The New World of Opportunity

By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

As 2008 unfolds, there is considerable consternation at all levels of radio. Declining audiences and revenues, ongoing encroachment by internet radio, iPods and satellite radio, personnel attrition and incredible shrinking budgets are but a few.

The simple fact is that these issues are supra the role and scope of radio’s imaging and commercial producers. Your ability to persuade the decision-makers that creativity is important has been limited. Readers of RAP have fought the good fight for many years, eloquently and passionately.

Finally, there are some developments that directly affect programming and production now and probably for many years to come. There is real opportunity to apply creativity to content that could change the possibilities of the medium profoundly.

PPM. This is one of the most misunderstood and mismanaged systems in the history of radio audience measurement. It’s a good idea that should have been developed and implemented years ago. The diary methodology of assessing radio usage has been passé for a long time. It requires a level of recall that most people just don’t have. If we can’t trust Americans to drive cars safely or exercise their right to vote in a sane manner, why should we believe that they can (or ever could) accurately recall their listening to radio? It is especially true in a period when the entertainment/information options are vast, the listeners’ time is at a premium and the number of radio channels is expanding rapidly with the introduction of HD radio.

While PPM numbers from Houston and Philadelphia are studied as if their secrets will prevent the collapse of the free world, Arbitron has been forced to significantly delay the rollout of the new system in many other large markets. It is paradoxical that the cause of this conundrum has little to do with electronic measurement itself and much more to do with the curse of radio audience ratings since its inception: sample sizes, non-response bias in younger demos and the failure to include sufficient minority respondents.

It is now a fait accompli that PPM will come to define the measurement of radio audiences and that the accuracy of the listening information will be enhanced over the diary methodology. What is of critical importance to radio programmers and imaging producers is the fact that repeating the call letters, frequency and station slogans ad absurdum will no longer be necessary or a judicious strategy. How many hours of a listener’s time are wasted in a typical year hearing the station identity first and last into the stopset or four times in a promo or two times in a sweeper?

The opportunity is at hand to use this time to entertain and inform listeners in short bursts. PPM is a blanket invitation to programmers and producers to change the content from hype to something compelling. And the greatest lure of this new vista is that no one knows exactly how to do it yet. There will be no tradition or rules to rely on. Right and wrong will be established by trial and error. The answers are found in the psyches of listeners and the cleverness and audacity of those who seek their approbation.

Streaming. While this is not a new subject for radio, the declining fortunes of terrestrial broadcasters are increasingly tied to the idea that streaming a station will create a world audience and rich new advertising revenues. Current research shows that there are approximately 28.3 million unique visitors per month to radio station streams. That is certainly not an insignificant number.

It is true that every major radio group is quite taken with the notion of streaming revenue. And it is equally true that streaming has created holes in the content that are not being taken advantage of in any meaningful way. The absence of an agreement with voice and music performers for streaming means that the great majority of national radio commercials are not eligible for this usage. Meanwhile, radio gives streaming away to most local advertisers, surely not the business model that will reap economic benefits in the short or long terms.

Thus, streaming creates content holes, most often in 30 and 60 second time frames. It is a major opportunity for programmers and imaging/commercial producers to create expanded short-form content to fill those voids. How can you entertain and inform listeners in these windows without it being a barrage of self-promotion? Once again, there are no rules, no right or wrong.

HD Radio. Even as the Radio Alliance enters the second year of pumping a couple of hundred million dollars worth of on-air efforts to promote the stations-within-the-stations, there is controversy about the effectiveness of the campaign itself and the reluctance of listeners to rip out their radios and spend money and effort to receive the offerings of HD Radio. It is a battle surely far beyond the influence of those who man radio’s creative trenches.

But another opportunity is born. Radio’s programmers and producers need not be constrained by the customs of the business. That is already evident in some of the formats that are springing to life, from gay and lesbian offerings to blues to classical to independent rock. A hallmark of most HD stations is that air personalities are virtually non-existent. Of necessity, content should be produced that will give the station a personality. And since there is no evidence that HD listeners want more of the same approach they get from primary stations, the challenge is to develop new and compelling content.

Questions. Three of the biggest developments in radio history present three chances to raise the bar of produced content. The unanswered questions will determine whether it is the dawn of a new era for producers or another example of opportunity lost.

Will radio management decide to develop new initiatives regarding content, or will it talk the talk until it is too late to make a difference? Will radio programmers embrace the new order and put in the work to make this a reality and something special? Will there be enough truly creative and passionate radio imagers and commercial producers to carry out this idea? And will there be enough budget and tools to make it a success?

The clock is ticking on the future of radio. It has been for awhile. To date, there are few, if any, who would say that the efforts to stave off decline have been successful. But then, the old dog hasn’t tried many new tricks. Wouldn’t it be nifty if radio’s most intelligent, creative, hardest-working people were the magicians so many of them want to be? 

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