My Wish List for Radio

by Russ Hill on March 3, 2011

Last week, I promised a blog post with some thoughts about the future of radio.  I’m a few days late in delivering it, but here it is.

Radio is in my blood.  I have a profound love for the medium.  I consider the act of producing great radio content to be a form of art.  The best in radio grasp the canvas that radio waves provide the entertainer.  I will miss that canvas.

It is my love for radio that causes me to care about its future as I depart the industry.

From my small perch developed over 16 years in the industry I do not have a complete view.  But, I think I’m able to see enough of the picture to make some observations.

Here’s my wish list for an industry full of friends.

Wish #1: Fire Arbitron

I have felt for years that the results by which I have been judged have been an insult to my intelligence.  I say this as I leave one of the highest rated news/talk stations in the country in the 18-49 and 25-54 demographic groups.

Imagine working for a boss who judges you based on cash register receipts.  But, the cash register malfunctions constantly and can’t do simple addition.  The cash register manufacturer knows its machine doesn’t work but publicly denies it and in fact responds to criticism by increasing its equipment lease fees.  And, your boss responds by cutting larger checks.

This is the world those of us on the content side of the business have lived in for years.  I’m not picking on our bosses (I’ve had some of the best in the biz).  The boss I refer to is the industry overall.  The way it’s currently set up.  With PPM the situation has gotten worse.

I hope programmers and talent across the industry will demand changes.  Right now, they’re only hurting themselves and their peers every time they rush to a computer at noon to download the ratings.  Or email them out to employees or bosses.  Stop it!

When I was in my 20‘s I considered Arbitron’s ratings a fun challenge.  The thrill of seeing where Arbitron ranked us this month!  Now, I consider their wild, frequent, and inexplicable swings an insult to anyone with a brain.

Besides, the metrics that now matter aren’t ratings.  And, the leaders of tomorrow will realize that today.  I strongly encourage talent and programmers throughout the business to insist that ratings bonuses become a thing of the past.  Financial incentives should now be tied completely to innovation and revenue.  The business will never move forward as long as it’s built on a ratings system that is an epic failure.

Wish #2: Reward Innovation

Innovation is missing from radio.  It simply does not exist at any appreciable level industry-wide.

Yes, there are a few groups doing a few innovative things.  I had lunch today with a radio executive whose company understands this space and is making very bold moves.  But, his company is an exception.

We all point to our websites or smartphone apps as innovation.  The kind of changes I’m suggesting are needed are fundamental shifts in how content is delivered and where we gather our revenue.

Here are a few small suggestions that could go a long way in pushing innovation in the industry.

First, radio needs to hire from the outside.  The industry needs to hire as many young, digitally-obsessed non-broadcasting types as possible.  Their opinions and energy will do wonders in radio conference rooms.

Second, radio needs more 30-40 year old executives.  There are very smart minds leading radio companies but most of them have fewer than 10 years left in their careers.  The industry needs more high level executives who are concerned about keeping radio vibrant for 20 years.

Third, innovation must be rewarded.  Those who think differently or have it in their nature to “Poke the Box,” as Seth Godin’s new book calls it, need to be rewarded.  Too often I’ve found these types of individuals in radio feel the need to keep quiet as to not stir the pot.  They have no financial incentive to speak up or do something different.

Fourth, separate the digital operations from the terrestrial operations.  Imagine if Apple had asked the people who built the Mac to come up with a new music device.  There would have been no iPod.  No iPhone.  And, forget about the iPad.  The majority of Apple’s revenue no longer comes from personal computers.  There’s a reason.

Wish #3: Invest in the Future

Radio is not spending enough money in innovation.  An infusion of cash for investment is essential.  Cutting here to fund something over there won’t lead to fundamental shifts in our business models.  New money is desperately needed.  And, people can’t be scared of failing when they spend that money on new ideas.  Money spent on ideas that are guaranteed to succeed isn’t innovation, it’s called duplication.  Duplication used to work in radio as stations copied a format from another market.  But, the foundation of the business world has shifted.  That Won’t Work Anymore.

As Seth Godin told Mark Ramsey last week, radio might have tons of listeners still today.  But, it garners very little attention.  Getting someone to listen to a station is different from gaining their attention.  As long as PPM rules the day radio will do exactly the opposite of what great products do to gain people’s attention.  Think about it.  Arbitron even told us they were changing the rules when they quit measuring “time spent listening” to radio and instead measured how much “time [was] spent exposed” to radio.  Ever seen a product claim victory by how much it’s exposed to people?  We can not honestly tell any client how much time people are “listening” to a radio station.  The metric simply does not exist in any report anywhere.

So, yes, we’re in need of investment dollars.  To innovate.  And, get people’s attention again.  This time on their phones.  Their computers.  Their iPads.  And, soon, their TVs.

Wish #4: Move Sales Departments into the 21st Century

Imagine you’re a business owner.  You need customers.  You want to know how and where you should promote your business.  You decide to sit down at your computer and do a few Google searches to answer your questions.

Right now, in most cities radio would be completely invisible to this business owner.

Radio sales departments somehow did not make the transition to the digital age.

Radio sales departments have so many success stories, so much incredible talent to show off.  And yet they hide it all from anyone with a computer or smartphone.  How in the world does this continue to be the case in 2011?  I am stunned by it.

Radio sales teams need digital profiles.

We hire personalities on the content side and heavily promote them.  Why don’t we do that on the sales side too?

Yes, I should be able to buy a radio commercial online.  But, I’d even be happy with simply reading your story or watching a video about the results you get for clients online.  But, please don’t use a generic voice over.  Make your best sellers celebrities.  Use digital and social tools to have your best sellers educate potential clients online about how well radio works.  Educate.  Then sell.  And, do it online!!

I won’t spend any time on the structure of radio sales teams here.  But, let’s all agree they need to be restructured in a major way.  Now.

That’s it.

That’s plenty of ranting for now.

As I wrote earlier, I have a deep love for radio.  It will continue to succeed and be a good place to earn a living.

Yes, there will be fewer radio stations and fewer great radio jobs five years from now.  But, those who innovate and are the best at what they do will have incredibly bright futures in radio.  There will be plenty of room long-term for the leaders.  A lot less for the followers.

And, even though I’m leaving my full-time job in radio, I’ve been in the industry long enough to realize it’s impossible to ever get radio fully out of your blood.  I wouldn’t want that anyway.

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