Onward Content Soldiers

By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

Content is king. It’s the most misleading phrase in the history of radio. After a decade or more of extolling its virtues, reciting it as a mantra and doing virtually nothing to support it, content is on life support and nearing flatline.

The dictionary defines content as the substance or material dealt with as distinct from its form or style. In radio, that would be all material beyond music, commercials and news, including talk, bits, sweepers, promos, contests, weather, traffic, sports, etc.

The major focus of radio content discussions these days is profanity and bad taste. What words can be used? How does their context affect the right of the F.C.C. to issue fines for using them? What phrases are offensive to particular segments of the audience? Who should be fired for uttering them?

It is diversion in its purest form. It is a non-issue to most listeners, whose interest in and attention to radio is waning for entirely different reasons. The heart of the content deathwatch has everything to do with ignoring listeners, no matter how much research is conducted in how to manipulate them.

The content of radio is frozen in a time capsule. There is essentially no change from five, ten or twenty years ago. For all of the money invested in morning shows, they sound the same. When it comes to talk radio, the neoconservative and shock shows remain substantially unchanged. When looking honestly at imaging, its many skilled and erudite practitioners notwithstanding, it is the same as it ever was.

Ignoring listeners comes at a steep price. A recent article looked at the dangers of operating any business from an insider’s perspective. As applied to radio, it raised many valid points about what listeners don’t care about. Those start with how many minutes of music or songs in a row that a station plays. For the audience that just wants to hear a lot of music, these claims are at best ignored and at worst are an irritant.

Listeners don’t care about the problems of the sales department or worry about the station’s bottom line. They just know they don’t like too much clutter and too many commercials. Listeners aren’t concerned with whether an air personality is local or beaming in from Mars. They want to hear things that have relevance and are informative or entertaining.

Audiences aren’t swayed by slogans that tout “best” or “most.” It doesn’t mean anything to them. They’re not seduced by branding, no matter how much the industry loves it, because that isn’t why they tune in to radio. Even radio’s quest to make HD radio important misses the mark. Listeners don’t own it or generally feel they need it. Why can’t the station they’re listening to just sound better?

What does this tell us about the state of radio content? Simply that it is based on the anachronistic notions of those that guide it and not on the desires of those that listen to it. The industry will point to how many people still listen everyday, but it will ignore a decline in that figure and a more drastic drop in time spent listening. The industry tells us that it is amazing how well radio has survived iPods, satellite and internet radio and myriad other new media at the same time it does virtually nothing to innovate when it comes to its own service.

The truth is that radio, far beyond any other mass medium, is a status quo content machine. In a growing economy, its revenues are flat. Its stock prices woefully underperform the market. Radio spends less on developing new approaches to content than it does on parking spaces for its executives.

Amid this backdrop of failure, there is a clear-cut path to improving radio content on a global scale. It begins with acknowledging the listener in new ways. First, a listener’s time is valuable. That is in contrast to the insider perspective of the station’s time being most valuable. When you waste a listener’s time, his or her first reaction is to punch the dial or put on a CD.

Second, respect the audience’s intelligence. This is a complex world to survive in. They understand more than you think. And they resent or filter out so many slogans and station identifiers and so much hype that they have ceased to be effective. If common sense, experience and good taste don’t convince, maybe Arbitron’s new people meter will. The audience will no longer need to recall your station’s call letters or frequency, since that will be done automatically.

Third, radio moves far too slowly. When it takes 30 seconds to deliver the weather or three minutes to do a phone bit or 45 seconds to talk about an appearance by an air personality, listeners are more than restive. The same point could be made about contests, since a minority of listeners think they can win or choose to enter. For everyone else, it’s just long, slow torture.

Here comes the revolution. What if radio produced and consolidated its content? What if programmers, air talent and imaging producers focused their energies on entertaining and informing listeners rather than dressing up hype for the ten thousandth time? What would it sound like if radio stations created modules that lasted 45 to 90 seconds and offered essential information (weather, news, traffic and sports), lifestyle information (movie openings, household hints, gossip, technology developments), entertainment (trivia, comedy, unusual factoids, etc.) and promotional material (very brief and contextual commercials, sales and station promotions)?

The most important departure from radio’s longstanding modus operandi is to convert the generally most creative and industrious person at the station, the imaging producer, from producing mindless phrases and redundant promos to producing content. While it doesn’t mean that imaging producers will never create sweepers or promos, it does open a new world of content creation and delivery that respects the listener’s time and intelligence and moves in a word-efficient, rapid style. It delivers content that would take an air personality three or four times as long to present and include fascinating material that otherwise would have no context on the air.

Each segment in a module would last from three to ten seconds and be voiced by someone of the station’s choosing. It would thus have full format integrity in substance and style, and the timeless content could air whenever you want and change at the click of a keystroke.

This is a concept of content consolidation that has been in development for three years by a team of independent radio producers, musicians and masochists. It is part of the industry’s first total content service called DOWNLOAD HD™ and it contains more than 17,000 unique pieces of audio and written content, both topical and timeless. It resides on the web at downloadhdfx.com. If you click on the demo button and play the audio, you will hear a full example of this approach about 2/3 of the way through it.

That being said, this author is part of the HD/FX development team and is admittedly biased in proposing the implementation of such an idea. But whether or not you use this particular service, the greater importance is to give the idea its just due. You can obtain the elements from your own sources and experiment from there. You can take a trip down Content Boulevard and discover the exhilaration of producing real content with all of the style and none of the hype that you’re used to. You can dazzle listeners and expand your skill set.

Or, you can recite the mantra and extol its virtues. You can live the status quo until radio ceases to exist. Content is king. How utterly fantastic if that were actually true.

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