I was invited to appear on a panel at a state broadcasters’ convention in Oklahoma recently. The topic—a pretty daunting one—was nothing less than “The Future of Radio.” What advice could I share to help real broadcasters in the American heartland ensure their place in the complicated, competitive new world of media?
Not an easy topic, but an important one for sure. A few things ran through my mind as I prepared for this assignment. First, this convention would take place within walking distance from the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. If you have been to Oklahoma City, you know that this event is still forefront in people’s minds. The people there are hardy folks—survivors—stronger, kinder and very respectful of their experience. They have seen the worst and the best of human nature. Perhaps more importantly, they aren’t the type to run from a problem. I wasn’t going to be able to scare them with talk of new forms of digital entertainment audio or traffic and weather apps while eating their lunches. Then again, if I was looking for a group of people who knew something about rebuilding and coming together as a community to make a better world, I’d be in front of the right audience.
I would also be addressing a group of broadcasters in the trenches, duking it out every day with local newspapers, TV, and a host of new media competitors. This couldn’t be a theoretical or philosophical conversation. Rather, I needed to offer practical, actionable advice—a roadmap to a stronger future—without overwhelming the audience with discussion of every possible digital threat.
It certainly is easy to become overwhelmed. Nearly everyday, a new streaming music service hits the market, whether funded by a superstar artist like Jay-Z or a superstar brand like Google or Apple. Beyond music, hundreds of apps are released every day targeting core radio services like traffic, weather, news and sports. How does a broadcaster compete with all of that?
Well, before our session we received one last reminder that we weren’t going to scare these Oklahomans with anything our panel had to say: a tornado blew through as the convention began, toppling a number of local radio towers Of course, these sturdy Sooners were back on the air within hours.
So what advice did I have for these broadcasters?
Start with the foundation; make sure it continues to be strong. Your radio brands are your foundation and without them you really don’t have anything to hold on to. These foundations need support—marketing, branding and focus. These are the fundamentals of the radio business that we cannot forget. Before anything else, make sure that you are paying attention to the basics, rather than getting distracted by all of the new competitive offerings. Don’t ignore the competition and opportunities presented by the new audio entertainment spectrum, but be smart about what threats you can respond to and those you cannot. While you must compete in the digital world, this cannot be done at the expense of the current product. Moreover, in a more competitive landscape, first and foremost you must redouble your efforts in the fundamentals of marketing, branding and focus. That radio brand has to be strong, or it will be blown over in the next storm—or tornado—to come your way.
Stay connected to your community. Isn’t that what kept Oklahoma City going after the bombing? Radio nobly rises to the occasion when tragedies befall our communities, but what are we doing on ordinary days? Stay connected both on the air and behind the scenes. Make the most of that human connection that radio does so well.
This is what Pandora and many other digital offerings do not do. A real, local person has the ability to bring things to life in a way that a computer algorithm never will. Can you imagine what it would be like to be listening to Pandora when a tornado blows through your town—and all you hear is a string of songs chosen by a computer program devoid of any context or connection?
Make a human connection. That human connection is important on ordinary days as well. This is where personalities fit in to the new landscape. Only a person can tell a story, paint a picture, bring something to life. My iPhone tells me the current temperature and provides an icon that generally represents weather condition. But only a live person can provide color and context. What does it feel like outside? Do I need a raincoat? A human voice makes the facts meaningful, relatable, entertaining and immediate.
When I worked in radio in New York, I scheduled a lunch with the midday anchor on one of the news radio stations. I walked over to his studio one drizzly morning. On the way to the elevator heading out to lunch, he turned to me and asked: “Do I need an umbrella?” I laughed and responded: “You just read the weather six times an hour for five straight hours—and you are asking me?” Problem was, he was just reading, not thinking about how those facts related to real people, walking around in it. That’s a missed opportunity.
Add your own unique treatment. It doesn’t matter that the “facts” are available a hundred other places. Adding your unique take on those facts makes them entertaining and compelling. Steven Colbert appeared recently on the Slate podcast “Working.” Colbert related the challenge of creating entertainment today: everyone has access to the same “raw material”—radio, TV, bloggers, newspapers, Twitterers. He has no “exclusive” content. But what he does have is his unique point of view that allows him to filter and distill that same “raw material” and create great entertainment. And so does every broadcaster!
Get back to your creative roots. Create one promo, commercial or promotion this week that people will talk about, one that will move them, that will change them, something they will never forget. This does not need to cost money. And there’s no need to wait for a disaster to wake you up to do this—there must be a need in your community right now that aligns with what your audience cares about and the essence of your radio station.
In short, get back in touch with the basics of our business—and the reasons why listeners connected with our medium to begin with—and together we can weather the storm of the new audio entertainment choices.