As the Grateful Dead remind us, “What a long strange trip it's been.”
Being a part of radio's journey over the past couple of decades has been…well, an experience.
As I watch the “returns” pour in for Techsurvey 2023, I'm reminded of the early days for this research tracking study. Back when it all started in 2004-05, media technology as we know it today was very nascent. Sure, the iPod was in full bloom, changing the way we listened to and purchased music. But so many of the other innovations that have rocked our worlds – both in audio and video – were still yet to come.
In fact, 2005 turned out to be a milestone year. It marked the debut of YouTube and the podcast (as we know it). Facebook wouldn't leave the college campus and be available to the rest of us until 2006. And the iPhone didn't launch until a year later.
Meantime, most radio operators were content to take a “wait and see” attitude on all these supposed “next big things.” The Internet was still proving itself, streaming was still a fledgling activity because most people still had dial-up, and voice in the name of Siri wouldn't become a search tool until 2010. While radio was feeling a dull pinch from satellite radio, Howard Stern wouldn't jump ship to Sirius until 2006, and the merger with XM wasn't consummated until two years later.
Looking back with the clarity of hindsight and history, it is easy to make the case that broadcast radio companies should have prepared for what has become the eventuality, conducting research and making tech acquisitions while the prices were relatively modest. Shoulda, coulda, woulda – my least favorite words that will never show up in Wordle.
But bear in mind the hi-tech crash of the late 90's was a teaching moment to many across the spectrum. For entrepreneurs and swashbucklers, it was a painful lesson full of dashed hopes and shattered dreams. For most radio broadcasters, it was an apparent confirmation that traditional radio had yet lived to fight another era, surviving the failed Internet coup. Some even celebrated the so-called “death of the Internet.”
Of course, it turned out to be just a breather – a brief reprieve in the tech cycle. Radio broadcasters were still very much in jeopardy, but few recognized that fact. The Internet did not go away.
Fast-forward to today.
The tables have sure turned. Broadcast revenue's trendline has been flat to down during the last several years. Some feel it never recovered from the ravages of the Great Recession in 2008-09. And then COVID's awful toll was painful, and in some cases, devastating. Today, radio continues to fight these same forces as commute times and in-office workers are not back to pre-pandemic levels.
Our Techsurveys clearly show the changing trends in radio, especially when you consider they're among the medium's most loyal, active listeners. And when you look at how traditional listening to one's P1 stations on “regular radios” has dropped, while streaming consumption has more than doubled since 2013, a fourth grader can read this chart:
Sadly for radio, the ratings didn't act as an early warning system – or even a tardy one. Nielsen was slow to show any real changes in habit, continuing to report radio market shares as if nothing had changed. And broadcasters were certainly in no hurry to see their ratings reported alongside Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, and podcasts.
In 2023, the COVID smoke is clearing. Life, as we know it, has normalized. And radio broadcasters have finally gotten the digital memo.
Townsquare has clearly been the company that has most successfully made the transformation. Now, half their revenue comes from digital, a great indicator of how their relentless focus over the years has paid off. Among the other radio corporations, it hovers in the 20% range, plus or minus. Most CEOs will tell you they're pushing to drive those digital dollars higher, in some cases, pulling out all the stops to make their goals.
But it seems obvious that in the process, station brands have suffered. While most broadcasters will now readily admit they're no longer “just in the radio business anymore,” the core enterprise and its traditional assets – broadcasting – still drive much of their digital endeavors.
And not just here in the U.S.
Surprising in the UK how excited the radio industry and radio geeks still get about aerials and frequencies, and very dismissive of content transmitted purely (meaning solely as well as best quality) over the Internet.
— Ian Chambers FRSA (@ian_radioguy) February 1, 2023
Despite the sweeping changes rolling over most radio companies these past few years, success in the digital space is still hinged on having a strong brand to begin with. A weakened station with fewer personalities, promotions, and a connection to the community will be hard-pressed to levitate digital activity and the subsequent revenue it generates. A decimated one is all but lost in that it cannot drive digital usage and it is likely wallowing in the second tier in the ratings.
To be successful today, companies will need to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, they must still provide the resources and sustenance to their radio brands – and not just as mindless megaphones promoting digital offerings. Many will discover – if they haven't already – that stripped, empty radio stations will struggle to capture ears and eyeballs. Some will not survive.
I think of the two familiar directives below as interwoven, not as mutually exclusive endeavors. There's a reason why you hear them everywhere you go and in everything you read.
They're not going to “go away,” they aren't fads, and they aren't trendy sayings like the ones that permeate every Zoom meeting you're on.
The reason we continue to hear them echoing in our own narratives and storylines is because they are 100% totally true, immutable facts that cannot be ignored.
Content is king
Meet the audience where they are
Both are essential building blocks to any cogent, aspirational media strategy. And to address them with the attention they deserve, it requires research and marketing – two commodities in relatively short supply these days.
Media marketers need proficiency at both – at the same time – to become lasting brands that will serve their companies not just in Q2, but over the long haul. Sadly, many companies are now full stream ahead on digital, while the core broadcast brands are floundering. While there are exceptions to every rule, brands that have let their stations go will increasingly find tough sledding on the digital front.
And for advertisers, it is clearly the sum of the parts where radio companies bring unique qualities to the table. Whether it's a local nail salon or Home Depot, clients need to think about not just their Presidents Day Sale, but also building awareness and strong images for their brands to effectively win over consumers pelted with marketing messages.
There is a tangible price to be paid for coming up short. Audiences are used to – no, they demand – quality, accessible media products. When radio stations take a “it's going to have to be good enough – it's all we can afford” approach, the outcome isn't just predictable – it's usually a foregone conclusion.
When you don't have a “night guy,” the chances of attracting listeners – and substantial adverting dollars – during these hours are slim-to-none. And the shoddy defense – “no one buys 7-to-midnight anyway” has always been shortsighted and brand erosive. Nighttime listening often converts to morning drive consumption the next day. Night workers and third-shifters have diaries and meters, and they – and their families – could be contributors to the mothership.
(Plug in the word “weekend” above where you see “night” and you've got another weak rationale that has damaged the core product.)
And making sure that content lives wherever consumers find themselves – in the car, at work, in the park, on a train, in a coffee house – is the other imperative. In the pre-Internet days, the common saying in radio dripped with arrogance and hubris:
“Well, where else are they going to go?”
Now we know.
Again, Nielsen has done the industry a disservice. By not providing all-important listening location data in the nation's biggest markets, this information has been minimized in importance. Ask a programmer in New York City or L.A. about the percentage of in-car, at-home, and/or in-office listening during any time of day and you'll get a blank stare. The numbers don't exist so their import falls below tertiary in importance. Out of sight, out of mind.
Understanding where the audience is and on which devices they prefer has been Techsurvey's mission from Day One. Broadcasters who assume they know from anecdotes and hearsay or who ignore the inevitable sea changes in our lifestyles – especially during the pandemic – are paying the price. A lousy app, a crappy streaming experience, a lame website, and zero attention to smart speakers are all the ingredients of a terrible strategy. While your station may have every black box imaginable in its terrestrial audio chain, digital delivery often suffers immensely.
But even today as “digital revenue” has supposedly become Job One, most radio professionals spend precious little time sweating the details of their streams. Many don't even listen to them, failing to account for the UX – user experience.
Last spring, I moderated a session at the Canadian Music Week conference in Toronto, featuring Tobias Nielsen, the digital guru behind Bauer Media all over Europe. Their innovation? A commercial-free stream and song skips for consumers willing to fork over a few bucks a month.
At the Canadian Music Week conference while we were are on stage, I know attendees were deep in thought, contemplating whether their brands were good enough to merit this level of financial return from their audiences. In some ways, this is a similar test to what most public and many Christian radio stations take a few times each year when they appeal to listeners for financial support.
These activities boil down to one central question:
Is our content worth paying for?
We're going to learn first-hand the answer to that question from more than 27,000 core radio listeners (and the numbers are growing) when the results of Techsurvey 2023 are reported in just a matter of a few weeks. We asked this hypothetical question to test the subscription waters.
One thing we know for sure. Nielsen, like the ratings companies that came before it, will always be able to generate cume, TSL, and shares for any and every market they measure. Brand depth, loyalty, and meaningful community service aren't measured in their metrics. Yet, those key building blocks influence those rankers. It's not about whether your music tests, and whether you've sped up your recurrents. Brands sink, swim, and endure based on the quality of their content, and the support and stewardship they're given by the companies that own them. As we've learned in recent years, even the most venerable, storied brands can be taken down by negligence, ambivalence, arrogance, and slowly but surely by strangling their support.
Success for radio in the digital space will not hinge on the creativity of those who occupy these digital departments, the podcast producers, and the other techie magicians who are hired away from companies like Amazon, Spotify, and Twitter.
A station's final grades will be dependent on the quality of its content as well as the ability to create assets that ooze relevance and quality, whether they're personalities, newsletters, events, podcasts, websites, community service, or mobile apps. These moving parts are all part and parcel to what it takes to get into the casino and sit down at the table to play the game.
There are no shortcuts or workarounds on the road to crafting workable strategies that combine the best of traditional broadcasting with the savvy addition of meaningful digital content. These worlds of traditional and digital can be truly symbiotic when orchestrated by brand managers and leaders with the vision, wisdom and patience necessary to compete in our hyper-media environment. Think of them as a brand mashup where the parts are interwoven and become a seamless brand with a mission.
Sadly, many of today's stations won't make the cut. They likely didn't have the right stuff way back in those rustic pre-Internet days. They sure aren't going to figure it out now.
But the scrappy brands that have been around, taken some punches, and lived to fight another day are the ones that deserve a company's investment and support. When the big boys and girls sit in front of their glowing screens filled with spreadsheets and economic forecasts, expert decision-making from the corner office may come down to which stations deserve full-tilt support – and which will ultimately become value-added.
It's about playing a long game, but it's also about realistically evaluating assets in the short run. Having a workable digital strategy, buying a podcasting company, or hiring a data mining expert isn't going to mean doodly-squat if the core brand is flagging or an empty set of call letters.
A strategic plan will be rendered unviable if the terrestrial troops lose favor to their digital counterparts. Company support and resources – human and financial – aren't a zero-sum game. Both mouths need to be fed to survive – and thrive.
Content is king.
Meet the audience where they are.
These are the watchwords of our industry. If you think about it, they were as applicable in 1973, 1993, and 2013 as they are right now today in 2023.
Every strategic initiative and activity should be measured against whether they meet those criteria.
- An Open (News)Letter To Radio - December 6, 2023
- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023
- Is It Time For The Music Industry To Write Radio A “Dear Genre” Letter? - December 4, 2023