Many years ago, I was working for Q101 in Chicago, then-owned by Emmis. We were attacked by a similar-sounding radio station, and I remember getting on the phone with our team to discuss next steps. As we went through all the possible moves and tactics, reassuring ourselves that we'd be OK in the long run. We'd been around a long time, had a strong morning show, and solid brand loyalty.
But Emmis programming wizard, Rick Cummings, reminded us of one very important truism:
And he's right, of course. You can have a good product, service, or brand, but as the market becomes littered with more options, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand out. Consumers will inevitably try new options – even if they love you and what you're doing.
April has been a crazy month. As always, there was a lot going on: the release of the Mueller Report, the NBA Playoffs, the major holidays over the weekend, and the usual flow of news coming out of the NAB in Vegas.
So, you might have missed a couple of major developments in the ever-crowded world of audio streaming:
Amazon and YouTube launched free music streaming services!
Under normal circumstances in the media and technology landscape, this would have been a momentous story. But instead, the news was about as exciting as all those new Democrats throwing their hats in the ring to run for President: Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell, and most recently, Seth Moulton. And some dude named Andrew Yang whose hologram is appearing everywhere.
After a while, the glut of choice creates a sort of eyeroll overload situation on the part of voters – and consumers. When that occurs, most gravitate to the brands they know and trust. That doesn't mean that one of these late entries won't have an impact on the Presidential race. But the more competitors in the field, and their similarity to one another, the more voters just stop processing them.
That may also be the case for music streaming services, free and paid. There are so many that you can see where consumers have this overwhelming urge to stand pat. Bruce Houghton wrote in Hypebot last week that neither of these services appears to be the “Spotify killer” they aspire to become.
As MediaWatch's Russ Crupnick told Variety, “I don't see this changing anything major in the music ecosystem. It will probably have little impact on the established players.”
That's amazing when we're talking about brands like Amazon and YouTube. When they don't have the ability to make waves in the streaming ecosphere, what does that say about the state of the larger media arena?
And where does that leave legacy radio, where broadcasters have struggled for years to provide a competitive streaming experience? For consumers who love a local radio station or personality, the stream is a convenience that allows them to take this content with them wherever they go – on laptops, smartphones, tablets, and in cars.
But as an audio experience, most station streams are sorely lacking. As radio broadcasters struggle with the “Total Line Reporting” conundrum, streams designed to earn their keep – that is, generating their own ad revenue – often are painful to listen to, even with improved ad insertion technology. And then there is the “filler” – the same annoying ads, promos, and PSAs that come around again and again.
And in an environment where all these streaming services are providing consistency on the one hand, but redundancy on the other, what is radio's role? To provide yet another stream (with 10 commercials an hour) that duplicates its over the air programming or to perhaps offer something that's different.
I hear it again and again in focus groups. Respondents consistently remind us that while they may pay for a streaming service, enjoy building and sharing playlists, or have 5,000 songs stored on their smartphones, they get sick of hearing their own selections and songs.
There's something indescribably special and even exhilarating about turning on the radio and hearing something you weren't quite expecting. When programming is curated by someone other than yourself, you never know exactly what you're going to get.
But it's not just about playing music that's unexpected. Sometimes, it's hearing a personality talking about a familiar song, a famous concert, or a new factoid about a very familiar artist or group in a new way that resonates for you. I hear listeners complain that big hits from bands like Zeppelin, Skynyrd, or the Stones have been played so much, the world would be better off if radio just gave them a long rest.
But when a DJ tells you something interesting about a song or artist that you didn't know, it can change your entire listening experience.
I thought about this the other day when I opened Facebook, and found a two-minute video from BBC Four. It's about a couple of artists – David Bowie, who you know quite well, and his sideman Earl Slick, who you may never have heard of. The short video tells the story of how they first ended up working together, and what their collaboration meant to each other – and to those of us on the receiving end of their music.
It's well-produced, contains captions (the first time I watched it, I wasn't able to play the audio but knew exactly what was going on), tells you something you didn't know, and provides you with context about the music you love. This type of artist appreciation gives you something to talk about the next time you get together with your friends who share your music tastes.
The video is taken from a longer documentary, “Rock N Roll Guns For Hire” – the role that independent musicians played in mainstream rock. I'm sure the entire 90-minute documentary is fascinating – I know I'll get to it someday. But unlike soundalike playlist services (and radio stations) that just keep hammering “Rebel, Rebel,” “Changes,” and “Fame” over and over again, these bite-sized features are quick, compelling, and easy to digest, adding a surprise or two along the way.
This is storytelling as its best. And even for jaded rock music fans, it's interesting and hard to turn off.
It's been a common theme in this blog that the building blocks of achieving ratings success for decades and decades have been consistency and safety. But perhaps those traits have lost some of their luster among consumers seeking out something new, different, and even surprising. In a world of expanding options, they want more.
Persons using radio data from Nielsen suggest they're gravitating away from broadcast radio, looking for something a little different. The question is, is it because content and experience are so much better in these newer outlets? Or is that the quality, sameness, and predictability of broadcast radio has motivated them to look elsewhere?
In this year's new Techsurvey 2019, we may have discovered a clue. Each year, we ask respondents whether they're listening to more, less, or the same amount of radio in the past year. As has been the case the past few years, about 10% tell us they're not listening to as much AM/FM radio in the past year. Not alarming, given the competitive nature of audio and all those options we're talking about.
But when we get to the question of why they've reduced their broadcast radio listening, something interesting has happened. Just a couple of years ago, “lifestyle change” was the culprit – people who have moved, changed jobs, graduated from school, retired, or made some sort of personal or professional move that's negatively impacted their radio listening.
And right up there has also been radio's two biggest “self-inflicted wounds” – too many commercials and repetitive music – time-honored negatives that programmers hear so much they tune it all out.
But at the top of the list this year of reasons for less radio listening is a new entrant:
“I have more options to listen to in the car”
Singled out by more than four in ten listening less to broadcast radio in the past year, Millennials are especially likely to point to expanded choice in the car as the reason why some are spending less time spent with AM and FM stations. We know the car is radio's top listening location – especially among younger audiences. And when those dashboards become connected, the audio choices become essentially infinite.
Just a decade or so ago, the only thing staring at you when you hopped into your car or truck was that omnipresent AM/FM radio…and a CD player. Today, connectivity and smartphones have changed all that. Drivers and passengers with satellite radio, and/or systems like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are even more likely to have decreased their traditional radio listening in favor of these other in-dash choices.
The digital age has changed the success equation, especially for legacy brands like TV shows, magazines, newspapers, and radio stations. It is still possible for incumbent media to compete in this expanded arena, but the old formulas and so-called “best practices” that worked in the 1990s are as outmoded as VHS tapes and bag phones.
Tomorrow, we'll look at those “other options” in the car and elsewhere – why they're working and what radio broadcasters might consider in order to compete more effectively in the ecosystem they once owned almost entirely.
Rick Cummings was right.
But there may just be a few ways to beat the crowd.