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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.