We’ve all been there.
You wake up one day – or 5 o’clock rolls around – and it turns out that one of your competitors has changed formats.
And now they’re coming right at you.
They’re playing your music, with your value proposition, and your liners. And they’re commercial-free so even your core fans will try them out. And it also turns out that this is no ma and pa company – it’s one of the biggest corporations in the business and they’re gunning right at your heart.
It’s a sick feeling because brand managers work very hard to establish their turf, their position, and their difference. And when another capable player with assets galore comes on the scene, it signals fragmentation and the pain that comes with it.
That has to be how Tim Westergren and Daniel Ek probably felt last month when Google announced its new Google Play Music All Access (OK, they’ve got to tighten up that name) – another of these all you can eat music subscription services where the world’s music library is available to you to create infinite numbers of playlists. Maybe it was Rhapsody that was most uncomfortable because they’ve never cracked through and now good old Google has designs on this space. And these pure-play incumbents may go through that collective nausea again if the rumors that Apple may be starting their own music service are true. You have to believe that an Apple-created iRadio would be an instant problem for Pandora, Spotify, and others pure-plays.
Google has lots of assets – the Android platform, apps, a ridiculously large “cume,” and other tools that can be integrated with music. And Apple has a few things going for it as well, from its millions and millions of customers to iTunes to its incredible media brand equity.
For consumers, this is yet another signal that music has been commoditized and that it’s no longer necessary or even practical to buy music – whether you still do this physically or you’ve totally moved over to the digital format.
But for radio, it’s a whole other thing. Any consumer can now have 3 million songs in their pocket or purse. It’s possible to enjoy “radio” that is created based on your mood, your tastes, or the playlists of your friends.
And yet as more and more of these digital music services come along, radio may actually stand apart in a unique but very precarious way.
Every digital pundit and blogger believes that radio’s music stations are on the endangered species list as these smorgasbord services proliferate. But if that means that radio will essentially become a spoken word medium, that’s a tough one to swallow (especially as Talk/Radio now finds itself walking the plank because of advertiser problems and its myopic view of consumers). The music stations that manage to survive will suffer by the lack of competitors around them. And are there really enough spoken word formats to fill up a market’s worth of radio choices? Do markets really need three sports radio stations or news/talkers?
So will music formats really be dead on broadcast radio? Is there any truth to the theory that music stations will have no value when consumers can migrate to one of the aforementioned services that lets them listen to any song they like anytime on any device anywhere they go?
Well, yes, if radio continues to go down the path of fewer personalities, more voicetracking, less talk, no local program directors, formulaic playlists, no audience interaction, local coverage only during disasters, zero curation, and simply no fun.
Those tactics may work just fine in the PPM world. But consumers don’t live in that neighborhood. They’re part of a much larger social community. And while virtually all the world’s music resources and songs are now available at the click of a mouse, don’t people need help and guidance in order to discover and learn what’s worth listening to?
Consumers need reviewers, guides, mavens, and entertainers we trust who know us and know our tastes. This is true for restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, chain saws, and cars – and it’s also true for music.
We need help, guidance, and hand holding because the dark side of all this choice is that too many options can be overwhelming. When you have everything at your digital fingertips, it can become intimidating and stressful. And there’s a good chance that, ultimately, consumers will be turned off by all these options.
That’s where radio ought to come in – to reassert its historical value to consumers and help them better understand and enjoy the music that matters in their lives – whether it’s an album produced in Los Angeles or the UK or a great song that’s been recorded right here in town by a local band that’s worthy of hearing and seeing.
There are DJs like this on the radio, but they are becoming fewer and farther between. WMMR’s Pierre Robert, Mike Halloran at 91X (pictured), as well as “guides” at The Coast in Mendocino, The Drive in Chicago, The Sound in LA, plus public radio DJs like Ann Delisi (pictured) at WDET, and curators at stations that include KCRW, WXPN, the Current, and others across the U.S. All do a great job of musical guidance.
But it’s not easy to find these musical lighthouses – interesting, savvy entertainers who take the time to listen to music – because they are rapidly diminishing on a medium where they once thrived.
In the meantime, if the collective brain trust in radio actually sat down to determine “what’s next” for music formats, wouldn’t this notion of smart, savvy concierge DJs be hailed as a pretty smart strategy? Maybe the only strategy? Isn’t that locally flavored sherpa the defining difference between why a consumer would turn to Spotify or become more comfortable with the companionship of a local, trusted guide?
Like any creeping condition that doesn’t get critical overnight, the music radio crisis is a lot like global warming on Social Security funding. We can deny, deny, and deny, but for the good of the broadcast radio medium, isn’t it time to face facts, rethink the obvious, accept the new reality, and refocus on what makes FM music radio unique?
You know that’s happening “across the street” at radio’s new competitors – Apple, Google, Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, Songza, and Amazon. They’re spending considerable think time gaming out their music domination plan. They’re analyzing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. They’re spending more time, resources, human and financial capital learning what makes radio tick – and how they can beat it – than we are. And they love our brand – radio. Look how many of these services incorporate it in their names and descriptors.
Are we going to have to wait for one of these companies to buy a radio group to learn how it’s going to be done?
Or are we going to wake up and attack ourselves first?
There’s a way out of this, but we have to swallow a dose of reality and start designing that strategic road map.
It’s time to get serious about music formats on FM radio. Because now Google and Apple are.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.