Got an email from a friend, asking me what I thought about commercial radio. What I like, dislike? How they can attract a following? Can they? What's the future? I asked if I could reply in the form of a post... here it is... I don't call it commercial radio, I call it McRadio:
...the Alt Rock station in Albany plays the same songs by the same artists as the Alt Rock station in Wichita. Just like a burger at McDonalds, radio has become packaged and predictable.
The reason for this is well known, the radio stations are essentially bought and paid for by the record companies through what is known as Payola. So, they aren't in the business of helping you and I enjoy music, they are in the business of making money... at the end of the day, organizations have to make money to stay in business, but if that is all that they care about, they will need to figure out a way to do without relying on people listening to the radio, because I don't think that the scheme will be available in 10 or 20 years.
Let me explain... As we all know, the on thing that is certain is that the future brings two things: More Choices and Change.
Today, I have several options for hooking up an MP3 player to my car; from cassette adapters to units that allow me to integrate my iPod into the car - the iPod becomes my personal library of music that I have an interest in. Over time, more and more cars will offer other built-in functionality beyond commercial radio and CD players. Today, plenty of cars come with satellite radios, hard drives, and integration kits for MP3 players, etc. This adoption curve will continue and the technology will improve that is required to enable people to share their music collection among devices (car, home stereo, portable device, etc) and the tools for getting music will improve as well. Imagine the next iteration of public, high speed, wi-fi and and a car stereo with an internet connection: want the new Alicia Keys CD? Download it to your car. When you get home, you can transfer it to your home computer, stereo, etc. Is that realistic? Yeah, all the technology exists to do that today, it will probably be a couple of years before anyone puts it all together and several more years before it is enjoys wide spread adoption, but it is totally possible. Will this be available in 3, 5 or 10 years? Who knows, but it will be available. One example of this is that I can easily stream music to my stereo from my PC today. So, now that I can stream it, why can't I save a copy there if I want?
There might even be something comes before this - and who knows, this might be available to today - imagine a TiVo like music service. Recording a stream of radio and then jumping through it, saving and deleting songs as you go. So what you end up with is an archive of songs you've recorded from radio, building a library as you go. This might help radio extends its lifetime, but this seems like a klunky solution. Now, some people will say that satellite radio is the future and with the narrowly focused channels and the absence of payola, the assumption is that people will be content for a while. I don't agree with this. This is still a push model. Someone else deciding what I'm going to listen to. I don't like that. As things like TV on demand, which is available today, get integrated into our lives we will be less likely to put up with someone else dictating when we have to listen to something.
Can radio overcome this uncertain future? Can they build audience loyalty? In short, NO. I think they have something major working against them: You can't be all things to all people, which is what they are relying on with a push model
Now, I think that radio needs to better understand what people want. Some radio stations will exist longer than others, there will always be demand for Top 40 or news, those stations will last the longest - regardless of the underlying technology infrastructure delivering the music (satellite, etc). But the radio stations that want to be in business 10 years from now will need to better understand how consumers choose music. Let me give you an example, we just got a new radio station in my area - Smooth Jazz 92.7, they play (shockingly) smooth jazz (FULL DISCLOSURE: I know one of the DJs). It isn't that I like or even know half the artists on the station, but the music is essentially all the same and I know how I will feel when I listen to it, actually, they've transcended "genre" and they're offering "mood". The radio station that can do that, does have a future, albeit a short one. Genre can be all over the map, mood is a much better programming method. If a radio station decides that they will go this route, they'll have to understand that they will give up listeners because not everyone will be in that mood all the time (yikes, did I just write that?). For instance, I listen to the Jazz station mostly in the evening, when I'm reading, etc. When I'm driving to work, for instance, I don't want to listen to Stairway to Heaven - I want Master of Puppets. On the drive home however, I want to know about traffic and Master of Puppets isn't quite right... perhaps some Jeff Buckley or Alicia Keys.
Think about it, radio stations program their music by genre, but most peoples CD collection is all over the map. Right? Our CD collection, currently around 400, is so diverse and eclectic that it defies categorization. Sure, there are some CDs of mine that my wife will never listen to... and some of hers that I will never, ever listen to, but it is all over the map - from ABBA to Zebra - and there is probably no radio station in the world that has played songs from both of those artists.
Wow, I sort of went all over the place on this one...
So, do you think that commercial radio has a future? What can they do to build loyalty??