The Problem With Radio

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All good things must come to an end, right? 

Newspapers, recorded music, television, and film were all disrupted at roughly the same time, but radio was able to hang in there a little bit longer.  This made denying the inevitable all too easy.

We told ourselves we were a special medium that people just couldn’t live without. We’re (seemingly) live.  We’re local. It’s free. Satellite radio didn’t kill us. Internet radio didn’t kill us.

We convinced ourselves that people want trusted personalities to curate music for them. 

We believed, because most radio listening happens in the car, we’d always be needed. After all, in-car WiFi won’t reach critical mass for years, and by the time it does, radio will have figured out how to exist on an app, right?  People love radio. Everyone will listen to commercial radio on their phones. 

Except they don’t.  And why would they? You can hear any song you’d like on-demand, on your phone, any time you want.  Why call a radio station and request a song (assuming you don’t already realize 99.9% of all commercial radio DJs play what they are told to play)?  Why sit through songs you don’t immediately want to hear in the hopes that you hear the song you crave? And, let’s be honest, no curator is special enough to make people sit through 14 minutes of commercials each hour.  

Believe me, I wish people used radio the way they did 20 years ago. I had a blast.

Radio folks still try to defend radio’s relevance, just as I did. Some will spew facts such as “92% of Americans consume radio each day!!”  But that, of course, depends on your definition of consumption.

When was the last time you intentionally, actively listened to the radio?  I’m not talking about you hearing whatever station your Uber driver happened to have on in the background. I’m talking about you making the decision that you wanted to listen to music or talk on the radio because that was your best option. 

Trust me, 92% of us haven’t done that in the past week. 92% of Americans may come into contact with audio from a radio station each day, but that doesn’t mean that they care, that they truly heard it, or that it was intentional.

People exposed to second-hand smoke aren’t smokers.  They are unwitting participants.  

Before you write me off as a “hater”, please understand that I wish this wasn’t true. I love audio entertainment in all forms. I’d love to see radio pivot and survive. This isn’t about radio vs. podcasting. It’s very much the opposite. Keep reading and it will all make sense.

If you take a look at the latest Nielsen radio ratings for your city, you’ll notice that the top-ranked stations are all targeted at older demographics.  For example, the top station in Los Angeles–the center of the entertainment universe, is an Oldies station rooted in music from the 1980s. 

An Adult Contemporary and an Urban Adult Contemporary station are #2 and #3.  They, too, are targeted at people that are nearing retirement age. They don’t introduce new music to the marketplace, they don’t have an edge to them. It’s a safe product to have on in the office.

It’s background noise. Something to mitigate silence.

You may ask where the stations that play new music rank.  After all, kids loved the radio–when you were a kid. After all, that’s how you discovered new music.

Those stations are probably somewhere far, far down the list.  It’s not because those stations are bad or poorly programmed. The problem is that these radio stations are designed to appeal to people that don’t use the radio anymore–people under 40 years old.  To that segment of the population, it’s outdated technology. Obsolete.

Radio doesn’t have a content problem, it has a technology problem.  And it’s never going to get better.   

The rotary phone didn’t go away because it looked bad, sounded bad, or worked poorly.  It went away because better technology came along.  

Make no mistake, audio entertainment is still alive and well—just not over-the-air radio.  It’s alive, but it’s “wellness” is unfortunately debatable.

This brings us to podcasting.

Podcasting has exploded in the past 5 years and it’s a revelation. 

To be clear, people didn’t just wake up and realize that they love storytelling and extended conversation.  They just didn’t get it on the radio because radio, for the most part, requires consensus. Everyone has to agree on the music being played, topics discussed have to have universal appeal and not be too polarizing.

Storytelling, conversation, humor, and opinion are all subjective.  Great for podcasts, bad for radio. Podcasts can be abrasive and controversial. Joe Rogan can get high with his guest. You don’t like it? Hit the bricks. 

Now that technology has made it easy for people to browse, sample, and regularly consume podcasts—they thrive.  Long-form audio is fresh again!

Radio, for the most part, is the opposite of fresh.  I say this not to criticize it or denigrate the smart, creative people that still work in this industry. I’m stating a fact. Please allow me to explain.

Outdated technology isn’t the only force working against radio.

I truly believe most radio people do the best they can under the circumstances.  However, the way ratings are measured now, radio has had to become even more conservative and restrictive than it was 15 years ago.  

Neilsen Audio is tasked with measuring radio listenership in the United States.  These measurements are called “ratings”. Here’s an oversimplified description of how ratings are determined:

A handful of randomly-chosen respondents agree to, often in exchange for a nominal amount of money, carry around a beeper-sized device for a period of months.  They are referred to as “panelists”. These panelists are categorized by age, sex, ethnicity and zip code. The device panelists must carry detects radio signals that have been embedded with unique, nearly inaudible watermark tones. This data is collected by the devices and beamed back to Nielsen periodically so that it can be tallied, ranked, and sent to the advertising community. These ratings determine how much money ad agencies will give to radio per advert.

The composition of panelists rarely, if ever, matches the composition of the market, so one or two panelists can make or break a radio station’s ratings.

Neilsen weights each respondent in such a way as to match the composition of the market according to census data. If the LA market is 50% Hispanic, but only 25% of the panelists are Hispanic. Their data would count twice as much as that of the non-Hispanic. (To be clear, I highly doubt the weighting would ever be as extreme as this hypothetical example, but, again, I wanted to oversimplify it so that it’s easier to understand.)

Furthermore, radio station listening is measured by two main criteria: cume and TSL.  Cume is the cumulative number of people listening to the radio station in a given period, and TSL is the amount of time spent listening to that station.  More on this in a bit, but, in essence, radio stations have to get as many people as they can to tune in, and they have to keep them tuned in for as long as they can.

This is the game radio station personnel are forced to play.

Now, consider this question:

Which type of radio station has a better chance to win this game–one that plays music that, while popular, may be considered too abrasive to one or several people that work in a shared office space, or one that plays vanilla music that offends no one?

Hope you like vanilla!

You have people wearing a beeper that will detect any radio station it comes in contact with, whether the person cares or not, is paying attention or not, or is even aware that it’s on or not. It’s not about personal preference, it’s about circumstance. Survival no longer depends on a strong brand and/or compelling content programming. It’s about ubiquity.

As I mentioned before, the top stations in LA play a small rotation of proven hits largely drawn from previous decades. Is that because people really want to hear “Take On Me” twice a day, or is it because it’s the one station no one in the office will complain about?

Make no mistake, if the radio station my office listens to is beyond my control, I’m not complaining about “Take On Me” popping up. That said, if I ever feel the urge to listen to it, I’m pulling it up on YouTube immediately. Apparently I’m not the only one that would, as “Take On Me” as of this writing has nearly 900 million views.

The fact is, older people still rely on radio more closely to the way they did 20 years ago than younger people do. Therefore, radio has to target those people because they are the ones using radio the most.

Radio will point to it’s 18-34 numbers and say “look at all these people using radio each week!” Again, are they really using it? Not all consumption is equal.

Consider this: this Oldies station in LA ranks highly with persons 18-34. Is that because more 18-34 year olds prefer Oldies from the 80’s to Current Pop, Rock and Hip Hop, or is it because they work in an office that requires music that offends no one? You tell me.

So, in order to give themselves a chance to win this game, radio station personnel must do two things. They must provide listeners with entertainment value that has extremely broad appeal and they must limit the occurrences of irritants that may drive anyone away.

In order for a radio station to survive, anything that might turn away a listener must be eliminated.  

New and unfamiliar music causes tune-out.  Gotta manage that, right? Don’t play anything new and don’t play anything that more than one person out of ten doesn’t like.   Excessive DJ talk causes tune-out. That’s no good. Better make sure the DJs don’t say much. They can talk over the intro to a song, but they had better not stop the music.  

All the things that would make a radio station interesting and unique are in direct conflict with success and survival.

Is this radio’s fault, or is this a product of the cards they have been dealt? Maybe it’s my loyalty to radio, but I think if radio stations had some room to play offense, things could have been different.

I hear people say “If radio stations would just do THIS, radio wouldn’t be in such bad shape.” I don’t think that’s fair. They have to play this Neilsen Audio game because that’s what sets advertising rates. Not playing enough Hip Hop on a Pop station isn’t the problem.

Podcasts don’t have to carry this burden. They don’t have to play this game. I don’t have to play this game.

Hopefully you now understand why I don’t blame radio station employees and management for radio’s lack of dynamic, lack of heat, lack of danger, lack of spontaneity, or lack of soul.  Believe me, radio people would love to not have to live by the current rules. No DJ would turn down a chance to talk more, to play requests, to champion lesser-known music, to take risks.  They simply can’t. It’s bad business.

They have to convince you to use a rotary phone.

As you can imagine, radio stations aren’t particularly happy places to work.  Everyone can read the writing on the wall. Massive layoffs, less money, more work, poor morale, desperation, denial.  The thrill is gone and it won’t be back. That’s been the radio industry for the past 10 years. 

This doesn’t sound like the ideal environment to entertain, does it? 

None of us got into the radio business to play defense. I can’t name one person that is passionate about managing risk.  Who wants to win the race to the bottom?

I chose radio because it was exciting and fun. I was looking for some danger.  Some action. I wanted to play records that made your parents nervous. Someone had to be the one to blurt out that controversial or goofy thought that people didn’t feel free enough to say.  Why not me? I wanted to take a Sharpie and write OPEN FOR BUSINESS on my freak flag and then hang it from the highest flagpole I could find. And, guess what? I still want to do those things.  

But those opportunities no longer exist at radio.

Someone moved my damn cheese.

I chose to enter podcasting because it offers all the things that radio used to offer.  Freedom. Danger. Humor. Heart. Controlled chaos. Community. Connection. Action. Independence.  Soul.  

But, the best and most reassuring thing about podcasting is that it literally can’t turn into radio. 

Only the FCC has the authority to grant radio station licenses. There is a limited amount of FM and AM bandwidth and it’s all accounted for.  Furthermore, there’s a finite amount of shelf space with radio. There’s a barrier to entry and there’s a ceiling. Corporations can divide it up, own it and control it.  So can the FCC, so can Nielsen Audio.

Not podcasting.  Anyone can make a podcast. 

There are no restrictions or limitations on content, format, length, or language.  The FCC can’t tell you what you can and can’t say, you don’t have to be profitable, you don’t have to have a boss, you don’t have to consider who you may offend, you don’t even have to make sense. 

Rich folks can’t stop you or control you because they don’t like what you’re doing. No gatekeepers, bottlenecks, rules or authority.

It’s punk rock, and I’m fully on board.

Sure, the big radio corporations keep buying podcast studios in the hopes that they can catch lightning in a bottle.  That’s what they know. Buy it, package it up, sell it.

Radio corporations suggest (require) that DJs make podcasts for no extra salary. They try to convince podcasters to sign with them and let the company keep 70% of any revenue in exchange for all the “promotional value” they could hypothetically give you.  (Spoiler alert: you’ll never receive any of that promotional value. After all, your promo might cause someone carrying around a PPM beeper thing to change the station!)

But all of that is in vain. Pandora’s box has been opened. Scratch that–it’s been blown apart.

Old media and its bottleneck mentality is gone forever.

So here I am with this gift I’ve been given. I have a second chance to chase a thrill that evaporated long ago.

Along the way, I’ve recaptured a part of myself I lost touch with years ago. 

I’m stoked. I see what podcasting is, what it can be, and I happen to have the experience and resources to advance it.  I’m using all of it to clear the path for those that have the guts to share a piece of themselves and leave it for anyone to find.  I want to make it easy for people to do that.

That’s what Podcave is.  Professional-grade show building tools designed for creatives that want the same things I want.  One fair price for all the assets needed to build a show and a community, to communicate with them, to activate them.

That said, I wish all my radio friends well. I root for them. Hopefully they can work around the technology hurdles and then tell Neilsen Audio to take their beepers and throw them in the river. Fingers crossed.

Until then, consider this an open invitation to my radio pals to holler at me whenever you’re ready to move on from the rotary phone.

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