There’s a prevailing opinion that the radio business is the media equivalent of Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense.” The business has been dead for a while, but it has yet to realize it as it goes about familiar tasks and visits familiar places.
Before a funeral is held for the industry, can things be done to save it? Of course, but it will take courage and vision beyond what many in high positions are currently capable of. Here are eleven radical thoughts and ideas to shake things up and steer the business into the future. These are desperate times, and it’s time for radio to stop thinking about how to keep the lights on for another month and instead think about how to productively move forward in an oversaturated digital universe.
1. Be ‘live and local’ again. Radio loves to trumpet the benefits of being “live and local,” but those days are mostly over. Here in Chicago, the notion of live talent after 7pm… let alone after midnight… is implausible. During the day, radio companies are saving money (and shedding audience) by syndicating medium talents from small markets across their main dayparts. Radio’s strength is its position in its communities. You can always tell when someone is truly local, as opposed to brought in from another market: It’s the difference between doing a break about the cocktail sauce at Lawrence’s and a break about “the Bean” or “dibs.”
And what about being truly “live” and responsive? At the station I most recently worked at, all non-morning show dayparts are voicetracked. That means each host records every break, lines it up in a computer, and makes it just right for consumption. The breaks are meant to be tracked “live-ish,” recorded within the general timeframe of when they air, but they’re simply not “live.” Listeners can tell the difference; recorded breaks sound inauthentic. The energy and vibe from a live host is much more engaging than a break that was recorded 10 times before it was “perfect” and ready for air. I contend that if radio truly went live again, 50% of current air personalities wouldn’t be able to do their jobs. And maybe that’s okay. Scorched earth. Let’s try this again.
2. Blow up those unlistenable stopsets. Commercial breaks have always been listening death. When someone can easily switch from a 6-8 minute stopset to literally any song they want on their phone, it’s time to rethink spots. We’ve learned from podcasting (and even NPR) that spoken word, old school, messaging is not only effective… it’s tolerated by the audience. Imagine listeners sitting through a commercial message instead of leaving the station altogether, perhaps never to come back.
3. Quit playing payola records. You know those nights and overnights that are unhosted at music stations? They’re filled with “favor” records that are spinning in exchange for record company considerations. Ever wonder how radio stations get big artists to play their festival events? They generally pay a discounted rate for the artists, in exchange for playing label and management “priorities.” Dear radio: Ask yourself if having a mid-tier band play a beer-sponsored bar night in Ruralsville, U.S.A. is worth polluting your product and airwaves, destroying your credibility and potentially jeopardizing your license. If the FCC ever dug in and researched “why” songs are getting added into rotation, the industry would be destroyed, and programmers (and the general managers who enable them) would be wished well in their future endeavors.
4. Find a new measurement tool. Nielsen PPM is the tool that measures radio ratings, and radio stations are constantly working on ways to game the system for higher numbers. Bosses program content and coach talent to align with PPM listening behavior. The result? I think you know… the listening experience sucks. Radio can never get to a better place, or a trusted position in audio entertainment, as long as it’s demanding its hosts be interesting and memorable in 8-second bursts. Yes, agencies buy on Nielsen data; that’s a tough relationship and dynamic to walk away from. I challenge a station or group to flip the script. Take a year to rebuild your product and sell on the organic lift and local word of mouth you see as a result. Agencies may not get it, but local advertisers will. They’ll feel it. They’ll be part of it.
5. Stop giving lip service to digital. Ask any radio executive or employee, and they’ll proudly tell you how important digital is to their future. But of those people, how many can articulate what their station’s digital strategy is? How many are aggressively thinking about the digital space? How many think “social media strategy” is loading their Facebook page with memes? It might be time to stop waiting for radio people to figure out digital, and instead bring in digital people to figure out radio.
6. Overhaul HR. The recent Eric Ferguson-related shitshow at WTMX in Chicago revealed to the public something we’ve all known for a while: Radio HR is a disaster. Get real HR professionals installed at the corporate and local levels. Stop protecting, institutionalizing and perpetuating toxicity and hostile workplaces. And we’re begging you… believe women.
7. Open the airwaves to new voices. When I came up in the industry, it was a time when inexperienced, fresh out of college, kids could get a shot on the air. I was a beneficiary of that practice, as were many of my old Q101 colleagues. As available slots shrink and the industry is scared of its own PPM shadow, those chances are no longer being handed out. For the industry to move forward, it again needs to find fresh voices… young voices… diverse voices… talent that’s not locked into doing “business as usual.”
8. Speaking of diversity and HR… I worked for a radio cluster that had no black employees, and maybe 3-4 POC overall. In order to reflect the communities it serves, radio needs to commit to systemic change from within.
9. Embrace the audience. Some of the oldest methods of bettering radio stations remain the best. Bring listeners in to the station for informal focus groups and commit to taking action afterward. Engage listeners on and offline; asking them what conversations they want to hear, what music they like, and which personalities appeal to them. And then do something about it.
10. Take podcasts from RSS to AM and FM. Looking for new voices? How about slotting local podcasts into the broadcast day? Instead of turning radio shows into time-shifted podcasts, experiment with turning podcasts into live radio shows.
11. Start sucking up to auto manufacturers yesterday. Because if radio eventually loses its position on the dashboard, none of the first 10 points will matter. Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan figured this out a long time ago; it’s too bad the industry couldn’t come together back then.
I realize some of these ideas are dramatic to the point of being perceived as impossible, but surely the window for small, cosmetic changes has closed.