news. It’s not difficult to know what airs when a huge story breaks. It’s when nothing happens that holding on to the audience gets tough. Radio needs to rediscover its roots, and its programming genius along with it.
As simplistic as that sounds, it may be that simple. Before radio can reinvigorate itself and its business, it needs to diagnose the problems. And that means calling in the experts, the product experts, namely, programmers. More input from the creative side could go a long way toward remedying what’s wrong. When the heart is in trouble you call in the cardiologist, not the orthopedic or neurosurgeon. Too many from sales and finance, not to mention a host of outside analysts, are making the calls and calling the shots in an area where they have little practical expertise. And in more than 20 years, we’ve seen how well that works.
That there are many stations, especially those in smaller markets, which struggle to make ends meet, is a fact. And it’s one which needs to be addressed if diversity of programming options and choices is to be maintained. Every day, stations are faced with competition not only from other stations, but from a multiplicity of media choices and advertising options. But if Google and Facebook, Spotify and Pandora, are, as some have opined, the biggest competitive threat, then perhaps before, or in tandem with, thoughts of unfettered ownership caps are considered, the industry needs to take into account the product it is providing and its strategy for enticing listening to its airwaves and sites.
Radio enjoys many platforms today to extend its reach and opportunity. Making sure the product itself is as viable and exciting as technology is crucial to its viability and growth. And so, it begs the question: Will more deregulation really answer radio’s revenue woes? And if not, what happens then?
Deborah Parenti is Publisher of Radio Ink. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org