There is a difference between winning…and winning in the hearts and minds of the jurors.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, the scene of the highly publicized trial of John C. Depp versus Amber Lauarwa Heard, embroiled in multimillion dollar legal disputes, coffee drinkers all over the country are making their opinions known. The now-viral-video on TikTok trend showed two tip jars, one labeled “Johnny” and the other “Amber” in the drive-thru window.
And their contents reveal the sentiment of the “public jury” – Depp's tip jar is overflowing with cash, smiley faces, and hearts. Heard's, on the other hand, sits virtually empty with negative illustrations, frowns, and poop emojis. If these Starbucks voters were sent to the jury room to make their decision today, old Captain Jack Sparrow would emerge as the swashbuckling victor.
This :12 TikTok video perhaps says more about how the trial is going than hours and hours of testimony and transcripts:
The video speaks volumes about the court of public perception – how people feel about the idea of Johnny Depp or Amber Heard, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, Vladmir Putin or Volodomyr Zelensky, Pete Davidson or Kanye West. Now more than ever, these feelings run deep, coloring the way people think about celebrity, entertainment, and even important conflicts like the Ukraine Russian War.
These choices do not have to be rational or even accurate. They are emotions, after all. And we know most people speak from the heart rather than the head, especially on issues where they don't have a stake in the outcome.
In the case of this blog post, the “jury” is a mixed group: consumers of all ages and backgrounds, ad agency execs, car dealers, politicians, local retailers, research analysts, and others who have the power and ability to vote with their feet. Or their ears. Or their wallets.
They're the people on the ground who see what they see, hear what they hear, and form opinions as a result. And it's broadcast radio “on trial” in the court of public opinion, up against competitors that include SiriusXM, Pandora, Spotify, and podcasts.
Unlike Depp v. Heard, these divergent groups all have a say in the success or failure of entertainment and information content – what it is and where it comes from. When they are together with their peers, and the subject rolls around to Netflix movies, music, comedians, or podcasts, most people have firm tastes and opinions they often hold near and dear. Most can be persuaded to try something new, especially if the conversation takes place among friends or confidants. But when a medium, a category, or a personality gets tainted and painted by a negative brush, making a comeback can be a heavy lift.
I once heard Pierre Bouvard say a truism that has stuck with me over the years:
“Perceptions are like glaciers….slow to form and slower to melt.”
We saw this vividly with a question in Techsurvey 2020 (fielded just weeks before the pandemic hit American shores). We asked respondents to estimate – OK, guess – the percentage of Americans 18+ that listen to broadcast radio, Pandora, Spotify, and SiriusXM in a typical week. Now keep in mind, our sample is made up primarily of core radio listeners – mostly members of station email databases. If opinions are going to lean in any direction, broadcast radio has a decided edge in Techsurvey.
When we got the data back, we winced. OK, cringed. As we had theorized, respondents overestimated the popularity of satellite and digital streaming platforms. And they greatly underestimated the percentage of those reached by AM/FM during a routine 7 day period. Don't tell me marketing doesn't work.
We put the actual reach percentages together with the help of several sources: Nielsen, Edison, and quarterly reporting to Wall Street. The numbers speak volumes about the perception of who reaches the most adults in America every week:
The actual reach levels are in dark blue, while Techsurvey 2020 respondent perceptions are in raspberry. Our radio-friendly group overshot Spotify, Pandora, and SXM's popularity – the latter two by more than 2x their actual reach levels.
For broadcast radio, that 92% figure we hear with numbing regularity from radio leadership and Nielsen analysts doesn't square with even the medium's most loyal listeners. In fact, they guesstimate fewer than two in three adults tune in any AM/FM radio on a given week. While that still leaves broadcast radio with a substantial lead, it comes nowhere close to the medium's actual reach versus its digital and satellite delivered competitors.
The fact is, radio is stuck with solidifying perceptions the medium is in serious decline. That many former listeners have moved on. That radio sounds the same everywhere you go. That stations play seemingly endless numbers of commercials – back-to-back – all in a row. That evil corporations pick the music from afar. That no one actually wins radio contests because they're fixed.
Fast-forward to the present, and we learned in Techsurvey 2022 that three in ten core radio listeners now drive truly “connected cars,” and that eight in ten are now able to pair their phones in their cars, SUVs, and trucks. Yes, people are still listening to AM/FM stations while driving – just about everyone's research indicates radio is still the top choice while consumers are on four wheels. But the equation is shifting. Radio no longer dominates the driving experience. And as automakers offer easy access to satellite radio and reams of content on smartphones, we know where the puck isn't just headed, but where it is right now. The “old order” is undergoing a serious shift, thanks in no small part to disruption in cars.
Where there's smoke, there's usually fire. And the above perceptions didn't materialize out of thin air or even since the pandemic. True, some opinions been aided, abetted, and even accelerated by radio's growing list of competitors – from satellite radio to DSPs to podcasts – all of which have attempted with some success to associate broadcast radio with old technology, like the dial phone, VCR, and Walkman. COVID didn't cause this, but it sped up trends that were already forming.
Truth be told, broadcast radio has brought much of these negative perceptions on itself. Bloated commercial loads grew in the 90's, exacerbated by the rigid policy of airing two ridiculously long stopsets per hour in the nation's biggest markets. To make matters worse, the majority of stations in PPM metros program their commercial breaks at virtually the same times, making the listening experience even more annoying.
All of this is being done in order to curry favor (or eliminate tuneout) among a thousand or so panelists carrying around meters. The hope is these programming policies keep panelists tuned in. Yet, it can be argued the collateral damage from these tactics now outweigh whatever value they once had in the early years of PPM.
Most broadcasters care more about that one 39 year-old Hispanic female in Redondo Beach or that lone 27 year-old “other” male in Crystal Lake carrying a meter than they do the tens of millions of actual consumers who are still listening. Radio stations in the top 48 markets often spend what few “marketing” dollars they have left chasing meter holders rather than building their brands, their staffs, and their audience and advertiser engagement.
Radio broadcasters are now heavily invested in the hope that Congress will pass another round of deregulation, praying new leadership at the NAB get help get it done. That would allow them to essentially “own” markets, rather than share what's left of the “radio dollars” with another owner (or two) in the metro.
But in the last quarter-century since the Internet took flight, few have done little to distinguish themselves over the publicly owned airwaves. even with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the legislation that sanctioned in the current leniency of ownership rules. Format innovation, the emergence of great personalities, and well-produced audio content have taken a backseat to budget cutting, rampant and expedient voicetracking, and a reduction of local community service and presence in cities of license.
In these modern times, the debut of a “new” format isn't exciting or novel at all. In fact, we've heard them all before because they are almost always selected from what I have called the “Wheel of Formats” – the same-old array of safe but bland choices that produce absolutely no buzz or energy. These flaccid radio debuts are typically heralded in by a tired countdown clock, construction sound effects, and the unveiling of a “new format” (that isn't the least bit “new”) with x number of songs commercial-free. Even the most naive of consumers know what's coming in a just a few short weeks.
When was the last time someone uttered the phrase, “Have you heard that new radio station that just signed on?” Sorry, but for most listeners in most markets, it's been decades.
What has been uttered, especially in the 90s by ownership smitten with hubris, is this phrase: “Where else are they going to go?” It was directed not just at listeners, but at advertisers.
Pre-Internet, that was an arrogant statement, but a fundamentally correct one. Today, it is a question only a fool would ask. Where else are they going to go? We can't count the bona fide places on two hands anymore. Consumers have not only found alternatives to broadcast radio, they have flocked to them on gadgets like smartphones, tablets, and Alexa, disrupting a century-old industry that could use more friends and fans.
Sadly, radio broadcasters have mostly squandered streaming, HD2's and 3's, new music discovery, and personality development, all in the hope of saving money, cutting our way to profitability, and earning higher Nielsen ratings. As to that latter goal, we can no longer truly monetize those reach and frequency numbers anyway because spot demand and average ratings are so low. And that's led to a deluge of remnant advertising and even bonusing those extra FMs that once had promise to be paragons of programming innovation. Now, we just throw them into cluster buys because that's what they're worth. Like those “But wait there's more…” ads for Popeil products and Ginsu knives that used to populate late night TV. When people actually watched real-time television.
And the ratings, the Infinite Dial, and our Techsurveys all point to the same results – usage declines, whether it is reach, time spent listening, lower PUMM levels, and most other metrics. Just looking at shares is deceiving. The evidence is clear, consumers are gravitating away from the medium, while some never get there in the first place.
How many stories like the one below have you heard in the past couple of years…or past couple of days?
Paul and I are meeting with an international broadcaster in Vegas last week who is trying to get his arms around American radio. He jumps in an Uber on his way to the Convention Center, hears music playing, and chats up the driver about what she's listening to. It turns out it's Spotify, and he asks her what radio stations in town she enjoys.
And she replies, “You know, since I've owned this car, I don't think I've ever turned the radio on.”
He asks us his version of “WTF” and we have no response but to shake our heads, and say, “We know.”
Could that be true? It could and it probably is. We see it in Techsurvey each year. And we hear it anecdotally all the time.
What will another round of deregulation → consolidation mean to radio ownership?
It could delay the inevitable, keeping profits rolling in for another few years while the radio product and advertising experience further atrophies.
….it could present a pathway toward creating a better radio listening and marketing environment.
Now I know what you're thinking: someone's put something in Fred's Starbucks. And if past is prologue, none of us should be heavily placing our chips on the bet anything is likely to change.
But sometimes all it takes is one or two visionary players to actually try something new. And as we know, radio broadcasters tend to mimic strategies and tactics that are working.
In tomorrow's post, I'll get specific and offer up a list of maneuvers that could possibly change the trajectory radio is on.
That's because staying the course will simply lead to more erosion and continued lower usage and engagement with the medium.
Like the definition of insanity, radio could use a new playbook.
Or even a couple of trick plays that might help change perceptions of radio.
So, in which jar will you put your tip?
Part 2 of this blog post is accessible here.
For the latest results of Techsurvey 2022 – and what it means to radio broadcasters – join Fred Jacobs on Tuesday, May 10th at 2pm ET for a free webinar. Details and registration here.
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