I attended the Voice of the Car Summit last month where a couple hundred very smart, tech-savvy people gathered to talk about the power of “voice.” Along the way, they're doing research about cars and driving. And some have discovered that typical commute times create opportunities when lots of consumers are in their cars.
Seriously? Even first-year radio students know about the power of drive time, but these technologists are just beginning to wrap their heads around the times when “voice” will become an even bigger factor as drivers motor to and from work.
I participated in a panel discussion, and when I made the statement, “In radio, bad traffic is our friend,” it drew many laughs. That's because many of the attendees have always thought of traffic as a nuisance or the price you pay for living in a big city.
In radio, we think of heavy traffic as a gift – providing a daily captive audience and lots of TSL. It's why long commute times in markets like D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, New York, L.A., and others have always been a positive ratings factor for local News/Talk stations. From the minds of some of those early programmers at CBS and Group W came the News/Talk clock many commuters know by heart, featuring “traffic and weather together at the 8's” (or at other fixed positions several times an hour).
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And for decades, that dashboard radio was the only place drivers could get consistently reliable traffic information – that is, until the advent of the smartphone and traffic apps. Google Maps, Waze, and others now provide routing information in real time. They are detailed, giving drivers information about disabled vehicles, as well as nearby cops looking for speeders. And in the process, radio's reputation for reliable traffic information has been gradually diminishing.
We saw this in this year's Techsurvey, where only four in ten respondents rely on radio traffic reports. Just a few years ago, a healthy majority turned to an AM or FM station as their first source for road information.
Remember most of our respondents are radio listeners, many of whom are members of email databases. So, when they start leaving the AM/FM band to get traffic information, it's concerning. This is especially the case among younger generations in our survey – Google Maps has become their go-to choice. Waze is also becoming a significant factor. (Not surprisingly, Google bought Waze back in 2013, integrating its data in Google Maps.)
This sends an obvious message to radio – modernize your traffic reports or be prepared to lose yet another battle to digital sources.
At the NAB in Vegas last month, a panel called “The Personalized Future of In-Vehicle Entertainment” featured Adam Fried, head of global partnerships at Waze. A story in Inside Radio reported that collaborations with audio companies like TuneIn and iHeartRadio are becoming more common, providing much-needed, real-time, personalized traffic information.
Automakers are taking control as well. Ford announced last year Waze integration with vehicles equipped with their SYNC 3 operating system. Recent TV commercials for the automaker prominently show Ford touting the Waze app on their touchscreens.
So, we shouldn't be surprised that Entercom's Radio.com announced a new partnership with Waze yesterday. As Entercom's SVP/GM Fred Bennett noted in AllAccess, “Partnering with Waze will allow us to offer more powerful real-time traffic updates to our audience. By integrating new technologies into our on-air and digital traffic reporting, we will be able to better serve our communities and continue to offer them the most robust local traffic information they need to plan their day.”
Let's not forget that Entercom now owns some of the biggest and best All News stations in the country, thanks to their purchase of CBS. But it should be noted these Waze tie-ins are with apps – iHeartRadio, Radio.com, and TuneIn.
The first of these integrations we knew about with Waze and broadcast radio's WTOP, about five years ago. We blogged about it in 2015, an early attempt to differentiate its radio traffic reports and give them an edge.
It's a positive companies like iHeartMedia and Entercom are bolstering their apps with Waze integration, but what about the on-air traffic product?
For the millions still listening to the radio in their cars – the broad majority of Americans – integrations with a player like Waze shouldn't just be delivered via apps. It should be used as foundational information with which to provide on-air radio traffic reporters with better data.
That said, all the digital navigation info in the world isn't going to make broadcast radio traffic reports more interesting or entertaining. Once again, that comes down to the personality of these reports. And when radio is on its game, traffic reports can be more than mundane service elements that carry advertising.
Back in the day, radio traffic reports were actually entertaining, presented by clever, interesting people broadcasting live from helicopters and small planes. Whether it was go-go boot wearing Jo-Jo Shutty at CKLW in Detroit, or the clever joking of KMBZ's John Wagner, branded as the “Sky Spy” flying all over Kansas City, these reports were entertaining and often turned into moments commuters and other listeners looked forward to. That was a long time ago. Today, radio traffic reports couldn't be duller or more pedestrian.
As Waze's Fried noted at the NAB, “audio is not our expertise.”
No, that's what those of us in broadcast radio are supposed to be good at. Presenting interesting, compelling, and even entertaining reports – integrated with more reliable information – ought to be right up radio's alley.
Executed well, it could be the best of both worlds for broadcast radio. Given the importance of the car to the medium, that's a goal worth striving for.
For radio, there's trouble up the road if the industry doesn't act to work around it.