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.
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- How Radio Can Best Deal With A Global Pandemic: Live And Local, Of Course - March 16, 2023
Chris Allen says
Frankly, I don’t think radio wants to be like “them”. Radio is a utility and utilities are “there” and useful. Many of us don’t have staff to be concerned with who’s choosing podcasts or other new media over us. We are doing all we can just to operate on a daily basis without losing our identity. We are here, we are free and we are local. We stand on this. We don’t want to become “them”.
Fred Jacobs says
I appreciate your position, Chris. But I don’t being a utility is a good long term strategy. Returning from CES, and seeing how radios are no longer front and center in many dashboards, will drivers seek out “utilities” when there are well-produced, entertaining, fun options?
Phil Redo says
As a “civilian” I think what remains of the “magic” radio possesses is how it can still create a true Sense of Place! From music to talk to commercial messaging. Doing this well is what can help offset the reality of the global audio awakening. It can also mitigate the weaker talent resulting from shrinking investment and too cautious leadership. Listeners still need to understand how THEIR little spot on this planet is going. Local will always be relevant so long as we can only live in a single place at the same time! Radio needs to embrace this fact of physics. A “radio renaissance” – real radio not audio – can only happen if the industry embraces what it ( and maybe only it ) can uniquely do. Thanks to transmitters, one to many, it provides a business model that also may sustain it. Radio will never be able to scale this up the way it used to believe it could. Too much competition and too deep are the competition’s pockets. But local is a pivot to longevity and even a hipness that craft beer, farmers markets and even small restaurants are enjoying. Radio must embrace the strengths it has. Build on it – and the best thing is there are tons of people ( listeners ) who actually need it and want it!
John Covell says
Agreed. Radio’s healthy survival requires that its owners and managers understand and act on a basic principal of economics: comparative advantage. That is, don’t work only at what you think you can do a better job of than your competitors can at some common endeavor (eg, creating and broadcasting playlists). Focus like a laser on what you, and ONLY YOU, can do–and do it really well (eg, provide truly local information, in addition to those other things). But also remember that, unlike Silicon Valley, there is no “fake it til you make it.” The audience will bail on you quickly if they sense inauthenticity.
Recognize and act accordingly, or get comfortable on the scrapheap of history.
Fred Jacobs says
Another good comment, John. Thanks.
Fred Jacobs says
You may be a “civilian,” Phil, but you’ve still got your fastball. Thanks for a strong comment.
Uncle Lalo says
John, Phil, and Chris, all good comments.
And when was the last time you saw good marketing and advertising for radio? On any position or value point at all? All I see and hear are the same lame stills of the morning show faces with soggy insipid audio clips, or blinding whirlwind blizzards of hooks from a few top artists. I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the outfits that are doing ‘something’, at least.
Any marketing people in the crowd? You already know what I’m going to say. When you’re number one its easier to stay number one, but you have to maintain awareness. If you lose the position, you will have to move mountains to get back if that’s even possible.
Fred Jacobs says
Good observation, as always, U.L. There’s a content below yours that reminds us radio is still the dominant audio medium. And while it is hanging on, that mindset is the last thing the radio business needs. Someone needs to raise the bar, and demand innovation. Doing it the same old way has run its course.
Ronnie Ramone says
You make some very good points here, Fred. When it comes to talent, based on my experience, you first must convince ownership that these people are not just an “expense” that needs to be justified. And you cannot saddle these personalities with so many off air duties that their shows are just another task to check off for the day.
To me, this has been one of the most frustrating parts of the business over the years.
You’ve also got to foster creativity.
The radio business model is outdated but not a whole lot of owners and managers have come to terms with this and haven’t been open to real change. I understand the need to improve revenue. But I will always argue that you need a good product to sell, and that today’s audience is more discerning when it comes to content. They’ll seek it out elsewhere (and in some cases, already have) if radio isn’t providing it.
Radio needs to have these tough conversations and put together an action plan. Then act on that plan.
Fred Jacobs says
Ronnie, you’ll get no pushback from me about anything you’ve said here. Thanks for saying it.
Andy Bloom says
When the bus was leaving the station nearly 20 years ago, radio people at the highest level were in the bathroom (okay maybe the gift shop). While incubators were creating new ideas, companies, and technologies radio companies were cutting. Interns, or the GM’s babysitter, were left in charge of websites and digital.
Radio has been cutting ever since. No marketing, no promotion, no research, fewer people with less experience doing more jobs.
The highlights of earnings calls continues to be “digital is up” by some phenomenal percentage. Never mind that spot revenue is down. Great, trading dollars for dimes.
Radio missing out on audio’s renaissance (and CES again) is consistent with its modus operandi. I’m long past the point of believing that anybody will come in and buy up properties and do something big. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. Pity.
Fred Jacobs says
Andy, we’re going to stay in this game by bringing cap guns to a nuclear war. OK, bad analogy. But the incumbency of radio broadcasters and force of habit isn’t enough to match the digital big boys and girls. Thanks for responding to this post.
Eric Jon Magnuson says
A word that’s been bouncing around in my head when it comes to these issues is “dynamic”. Here, if broadcasters aren’t dynamic, they become stagnant and/or predictable. It’s one thing to be thought of as being useful–but quite another to be thought of as being a utility. The latter does include a connotation of being inflexible and unable (or just unwilling) to change.
While a slogan certainly wouldn’t be sufficient, I’m definitely reminded of what the Korean Culture and Information Service used earlier this century: Dynamic Korea.
Fred Jacobs says
No one raves when a utility functions as usual. (It’s only when there’s an outage that you notice.) I’ll take “dynamic” over that any day of the week.
Matt Jarvi says
Radio is lacking in several area’s that is preventing the industry from moving forward, however it is important to note that Radio is still the dominate audio choice.
Fred Jacobs says
No argument from me on radio still being the #1 reach choice. But to stay on top, the medium will have to be more innovative and creative. Blockbuster was #1, too. Thanks for writing.
Kim Carson says
Really enjoyed this story Fred! Lake Wobegone, Car Talk on Saturday & Sundays, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me debuted 24 years ago. Now we can listen to them 24 hours a day on demand, no need to wait till Saturday and Sunday. Listeners like that!
Let’s not forget about Spotify in the equation. A listener asks why should I listen to a terrestrial radio station with annoying dj’s, too many commercials and too many songs I don’t like when I can listen to Spotify. I hear 1 or 2 minute commercial breaks, Spotify learns what songs I don’t want to hear in a playlist so I hear them less and no dj’s promoting National contests I can’t win, promos for something I don’t care about, and babbling on about fake listener letters “and what should I do scenarios”. Its the pink elephant in the room.. Connecting physically, locally is all that separates us from rhem. Radio sometimes has the tendency to think the listeners aren’t savvy or smart they don’t have options. I think that’s what we’re seeing now especially with younger demos. I worked with 20 and 30 somethings and they don’t even own a radio. Why? Because the world is at their fingertips 24/7 and thousands of options are available. I think for the most part listening will be forever fragmented with so many pieces of favorite content to consume visually and via audio. I think the local connection is key
Fred Jacobs says
Right there with you, Kim. As you note, “the local connection is key.” I would add the personality piece. After all it’s “DJ Day.” Thanks for commenting on this.
Ian Chambers says
Another good article, thanks.
The whole concept of having a single, live, linear media outlet is now outdated, such as historically an AM or FM radio station would be.
With the exception of die hard, long term fans and those who haven’t grasped or been able to access the technology of our multi-platform world. An example of this has been the launch of a new UK radio station in the past year, aimed at 70+ demo, with a strong crooner/easy listening feel, wide playlist within that, with personality DJs, some known “names” with a legacy, and all in a similar age group to the demo and earning meagre fees. Listeners have discovered through that station – online and DAB listening, and are very engaged through two Facebook groups. (thereby actually not being a single platform really). I am heartened to hear of music discovery (“I haven’t heard that since the 70s” “No-one every plays that on the radio” “Where can I buy that new music on CD?”) in the listener groups.
But younger audiences have moved on from linear media consumption, and attention spans have shortened. The world is more visual, and available on demand, what you want, where you want, how you want. Advertising stuck to everything. Podcasts becoming bigger than radio, and barriers to entry to both are minimal, everyone can have a radio station, a show, a podcast. This doesn’t help quality and build strong audiences. I could point you to several hundred UK-based online radio stations, run at a loss, as hobbies, licensed, playing 70s to 90s music, with syndicated shows, some heard on dozens of these stations. Overall, quality poor.
As we continue to navel-gaze at the state of radio/audio I wish I could instead come up with solutions, not about turning clocks back to the heyday of radio (as the online wannabees above try to) but genuinely make something fit for current times, to entertain, involve and grow its only legacy. Work in progress….
Fred Jacobs says
Ian, a well-written, well-thought out comment. You’re done a good job of describing the here & now. As you point out, solving these dilemmas is the hard part, as is forming a coalition of broadcasters with the vision and courage to make it happen. Let’s continue to ideate together. Appreciate you taking the time.