Jon Coleman and I were walking through an airport last week when we unexpectedly ran into a longtime Coleman Insights client. I won’t mention his name here, but if I did, most reading this would recognize it, as he is a highly successful and well-respected head of programming for one of America’s largest radio groups.
This programmer expressed concerns about radio’s inability to attract young people to work in it and how poorly this boded for the industry’s future. While his comments about no longer having a “farm system” featuring interns and overnighters covered familiar ground, they were particularly striking to Jon and me, as we had just come from a radio trade association meeting of group executives where I was one of the very few people in the room under the age of 50. The programmer’s passion—a trait that has served him and his stations’ audiences well for three decades—stayed with me over this past weekend and made me think further about why radio struggles to attract young talent.
Quite simply, I concluded that too many radio companies are not even trying to make our industry attractive to young people. Part of this is due to short-term, financially-driven thinking that has caused many operators to eliminate overnight air shifts and entry-level promotion positions, but a bigger part is because we don’t think we can. The number of times I’ve heard people in our business say “Young people don’t care about radio” and “We can’t compete with the tech industry to attract young talent” is staggering, and emblematic of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s also wrong.
How do I know this? Because I have seen young, intelligent college students get excited about radio. Sure, the bright lights of Silicon Valley and digital media start-ups excite them, too, but the “magic” that those of us who got into this business a few decades ago felt is still there waiting to be experienced by future generations.
This past May, I decided to take a break after serving for eight years on the board of directors of Cornell Media Guild, Inc., a non-profit comprised of students at Cornell University that owns WVBR-FM/Ithaca and operates CornellRadio.com. WVBR is a special place; it’s different from most college radio stations in that it’s independent of the school with which it is associated and has a commercial license, meaning it needs to generate revenue from advertising to pay its bills. It has provided an amazing “real world” training ground for college students interested in media careers. In the years I was there as a college student in the 80s I worked alongside iHeartMedia programming guru Tom Poleman, syndicated host Todd Schnitt, Sirius XM’s head of music programming Steve Blatter, MSG Network anchor Bill Pidto, WCBS-AM/New York anchor Brigitte Quinn, Sirius XM host Jessica Ettinger and Yahoo chief marketing officer Kathy Savitt. Other notables that got their starts at WVBR include ESPN host Keith Olbermann, CBS News correspondent Pam Coulter, NBC News correspondent Kate Snow and Dr. Joyce Brothers.
During my time on the board, I saw countless students in their late teens and early 20s share great enthusiasm for working in radio. Seeing that enthusiasm first-hand is what I miss the most in the nearly six months since I stepped down from the board. It’s why, in a great coincidence with my airport encounter with my client last week, I was thrilled to come across this blog post the very next day…
Yes, you read the last paragraph of Katie’s post right—there are 70 students at Cornell University competing for shifts as DJs on a commercial rock station! I’m sure everything else Katie wrote conveys to you the passion that she and the more than 100 student staff members of Cornell Media Guild have for the magic of radio. If you think radio can’t attract young people, I offer this as direct evidence that your thinking is wrong.
It’s time for radio to get past the idea that it can’t attract a new generation of broadcasters. They are out there in high schools and universities everywhere. Let’s invite them into our stations as interns. Give them overnight shifts or—if they’re not ready—shifts on HD and streaming side channels. Have them represent our stations at concerts and community events. Get their feedback in weekly music meetings. Listen to their ideas on how to create content that their generation finds compelling.
We can continue to do what we’re doing and believe that we can’t attract young people to radio. Or, we can harness the passion for radio that exists with young people like Cornell University junior Katie O’Brien and build a brighter future for the industry. I say let’s do the latter.