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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Decade of Radio Cannibalism

What is the most interesting/startling/eye-opening thing I've learned this year about the radio business?

There are no leaders - only followers.

The conversion of a highly independent-thinking, proactive industry to a defensive, lack-of-self confidence one didn't happen overnight. It's been nine years in the making. Sort of like James Cameron's "Avatar", only this time it ain't pretty.

Up until 2000 when the Internet bubble burst, the radio industry was robust, creative and ballsy, i.e. it took on all 'comers' who wanted to threaten its very existence and it took each and every one on with gusto. It thrived in that environment and it made its members love their business that much more.

The bubble burst and there were no more $1000 spot rates from Internet start-ups.

9-11 halted everyone's business, but radio never recovered because around the same time Napster taught our kids that they didn't really need radio...

The Internet proliferated as high speed access surpassed the tipping point of 50% of households...

Internet radio, You Tube, Smartphones, subscription radio, technology and...

Arbitron's PPM. The last straw.

Audience measurement systems for any consumer product have always been a reflection of usage; no more-no less. Once delivered, it was up to the customer to interpret the data.

What changed with the introduction of Arbitron's PPM service?

The methodology influences the business.

PPM is arguably more accurate, yet it has its limitations just like the diary-system does.

It allows programmers and managers alike to dissect audience movement down to the minute and to over-react to changes in listening behavior. The cause of that change in listening is not measured, yet programmers can make assumptions which may not prove accurate.

The science of Arbitron's meter system has taken advantage of radio management's building inferiority complex by eliminating the 'long-tail' or product variety evident among radio's vast potential listening audience.

The most mass-appeal stations are the victors in PPM rated markets.

The stations that take the least risks to create exciting, compelling listening perform best in this metered world.

PPM has surgically removed radio's best traits: it's abilty to respond quickly to consumer trends and to offer entertainment faster than any other medium. This ability to read its audience from gut and sound research, kept interest in radio at high levels before technology brought new competition.

Perhaps the worst part of this is that the industry has been led by its nose into this quagmire without a fight. And now it has a ratings system which does not fully support its business potential.

If the motion picture industry followed this path, we would be presented with only the most bland, smallest common denominator movies. And while there's certainly a place for them, consumers would never have been exposed to such interesting films as "Momento", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or "Requiem for a Dream" over the last decade.

And this secret sauce which the radio business held in high esteem is what is missing in today's newly competitive landscape.

A new study from Bridge Ratings suggests that radio is not dying on the vine it's just sharing usage with other media and tune-in is as high as ever.

This is the time for creativity, risk and reward. Results of this study show that radio consumers like the ease-of-use and the pervasiveness of over-the-air radio. In fact listeners of all ages are pulling for radio, and want it to be better, funnier, more stimulating.

Consumers are pulling for radio because they know it can do better.

The industry is ending a decade of cannibalism. We have seen the disease of "no confidence" coupled with "less courage" seasoned with a measurement system that doesn't support the creation and delivery of many potentially popular radio formats.

During times like these it is strength, courage and the ability to think independently that is needed.

Perhaps it is not too late to embrace those traits that brought the radio industry its greatest successes. There are options to Arbitron's meter methodology; options that would measure the totality of the interests of radio's consumer base.

For 2010, we look for a more positive landscape for all business to operate, and the radio business, specifically, has a chance to be reinvigorated.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Radio's New Music Fantasy

The recent headline "Google and MySpace will challenge radio’s music-discovery position," got me asking the question "What music-discovery position?"

In the years I have been analyzing consumer use of media, including broadcast radio, Internet and more recently smart phone behavior, radio has had the potential to capture the new music discovery crown.

Unfortunately, it never has lived up to this potential.

In 2007, Bridge Ratings conducted a series of deep studies of music consumers of all ages and, as you might suspect, found that 18-30 year olds were most interested in discovering new music though any means possible. In the category of where most of this discovery was occurring, broadcast radio followed peers and the Internet as the place to go to find great new music.

However, in focus groups to dig deeper, radio had the greatest potential of all three for new music discovery due to its primary benefits: ease of use, accessibility and the fact that radio is free.

Yet radio never took the initiative.

In the last two years I have discussed this notion of new music discovery with at least 100 radio programmers in the formats of Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR), Adult Alternative and Alternative.

Would it surprise you to know that none of them saw the wisdom of claiming the "new music" position in their markets by proactively promoting and playing new music by either established performers or undiscovered talent.

Radio's belief that it is the new music discovery destination is pure fantasy.

There's a fabulous on-line worldwide talent competition called "Fame Games" which boasts two million worldwide listeners; 70% listen in the U.S. alone. I have had an interest in this five-shows-a-week talent competition and thought it would suit American radio just fine.

"Fame Games" features unsigned artists of any cross-over genre competing for best track of the week and ultimately a major record contract.

This is a well-produced, fun feature that pits two songs against each other vying for the votes of listeners and the program's judges. So, I took it to U.S. radio.

American programmers won't go there.

Aggressively marketing one's radio station as the "place for new music discovery" would greatly bulk up a station's image if done properly and perhaps even draw young listeners back to a medium that is having its problems holding on to this important demographic.

So, when I read that Google or MySpace will challenge radio's music discovery position, or when I read the RAB's Jeff Haley's concern about how radio has to protect this turf, I have to shrug my shoulders.

As far as radio's listeners are concerned, there is no new music turf to protect.

Radio had the opportunity to claim this territory for itself at least two years ago when audiences told us that radio's convenience would make it the most likely place to go to discover new music.

It never took the opportunity and very well may find itself pushed out by new media which seems to take every opportunity to infringe on radio's weaknesses.

This all points to radio's biggest challenge: getting back to creating and presenting engrossing and compelling programming....for all ages.

The radio industry must build upon its rich history of being listener-focused.

In its confusion in recent years, radio has simply forgotten how to compete.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What's Really Next?

What's really next for media companies?

Smaller - leaner - more outsourcing.

The chart to the right reflects a related growth curve between staffing and corporate efficiency, or productivity.

The way this applies to radio is at the core of its frustration with attracting more loyal listeners.

There just has not been any investment in the product in over a year at a time when radio is competing with media that understand the importance of creative content.

Radio has its own set of rules and at this point, generally, most radio companies can ill afford to invest in the one thing that will help their business grow: personnel and content creation.

Economies such as the one we're experiencing in late 2009 no longer lend themselves to the operations models which allowed companies to staff more robustly.

The benefit to that kind of structure is that if companies staff responsibly, employees reach their maximum potential to deliver for the company by reaching their own competency levels.

What has led to this redesign of culture is the reduction in staffing and a reduction in quality output. Once highly-competent employees have found themselves delegated more and more work often outside their area of specialty or comfort.

This tends to result in staff that are not competent at the new tasks and somewhat less competent at their old tasks. This amounts to a severe reduction in efficiencies and production which further drives down business cash flow.

This cannot be sustained.

Something's got to change. And this is what we're experiencing.

Change can be uncomfortable.

Ultimately, change is for the best.

Therefore, the best option is to reduce workload to a more comfortable level where talented employees can do their jobs at levels that will again produce positively for companies. Operating in this culture will allow companies to regain traction and begin to rebuild.

This means a shrinking of the business as a whole in every aspect.

It may be "circle-the-wagons" time for the media industry - certainly it is for terrestrial radio - and concentrate on core competencies until things return to a less volitile marketplace.

Yet, despite this reduction in services, companies must also understand they cannot grow by cutting. Business development can continue to be a part of the mix.

For radio, an industry that still experiences respectable profit margins, this will mean figuring out a way to reinvest some of that profit margin back into their businesses.

I'll reveal how to do that, in my next blog.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Optimism: 2010's Secret Weapon

2009 has been a most difficult year.

Most business leaders - including media professionals - have found themselves unable to lead.

Perhaps for the first time in their careers. And when they lie awake at night in their own space they are terrified.

They watch their organizations crumble under the weight of an unforgiving economy.

They've cut their workforces so much that once-competent employees have been unable to perform due to overwork and distraction.

But there is a way out and it starts with the organization's leader.

Leaders are their most affective when they are most in touch with reality, and this happens when they are almost viscerally in sync with the people and markets they lead and serve.

It's about being able to absorb reality and being able to lead accordingly.

So, despite what you know, the mood your employees experience, is so important.

An optimistic mood will help you communicate in a more effective manner.

A leader's mood is infectious. It can spread like wildfire through an organization.

You, as a leader, can poison or uplift the mood without realizing it.

Be very aware of how your slightest signals can affect people when you are in a position of power (that's for all you formal leaders) or people look to you for a lead (for you informal leaders).

No one wants to work for a grouch. Research has proven it: optimistic, enthusiastic leaders more easily retain their people compared with those bosses who tend towards negative moods.

Numerous studies show that when the leader is in a happy mood, the people around him view everything in a more positive light. That, in turn, makes them more optimistic about achieving their goals, enhances their creativity and the efficiency of their decision-making, and predisposes them to be helpful.

In more than one sense, then, leadership is truly viral.

Become an optimist of the will and your organization can pull itself up.