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Radio’s Future Lies In Its Past

I just read a Facebook post from a friend rightly annoyed that Tulsa World, the local newspaper she’s had delivered to her home for forty years, just raised their annual subscription price to $700. That’s not a typo, seven hundred dollars for a one-year subscription renewal to the traditional folded and rubber-banded newsprint that you sometimes have to fish out of the flower bed. New subscribers can get a year for $26 or six months for $6. My friend thought that was a slap in the face for her lifelong loyalty but was told on the phone, “Sorry, it’s the new policy.” Click.

“Your call is very important to us. Please hold…”

This kind of screw-you pricing isn’t unique to the Tulsa paper, of course, it’s happening everywhere; it’s a reflection of our times. Rather than simply cancel their costly print and delivery system altogether newspapers would apparently rather insult longtime customers into leaving altogether.

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Unlike radio, print is definitely a fading technology in daily life. Newspapers and magazines are forcing traditional consumers to switch to digital. It’s understandable. Since 1984 newspaper subscriptions have fallen by two-thirds, from 60 to 20 million American households, according to Pew Research.

Publishers Weekly reports double-digit percentage growth in audiobook sales for each of the past eleven years. Most of us pay our bills online now and have switched to paperless billing. Even restaurants are abandoning printed menus and simply sticking a QR code on your table.

Technology changes faster than the comfort of our lifelong habits. It’s hard for humans to adapt.

Where is radio in all of this?

Until recently I’ve been one of the doomsayers who believe it’s a dying industry. Like my friend who has abandoned her comfortable habit of reading the local newspaper each morning, I retired from radio two months ago after 54 years on-air. My personal experience convinced me that I was getting out just in time, at the end of an era.

Now, I’m not so sure.

In the past few months, I’ve talked with some of the most respected experts in the industry. These are career-long visionaries who have achieved success by doing their homework and incorporating their experience and intellect. And, guess what? They’re optimists.

Radio is alive, if not quite well.

“This ‘radio is in trouble and dying’ (idea) is a uniquely American phenomenon. In the rest of the world, content creators run the radio stations.” – Walter Sabo, CEO of Sabo Media.

Sabo explains the difference is that other countries’ radio stations are managed by programmers while American stations are typically run by former sales execs. It’s not their fault, they’re just doing what they’ve learned – negotiating the price and perceived value of their product.

The problem with that is salespeople often don’t know their product. Until my recent retirement, I did a morning Newstalk show in a major market for 12 years, rarely crossing paths with the sales managers or their staff. I guess that’s as much my fault as theirs but that’s how the station works: sales is on the fourth floor, programming on the fifth. We seldom saw each other and rarely talked. When I did meet a salesperson it was arranged by necessity when they approached me for a product or service endorsement. The meeting was almost always achieved by interoffice email.

I appreciated endorsement opportunities, of course, but on the rare occasion when we did speak I never got any indication that the sales exec had any idea who I was. They just did their jobs having never heard me on the air.

But, back to the big picture:

David G. Hall is a program consultant with clients in the U.S. at the local and national level and also in Europe and Latin America. He agrees with Sabo.

“In the U.S. there is far less investment and emphasis in great content and content creation and far more emphasis on developing sales strategies.”

Is the tail wagging the American dog? Hall says yes and explains:

“Since 1996 the big corporations have been having trouble and need to show growth every quarter. They’ve decided it’s better to trust sales managers with good track records than risk elevating program directors who need time to ramp up to the challenge of creating profit.”

Tom Langmyer, President and CEO of Great Lakes Media Acquisitions and Advisory Group, believes radio is very much alive and would be much healthier if operators went back to what they used to do so well: provide interesting, entertaining, and useful content at the local level. He suggests the industry has forgotten how to do that.

“The concept of a radio-driven ‘experience’ is not dead in the least. It’s the knowledge, vision, strategy, and execution that’s dying. Who is actually leading the death of what it’s become and what’s their endgame?  That’s the elephant in the room.”

The implication points to corporations driven by investors who don’t know or care about the business of radio or its consumers and clients; they dream of global profits through modern technology, though they don’t know or care what that is, either. Langmyer is working to combine the best of both worlds: locally focused radio embracing digital technology to enhance the old-fashioned notion that radio stations need to serve the public interest at the community level.

“Radio’s challenge,” Langmyer explains, “has zero to do with a lack of desire for what radio can deliver through a multi-platform experience. It has everything to do with the fact those experiences are missing. They don’t really exist often, and in the few places it actually does happen, it’s usually just a toe in the water.

“Why wouldn’t radio die if we continue to simply think of it as a competitor to music utilities such as Spotify, satellite, or some other form of music streaming service?”

Speaking of streaming, the idea that new technology is better than the old simply because it’s new needs scrutiny.

Sabo maintains that transmitting content through radio airwaves is “The most elegant delivery system.” He calls streaming, “buffering”, and points out the technological disparities in terms of cost to the consumer. Smartphones and other digital devices are expensive and need frequent system and application upgrades. The devices themselves need to be replaced every few years. But a radio is a radio. The transistor radio you carried in your pocket sixty years ago will work just fine today.

Nobody argues that the challenges aren’t real. Small-town stations are going dark nearly every day because of economic pressures that have both, corporate and local causes. The irony is that radio’s future success may well lie in its past, in live and local traditions created by people who live in the community they serve.

So, who remembers how to do that? We’ll dig into it next week.

Dave Williams
Dave Williams
Dave Williams spun top-40 hits in Sacramento before RKO Radio snagged him as Program Director for K-Earth in L.A. and WHBQ, Memphis. He ultimately began 40 years as morning news host at KFBK, KFWB, KNX, and KLIF, earning ten AP awards with his partners as Best News Anchor Teams in California and Texas. Dave now hosts and produces a podcast featuring some of the biggest names in radio programming and management. You can find it on YouTube and top podcast audio apps at Follow Dave on Twitter @RadioDave.

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