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The Disruptors

Disruption is nothing new to radio. Once a dynamic disruptor itself, the medium has been under attack for years, mostly since the mid-90s when the Internet invaded homes on a larger scale. There were early disruptors to radio. Anything that takes away Time Spent Listening is a disruptor.

The challenges we’ve faced have included radio attacking itself when FM first took off with Album Oriented Rock in the late 60s and early 70s, the arrival of the 8 Track Player, Cassette Tape Players, the spread of CB Radios driven by the movie “Smokey and the Bandit”, CD Players, the iPod, DAT (Digital Audio Tape) and Napster. They all came before today’s biggest disruptors, including DSP’s, social media, Smart Phones, Smart Speakers and Connected Cars.

Most newly launched product lines know that they have to be a disruptor if they’re to be successful. You have to find consumers (an audience) somewhere. It’s been a longtime since radio can claim to be a disruptor. This is especially true for newly launched radio stations, as well as those that change radio formats, launch new radio shows and use new delivery platforms for audio that originates as an extension of the radio broadcast. Don’t get me wrong. You should be able to be heard on as many extensions as possible. You have to acknowledge reality, though. These efforts are only a disruption if they change the listening habits of your competitor’s audience. Given the world we’re competing in, it is likely that such growth would come from moving into an uncontested area. Which should be an area where you can dominate. There’s no value in winning something small.

We’re starting to see digital disruptors experience what radio has experienced before them. Increased competition, along with negative economic factors, is placing a premium on choice. Where do you want to spend your money? Netflix is the obvious example that everyone points to as an example of rapid loss of audience. While they have significantly more streaming competitors than in previous years, and there is a question about their content being sticky, you have to also consider that they increased the monthly rate for Netflix Premium to $19.99 on January 1st. This at a time when traditional video media are heavily promoting their digital streams and legacy digital competitors have turned up the heat by presenting great content. Peacock Premium is $4.99 per/month. Paramount+ is $9.99 per/month. Shift to audio. Amazon Music starts at $3.99 per/month. A subscription from Spotify costs $9.99 while Pandora charges $4.99 per/month for the most basic service.

The value proposition for radio is different. Radio is free. That’s a great advantage. Why then are we not slowing the loss of listeners, nor are we withstanding the disruption from many different pay entertainment outlets that focus on audio. We’re losing time spent. We don’t have the pandemic to blame. Listening levels have been showing a moderate return to pre-pandemic levels. Which, by the way, even during the pandemic … someone was number one. The answer is that we’re doing very little different in regard to what content we create and in how we deliver it. It’s hard to understand why anyone would expect a different outcome when they do nothing different.

That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions. We’re seeing the significant growth of multi-person afternoon programs joining long-running shows like The Men’s Room on KISW/Seattle. Q99-7/Atlanta has Jade & Moe in the afternoon and Elliot & Nina at night. KLOS/Los Angeles has Kevin & Sluggo in the afternoon. Two-person afternoon shows aren’t new, but they’re becoming more common. That shows the acknowledgment of the strength that personalities bring to the table. Some stations are repeating an hour or two of their morning show in the afternoon to capture the second shift worker or that listener who missed the morning show. Most morning shows are also on-demand, but it’s not as convenient as turning on the radio and searching out the on-demand program. Convenience counts.

The low hanging fruit seems to be to attack radio competitors and take audience from them. We’re not trying to grow an audience from “Off” and we’re doing very little to attract an audience younger than 35. Most stations have added digital distribution that enables a listener to hear their content online, on smart speakers, on apps and on multiple audio platforms. Unless we improve the listening experience, unless the product is improved, unless we tell the community about our product, there’s no reason to believe greater distribution will deliver more audience. We need to try a new approach.

Caution; just because something is new does not guarantee that it will be successful, but you have to be prepared for failure, as it is a part of experimentation. I’ve tried some heady things in the past and been ridiculed for them. I’ve also enjoyed success in working with really talented people and turning what they do into a winner. My experience is that anything new scares people, and that brings ridicule, unless it shows signs of success. In that case everyone steals the idea. The lemmings start running for the cliff.

Be connected to the market and keep your audience informed about what’s going on in the community. Stand out in the crowd by being unique within your market. Entertain and/or inform at a high level. If you’re a music station, you have to do more than play music. If you’re a News/Talk station, drive time shows need to tell the audience a little bit about a lot of things. If you’re non-drive, then drill down and get to the crux of the hottest topics, and be memorable in doing it.

Try something new. Be thoughtful about it, but think about it, and do something that has the potential to attract an audience. Like multiple-talent programs outside of morning drive. Can you afford to eliminate all commercials from the stream of your show and cover the stop-sets with another song or different content. That is, use your stream as Disney uses Disney+. It’s that “something extra.” Admittedly it costs you Total Line Reporting status, so you need to determine if its elimination lowers your ratings. When it comes to podcasting, do more than copy your show and post it. Add content to the podcast that isn’t on-air and that makes the podcast premium.

Not everything will show success. Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odor in movie theatres during the projection of a film so that the viewer could "smell" what was happening in the movie. The technique was created by Hans Laube and made its only appearance in the 1960 film Scent of Mystery, produced by Mike Todd Jr., son of film producer Mike Todd. That’s an idea that I wouldn’t try again. Although those amusement rides that splash water on your face always catch me by surprise.

Radio’s only hope for a real and true regrowth of audience is to improve its programming by trying new approaches to entertainment and information while taking advantage of all of the distribution platforms that are available. Be everywhere. Be heard everywhere. Be seen everywhere. Radio, regardless of where you hear it, has to be ubiquitous. Breakout of maintenance mode. Get engaged with the audience. Stand for something. Mean something to your audience and your community.

A day will come when some broadcaster will stop competing on the same level as everyone else and raise the bar by becoming a disruptor to more than just radio. They’ll experiment with lower commercial loads and higher rates. Talent that entertains and puts on a “show.” Radio stars in all dayparts that know how to deliver engaging content. Production and imaging that’s appropriate for today’s audience in a creative way that doesn’t sound like “the same old radio stuff.” Promotions that are fun to play along with and prizes that are experiential. Music, if you’re a music station and content if you’re a talk station, that’s been researched to satisfy the target audience. That becomes your foundation on which to build, but it cannot end there. You can’t play the same songs over and over or make your talk show a repeat of the show from the day before and the day before that and expect to keep an audience.

A day will come. Sooner or later …

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