Already, 2020 is proving to be a challenging year for broadcast radio. And it's only getting weirder as the worlds of politics, health, and the financial markets collide.
If you're in a planning and strategic position in your company, it is especially important to try to develop a keen sense of what's coming. After all, how can you accurately forecast if you don't have a strong sense of where we're headed and when we're going to get there?
So, let me share a little secret with you – you can't.
And anyone who tells you differently is delusional. When the markets will bounce back, how this coronavirus story will play out, and who will be sitting in the Oval Office next January are simply unknowns.
The uncertainty only deepens as these news stories twist and turn, often changing by the hour. And yet, technologists believe that with the help of data and Artificial Intelligence, they can cut through the fog and tell us what's going to happen.
Take Amazon for example. Maybe they can't determine the answer to some of these big questions looming around us. But they're trying to figure out how to predict hits – songs, films, TV shows – in short, what will succeed in pop culture.
And they've been at this for some time now. A story in Digital Music News by Ashley King says Amazon first filed for a patent for their technology way back in 2013. The idea was to develop algorithms that could predict smash hit songs.
The focus of this technology is on early adopters – the tastemakers and trendsetters among us. By exposing them to “obscure media” and measuring their tastes as well as their past likes and dislikes, Amazon hopes to pick future hits – from all pop culture outposts.
I don't want to rain on Jeff Bezos' parade. After all, he's the richest man in the world (or at least he was until last week). Having conducted audience research for decades now, it has become increasingly clear to me consumers cannot assess the success or failure of something – before they've experienced it. While algorithms may aggregate similar patterns in tone and timbre, or perhaps the presence of chase scenes or CGI animation, their ability to predict hits is highly suspect.
The lack of predictability in our world seems to have reached a fever pitch in just the past few weeks. The series of recent events we've watched should be reassuringly disassuring that we simply couldn't see them coming.
Take the Democratic horse race to the nomination, for example. For the better part of a year now, we've been told the key to winning the sweepstakes is a huge advertising budget (especially TV), strong ground games, and solid debate performances.
Yet, somehow, in the 72 hours leading up to Super Tuesday, Joe Biden flipped every prediction on its head. He ran out of money, had a lousy organization that didn't even show up in several states, and wasn't exactly sizzling on the debate stage.
And yet, he's emerged the winner.
At least for now. That was in spite of every pundit proclaiming him D.O.A. after the Nevada caucuses, way back on February 22nd. That seems like a lifetime ago.
No one could have predicted it. But it happened.
Had I told you on New Year's Eve that a pandemic would break out in the first quarter of this year, altering our lives, cancelling plans, conferences, vacations, and business trips, and creating shortages of bottled water, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer, you would have told me I was nuts.
No one could have predicted it. But it happened.
The fact is, “Nobody knows anything,” to quote author William Goldman. How do I know that? Because I keep seeing TV ads for cruise lines. Seriously, what are they thinking. .
One of my favorite albums back during my college years was from a comedy troupe known as the Firesign Theater. “Everything you know is wrong” was a collection of crazy bits, zaniness, and weirdness, all underneath that prophetic banner headline. I think about it often these days.
That may not make you feel better, but it should reinforce the notion that if you're working for a radio station right now, you're in a very special position to make a difference in people's lives, particularly in these highly volatile times.
That's the case whether you're rocking or chilling them on a commercial music station, informing them on a public radio station, or comforting them on a Christian station. As consultants will always tell you, “your mileage may vary.” That is, every situation is unique, due to factors that include your brand history, your personalities, your cluster partners, your specific market conditions, your community presence, and your competition.
And where you are matters. The vibe is very different in Seattle right now than it is in Savannah or Syracuse. But that reality could change on a dime.
If you're working in radio – behind a desk, behind a mic, in a cubicle, or in the corner office – you may be wishing for an algorithm that can predict what will happen this year. This quarter. OK, this week. Tomorrow.
It's not going to happen.
So, given all this uncertainty, what do we do – as radio broadcasters and as people?
We do our jobs. And in the process, we step up our games.
These are not usual times, so we can't just do “business as usual” radio.
That means understanding your purpose. As the oft-quoted Clayton Christensen would advise, it's about knowing “the job your audience is hiring you to do.”
What is your station's role? Why do people listen? The answer is not that you play “Today's Best Country.” Or that you're “#1 For Hip-Hop.” Or because you're giving away $1,000 four times a day.
If you've been conducting research over the years or if you've been a stakeholder in our Techsurveys, you should know the answer to these questions.
If you're not sure, pull together a Listener Advisory Board and have a conversation with your audience. Or walk into the production studio and start answering the phones. Or go to a station or community event, and talk to people. Better yet, listen to them. What are they talking about? What are their concerns? How are they feeling? How is their state of mind?
At times like these, it's the emotional benefits radio provide that matter most – mood elevation, companionship, escape, comfort, a local connection, a little laughter, a shoulder to cry on. Chances are, these are some of the things your audience needs from you, and you can't deliver them with your music scheduling system or a generic prep sheet.
Most people are feeling a strong sense of anxiety, fear, and concern about everything. Radio is the most local and intimate of media – bar none. These are the times when you can truly make a connection, and in the process, differentiating radio from the spate of digital and satellite competitors in the midst.
But when there are things going on – in the world, in your country, and in your market – none of what has happened before amounts to a whole lot. Life is moving at real time, in-the-moment – not like a Netflix movie made in 2017 or a Joe Rogan podcast recorded 10 days ago. This little exchange on Twitter yesterday brought that home to me. First, I laughed. And then I just shook my head.
This would be called a radio https://t.co/RjDvpfyVt6
— Ronnie K, Office Fanatic and Sports Talker Guy (@RonnieKRadio) March 5, 2020
Many have forgotten what radio's “job to do” truly is. Even including some people who work in radio.
As Paige Nienaber discussed in our blog post this past Monday (it seems like a month ago!), this is how local broadcasters can make a difference in people's lives, while redefining and crystallizing how they think of radio.
We can't predict the future. No one can.
But we can control the controllables.
Be of service to your audience, the people you manage, and the people who manage you.
Know your purpose, stay in your lane, do your job, serve your community.
I wish Amazon all the luck in the world on the development of their prediction algorithm.
Want to know my prediction?
All bets are off.
We will get through this, but there will be winners and losers.
There are stories that will be written about this year. These times. This situation.
Let's write the next chapter of our radio story in 2020.