You've seen the research – more people are listening to audio than ever before. Thanks to expanded content options in the streaming and podcast lanes, coupled with devices – mobile phones and smart speakers – that bring portability and variety to consumers, it seems we cannot get enough of audio.
But not for the radio broadcasting industry, the banners are not flying, the horns are not blowing, and there are no tickertape parades. The medium continues to struggle against the backdrop of a so-called “Audio Renaissance.”
Everything in audio seems to be flourishing. Streaming companies continue to create more channels, SiriusXM has expanded its channels, its app, and it outlets, and of course, podcasting continues to be a cash cow – for at least some of its publishers. Devices for listening to audio have enjoyed meteoric success in the last few years, led by AirPods and similar devices that make it easier and less cumbersome to listen to your favorite content no matter what you're doing.
And then there's smart speakers. While their growth has cooled, these devices have become commonplace in millions of homes. And as we've learned in each Techsurvey, buyers are especially apt to fill their homes with more of these versatile devices. While they can control your appliances and keep shopping lists, the top use case is still listening to music.
Then there's radio. The ironic part of this audio resurgence is that the original audio mass medium – AM (and later) FM radio – isn't participating in this renaissance. Yes, the reach numbers are still respectable. But the passion for radio has most definitely slipped. It is less and less likely to be part of the pop culture conversation people have around the dining room table or the kitchenette at work.
At CES2022, we played our usual game – “Where's radio?” – a depressing version of Martin Handford's animated character famous for blending into the scenery. That was the experience at the Las Vegas Convention Center once again at CES. Save for Xperi and HD Radio (pictured), the only semblance of Marconi's medium is embarrassing “retro radios” made by has-been brands like Victrola trying to cash in on the nostalgia phenomenon.
At a moment in time where everyone's talking about audio, few are talking about radio.
For too many people, it's just there – like a utility. We don't marvel when the lights go on or when water pours out of the faucet. And for so many people, turning on the radio in the car mimics those expected, predictable – but unspectacular – events in our life.
Radio is simple and convenient, but in too many cases, has been blanded out by a lack of attention, dwindling resources, and even lower expectations from corporate chieftains, most of whom are demanding their podcasting divisions lean in, while leaving their radio portfolios to languish or simply maintain their familiar sameness. Few demand innovative programming from their stations, and the results are forgettable and non-buzzworthy.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention radio's content creators who still operate like it matters, coming to work every day trying to bring more value to their brands. There are still many great radio stations in America – Jacobs Media is lucky to work for a bunch of them. But in market after market, these overperformers are too few and far between. A commenter on this blog the other day, Curt Krafft, referred to it as “generic emptiness.” I'm hard-pressed to come up with something better.
It's similar in public radio. When was the last time a breakthrough show was created – especially one that airs Monday-Friday? Even much of the weekend programming has become predictable. Gone are the days when Lake Wobegone and “Car Talk” graced Saturdays and Sundays. And don't ask about “Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me!” You might want to check your calendars. It debuted 24 years ago this month. It is hardly “new.”
And that makes me wonder why broadcasters aren't embracing the moments that actually jump out of the speakers, reminding us of what an amazing medium radio can be. No, not the inane “underwear on their heads” morning show stunts that add to the embarrassment, or even those thoughtless but devastating quips by air talent taking shots at women, minorities, gays, and other members of our society that shouldn't have to withstand the juvenile, even hurtful humor of radio shows gone by.
Why isn't radio celebrating the real breakthroughs where a radio star actually does something noteworthy, meaningful, and even groundbreaking? Where does that happen? On “The Breakfast Club” hosted by Charlamagne tha God who may be the best interviewer on the airwaves right now (sorry, Howard and Terry). You may remember his interview with then-candidate Joe Biden where the future president infamously said, “If you have trouble figuring out whether you're voting for me or Trump, then you ain't black.”
That was a bigger campaign moment than anything Limbaugh or Stern pulled off for the 2020 election. But outside of the TV coverage it earned that day, what did the radio broadcasting industry do to celebrate that moment. When a radio star conducts an interview that could change the course of voting patterns, it's a big deal.
Charlamagne did it again last month when he asked Vice President Kamala Harris the painful question, “Who's president of this country, Joe Manchin or Joe Biden?” Harris blanched and pushed back at the question, but once again, it was another moment that seemed to simply slip away from radio marketers. (Yes, the interview took place on Comedy Central.)
And here's another you may have missed. A friend sent me an interview Charlamange did with Travis Scott, the rapper whose Houston Astroworld Festival last November went awry, leaving nine concertgoers dead. It wasn't just Scott's first extensive interview after the tragedy – it's a truly great example of conducting an honest, fair, but tough and direct interview. And it should have garnered more attention – especially from the broadcast radio industry – than it did.
Frustrated? Disappointed? Me?
No, just believing that even in these disrupted, challenging times, radio in the U.S. can – and must – do better.