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Monday, May 28, 2007

Nostalgia: Everybody's Sgt. Peppering

Hard to believe that June 4 is the 40th anniversary of the monumental "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" album by the Beatles. And, rightly so, in this world of 'everyone-gets-to-voice-their-opinion-blogs', everyone is writing about it.

"Sgt. Pepper's" changed so much for so many, but in particular it had the power to change the thinking of a generation of young people. It influenced worldwide culture. 1967 was a watershed year and the release of such a creative musical endeavor represented a lifestyle shift to a higher gear.

Some of the people who were in their formative years (between 16 and 20 years of age) at the time eventually would find themselves in the radio business and "Sgt. Pepper's" systematically and ethereally had an impact on the early direction of rock radio.

When the album first was released on June 4, 1967 radio was all about the single; pop hits penetrating listeners' ears on powerhouse stations like WABC-AM in New York, WLS in Chicago and KHJ in Los Angeles. Suddenly, fans of the Beatles noticed something changed with their favorite band. The group had created an entire statement with their album; all of the songs seemed to tie in with the theme of the album and suddenly we all started listening to music differently - seeking subtle tie-ins between song and concept and realizing that "With a Little Help From My Friends" really sounded like crap on AM, but sounded like technicolor on FM.

And like many like me at the time, "Sgt. Pepper" opened a door in my mind about how cool radio could be.

What is amazing about this entire "Sgt. Pepper" experience is that while the Beatles stretched themselves to be creative with the recording of this album, they didn't really appreciate at the time of the recordings what affect these songs would have on the world. The only thing they cared about each day going into the studios was that they recreate on tape what they heard in their heads, consistently pushing George Martin to produce what they heard and seeking guidance from engineer-extrordinaire Geoff Emerick to make it sound unlike anything anyone had heard before.

The album took six months to record - a huge detour in music recording in those days. Prior to "Sgt. Pepper", the Beatles - and most other artists - would more often record an album's worth of songs in a week and get it pressed and out to the public within the month. "Pepper" was different because the 'boys' had decided just prior to recording the album that they would stop touring and devote their time to quality recordings. They were focused and on a mission.

On this 40th anniversary of such a superb creative effort which influenced active and passive music lovers alike, it's with melancholy that I think of the general lack of creativity that is presented in the music and radio business these days.

Generally, the music released by record labels seems uninspired. And while there are some very interesting things happening on the Internet with Indie bands, in general the malaise that has stricken the radio industry has infected the music industry - or vice versa.

There are a small number of creative radio stations popping up around the country, but there is also a tiredness that is pervasive in the radio industry - including satellite radio - that also overcomes people in their 60's when they realize they just don't feel the same when they get out of bed in the morning.

When "Sgt. Pepper" was released, rock radio and the music industry were bound together in an adolescent growth period for both industries. The two businesses seemed to work more closely together to make "it" work. As a program director for rock radio stations in the early 70's, I can attest to a different relationship program directors had with their music company reps. At least I felt we were on the same team with the goal of getting the best music (on vinyl) out to the masses.

"Sgt. Pepper" opened the door and a flood of interesting new albums followed:
  • "Bookends" by Simon & Garfunkle, "Wheels of Fire" by Cream, "Waiting for the Sun" by the Doors and "Cheap Thrills" by Big Brother & The Holding Company (Janis Joplin) - all in 1968.
  • "Blood, Sweat & Tears", "Blind Faith", "Zeppelin II" and "Abbey Road" in 1969.
What will it take to revitalize the music and radio industries' in 2007? It's anyone's guess. Inspiration can come from anywhere.

But we need another "Sgt. Pepper" event.

I, for one, don't think we'll ever experience such a cultural phenom again, which is a shame because it literally changed the world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

And in this corner....Pandora Mobile Radio!

Sprint Nextel Corp and Pandora Media Inc., have teamed up to offer the personalized streaming radio service to its mobile phone users. And Pandora is likely not going to stop there. We figure Sprint is just the first of many mobile carriers. Pandora also announced this week an up-coming Wi-Fi music player. Uh-Oh! Faster than you can say "Here comes wireless Internet Radio", we've got a new contender.

In fact, Pandora founder and all-around nice guy Tim Westergren was quoted as saying "We knew that if we wanted to be radio with a capital 'R', we have to be everywhere, and not just on the Internet. We knew we had to make it mobile."

And so, with this announcement, the wireless Internet radio era has begun. I believe that in the future this watershed announcement will be known as the moment everything changed. You are witnessing history in the making.

For as Bridge Ratings has been projecting for at least three years, wireless Internet radio poses the greatest threat to terrestrial radio for just the reason Mr. Westergren stated - it had to be available everywhere.

And while our studies also show that about 25% of Americans are highly interested in some form of radio on their cell phones, the true flood will begin when portable Wi-Fi Internet Radios begin selling at Walmart and Target.

But what it comes down to for traditional radio is not to get spooked by all this technology. At the end of the day, it comes down to how good your product/content is. As radio consultant Walter Sabo has said, "every day every medium available to the consumer starts from scratch to win an audience."

HBO proves this content rule almost every week. Fox figured out a way to get 30+ million viewers to tune in for "American Idol" despite of all the competition. It's true.

The word "compelling" is thrown around a lot these days but it's becoming clear that regardless of the medium, whatever the content, it's got to grab the audience because it's a dog-fight out there. Every day - every tune-in - every moment has got to have elements of fascination to it.

And while terrestrial radio is bound to have some issues with wireless Internet radio, we're finding that given a choice between a wireless Pandora and an MP3 player, almost 50% of the digital player owners we researched think that Pandora can give them something their iPod can't: surprises and music discovery.

Welcome to the new frontier; it's only going to get more interesting!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Tivo For the Radio? It's Here!

I've been invited to participate in a grand new advancement in technology which marries radio and cell phones together in a way that's never been done before.

It makes radio interactive with its listeners and gives its listeners on-demand content!

Imagine listening to your favorite talk show personality on your way to work in the car. They just hit a great patch of compelling programming that pulls you in when your road trip is over. You've got to get out of the car. But you really would like to hear how this talk segment goes. Sorry. You turn off the radio and move on with your day.

But what if you could pick up listening to that radio show where you left off and time-shift that program to whenever you have some time later on.

Or maybe you want a news update now, not at the top of the hour when the local station's news comes on. Wouldn't it be great if you could access national or local news when and where you wanted?

How about that local traffic report you missed.

Or the weather alert.

Well, it's coming to a cell phone near you and you don't need to download any special software nor do you need a special phone. In fact, it works with any phone - any carrier - anywhere!

This miracle is forthcoming in a matter of weeks from a new media company called Cellecast. And while it's a concept that will work for any type of radio programming, it's my opinion that Cellecast was made for news/talk radio.

The cool thing about NewsTalk and other information programming is its relevance and immediacy to what is going on in the world right now. And while I will likely want to go back into the archives of some of my favorite talk radio personalities to hear portions of their shows I've missed or only heard about from friends, it's today's shows and today's commentaries, news, sports and entertainment information that I want to be aware of.

Cellecast finally breaks through the last wall that has prevented radio from offering its listeners on-demand content in an easy-to-use manner.

In fact, while radio has done an outstanding job of offering podcasts/webcasts of local station content, Bridge Ratings confirms that the growth of the webcast audience has been stymied by its lack of user-friendliness.

There are early adopters and early majority consumers who have spent the time to learn how to find and download their favorite podcasts to their computers and then on to their MP3 players, but frankly, folks, the majority of people who would love to listen to a podcast are put off by the clumsy nature of its "process of consumption". In other words, for most regular folks, it's too complicated.

But Cellecast's on-demand concept offers a solution. No more need to download a webcast/podcast to your computer or to your portable device. Just dial it up on your cell phone and listen! Genius!

Cellecast has also figured out how to offer music radio as part of its catalog of content while most companies are dealing with streaming royalty rates and record label authorization. And while the immediacy of music radio doesn't compare to that of Talk Radio, I can see the wisdom of wanting to go back to a point earlier in the day when I heard a new music release on my favorite station and I want to hear it again - now! As long as I can remember when I heard it, I can go back - time-shifting - and hear it again.

So, look for Cellecast to start making noise this summer and ask your cell phone company how you can get it.

I'm enthused about it not just because they've asked me to help advise them, but because it's such a smart idea and a good one for consumers and radio alike.