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Greetings From The Thunderdome

There is a scene in Season 3 Episode 3 of the Apple TV+ program The Morning Show that forced me to hit the stop button, rewind, watch again, and then save it to capture the conversation. It made me stop in my tracks. This was art reflecting what could be media’s future.

If you don’t know the show, it is based on a 2013 book by Brian Stetler that reports on the cutthroat world of morning TV news shows. In this scene, Billy Crudup’s character (Cory Ellison) is the head of a huge television network. Jennifer Aniston’s character (Alex Levy) is the longtime morning anchor of a Today Show-like program. 

Levy confronts Ellison about meetings he’s been having with an unscrupulous billionaire (played by Jon Hamm) who wants to buy the network. “Why are you trying to sell us?” she asks. Ellison replies, “The world as we know it is over, Alex. We are officially in the Thunderdome. In five years, half the streaming services will be gone or bought out. In ten years the internet will be 3D. We’ll literally be in people’s living rooms. We need to build a time machine to take us to the future, and that is going to take real deep pockets. Someone with more money than God.” 

It struck a chord with me. The conversations I have with my friends, coming from all walks of media life, have morphed since the start of the pandemic when we opined that legacy media was in trouble to today’s realization that all media is being challenged. It’s no longer just legacy media. The level of competition is ever-increasing. The audience moves from one destination to another at a rate that becomes faster as more choices become available. The ability to access content across multiple platforms has created a nomadic audience. Easily distracted. Difficult to satisfy. Suffering significantly from FOMO. “There’s always a chance that there’s something better elsewhere.” 

The audience is easily bored. Hand a preschooler your phone and watch them scroll through YouTube looking at videos and navigating streaming to watch their favorite short videos. Most adults have the same attention span as a preschooler. The audience is aware of the fact that they can watch the “Big Plays” of a sporting event versus giving up three hours to watch a full game. You don’t have to watch all of a late-night TV talk show. Scroll to the guest you want to watch. A significant part of our society is time impoverished. Despite the Beatles calendar of “Eight Days a Week,” there are still only 7 days a week and 24 hours in each day. This means that we’re fighting to attract the attention of some part of an available audience at the same time as multiple platforms and sources create distractions.

There is an impatience among many at the leadership level as they insist on success. This level of competition, combined with the easy displacement of less-than-satisfying content, magnifies the decreasing lifecycle of new entries into the field. Look at what’s come and gone or has seen little growth beyond the excitement of an initial trial period. Periscope, Tumblr, and Clubhouse are yesterday’s fads. The furor over podcasting is waning. Even super-companies like Disney, Amazon, Apple, and Spotify have seen challenges or been forced to make drastic changes. AMP shut down recently. X (formerly known as Twitter) is shrinking its workforce. 

We are in the Thunderdome. Survival of the fittest. Radio isn’t just competing with other radio stations. Radio is competing with everything. We have an advantage because of our legacy but having been around doesn’t mean anything more than familiarity. Launching anything new today requires a huge investment to break through the “noise.” Abrupt changes to programming, even if for the better, are risky because whenever you make a change, you encourage your audience to look elsewhere. 

The need for a better listening environment is greater with each passing year as new entries arrive on the scene providing more commercial-free or low commercial load entertainment. Our opponents market aggressively. They’re available on multiple platforms and on-demand. They provide multiple benefits or rewards for listening. No sleight of hand. These challenges are going unanswered by radio. The industry is defensible, but not being defended against. Radio’s dependency on legacy is like icing on a burnt cake. It tastes great until you get to the cake itself. 

Let me say again, we are in the Thunderdome. We are in a fight. We in radio need to stop going through the motions of what we’ve always done and need to present an absolutely brilliant on-air product. That means better content with fewer commercials. We’re competing with the best of the best. Radio needs to realize and acknowledge the value of personalities on-air. It’s something we can own. Radio needs to be on multiple platforms – OTA, Online, Apps, Smart Speakers, On Demand and Podcasts. Radio needs to employ a strategy that is sustainable and move beyond a quarter-by-quarter approach. 

This past November, at Forecast 2024, the CEO of MKHSTRY Jeff Charney (former CMO at AFLAC and Progressive) spoke to the group. He said “You’re not in the Radio or Broadcast business. You’re in the History business.” His point was that we should be making history and not be history. What we need to do is change our future history… starting now.

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