Over the years, at times, Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan talked more about NextRadio than he did his own radio stations. It was his baby, prompted by a push from industry executives who saw the need to get radio onto mobile phones as they recognized how important the device had become to consumers. In the end, consumers didn’t really care much about having the NextRadio app on their phones, the industry lost interest, and Emmis lost boatloads of money.
On his earnings call Thursday morning, Smulyan didn’t come out and say NextRadio was shutting down, but he did say the NextRadio would be winding down dramatically. The reason he gave was his efforts to form a consortium for NextRadio have not been successful. “We have tried, we have worked with a number of broadcasters. We have so many people that support our efforts but to make this business what it needed to be it needed data attribution and we needed much deeper involvement. We tried. We couldn’t get the industry to come together. Everybody said we have to have this but when it came time to pitch in and help fund it, we could not get enough support. We (Emmis) are not willing or able to keep funding NextRadio and Tagstation. It’s very heartbreaking to me. I’ve put many years of my life into this but we can’t do it ourselves. As one of our board members said, ‘We just can’t continue to support R&D for the entire radio industry.'”
It was only two years ago at The Radio Show in Nashville that Smulyan was still very optimistic about the future of NextRadio. Smulyan told the Radio Show crowd that, due to their support, NextRadio has helped activate FM radio in a smartphone on every carrier. He said progress is being made in reaching compatibility on every Android phone. “That’s 62% of the United States market. And, yes, we will get Apple too. Not only do we gain FM portability for our medium, but we’ve also enhanced the listener and advertiser experience. Your station can now go everywhere your listeners go on the one device they carry with them 24/7. We built a platform that provides the best way to listen to your stations. With the benefits to your audience of two-way interactivity, we’ve given them the ability to see what’s on the air in your markets and to interact with your programming, all the while saving the phone’s battery life and without breaking their data plan. We are the free alternative.” Also at that show, analysts Marci Ryvicker and Davis Hebert were touting NextRadio as a catalyst to bring new revenue to the radio industry.
For years the industry has said it supported Smulyan and his NextRadio efforts. But when it came to shelling out money for it, that’s another story. Radio revenue isn’t growing and when iHeart has iHeartRadio, Entercom has Radio.com, Cumulus is on TuneIn, and with thousands of individual radio apps floating around out there, it’s easy to understand why this didn’t work and Emmis is bailing.
On Thursday, the NAB had no comment on Smulyan’s announcement and several major group heads, who’ve supported NextRadio in the past, did not respond to our request for comment about Smulyan’s plan to wind down NextRadio. At least one executive told us, off the record, that this is the end for NextRadio, unless someone swoops in and buys it.
And you can certainly understand why Smulyan no longer wants to be the lone wolf on this project. Emmis lost $7.6 million from NextRadio and Tagstation over the past year and that has been going on year after year. When asked what lessons he learned, Smulyan said, perhaps only half-jokingly, ‘The next time you’re drafted to lead an effort, leave the room.’
Efforts to develop NextRadio go back to 2012. The first product launch was in 2013. Tagstation started in 2009 with iPod FM song tagging. In a Radio Ink cover story back on August 22, 2016, NextRadio’s Paul Brenner said: “Everything I work on, whether it is BTC or that opportunity with Apple, an outsider to the industry always has doubts about the radio industry’s ability to unify and to do some type of innovative development that requires everyone to support it and everyone to act in a common way. That holds true with everything that I’ve worked on.”
It’s unknown what will happen to the employees at NextRadio. Neither Smulyan nor Brenner were available for comment Thursday. In our 2016 interview, Brenner had said that the company was up to about 18 people in Indianapolis and 18 in Chicago, with others spread around the U.S. In all, he said then that there were about 40 either full-time or committed contractors.
The failure of the industry to come together to support NextRadio doomed the product. Is the failure to come together also going to doom the NAB’s deregulation plan at the FCC?