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I'm Depressed

I'm depressed.

<b>(by Eric Rhoads)</b> Recently I attended the BIA Local conference in San Francisco. I was there to talk about radio's role in the local marketplace and radio and the connected car. After my time onstage I listened the rest of the day as both new and established media and tech companies discussed their meteoric growth, their huge consumer adoption, how they are changing the way people connect, how they buy, and how they conduct their lives.
After the conference, I had a meeting with a prominent radio colleague and we shared horror stories about missteps in our industry. He feels radio is making too many foolish mistakes. I don't entirely disagree.
As I traveled to the airport and then home I realized I was depressed, and I could not understand why. Then it struck me. Radio is flat, radio is not innovating, radio is not doing much of anything new. In contrast, I saw all these companies doing exciting things, changing consumer behavior and innovating. I wanted that for radio.
Though my depression has passed, I am concerned that we as an industry are not breaking our chains from the past. Do our stations really sound any different than they did five years ago? How about 30 years ago? Most morning shows sound pretty much the same, and have since Scott Shannon and Steve Kingston innovated the Z Morning Zoo decades ago. Our playlists continue to repeat "the biggest hits," and even our sounders and ID voiceovers sound about the same as they have since Star Wars (and light saber sound effects) came out. What are we doing to reflect today?
Success formulas are important. I was a programmer and an owner, and I saw the advantages of following what works. But I'm bored with it. Is there a possibility that our listeners are also bored?

A basic principle of marketing is that you should zig while others zag. The only refreshing content I'm hearing is on college radio, which sounds unproduced, unprofessional, and authentic. They are zigging while radio zags. If you hadn't noticed, today's college and high school kids want everything to feel authentic. The plastic of their parents' generation doesn't cut it. Where does your radio station fit in? Remember when we used to want to be cutting-edge to attract young people?
My friend said yesterday, "My 16-year-old daughter doesn't use any media in real time. It's all on her schedule, on demand on her phone. When I had the radio on in the car the other day, which is rare, a new song came on that she liked. She said, 'Play it again, Dad.' When I reminded her radio can't do that, she rolled her eyes -- and we connected her iPhone to the Bluetooth in the car, looked up the song, and listened to it on Spotify. Radio is not on her radar."
For all the good things we have going on in our industry, sometimes you still have to fix what is not broken and force innovation even if it's unproven. Because we've found what works, we've become risk-averse. Though I understand this from a practical business standpoint, I also know that companies with successful products continually change them. What if Detroit said, "We found a great formula for cars in 1978, so we'll stick with that?" Hollywood is already having box office problems because studios are repeating what is safe and proven and rarely innovating.
Is it possible that our 1 to 2 percent growth industry could break out into the stratosphere if we tried something new to reinvigorate our stations, electrify our listeners, and bring up time spent listening? I encourage station owners and groups to take their few unsuccessful signals, find some 20-year-olds to staff them, and let them try something new. Though it seems impractical and possibly even irresponsible, that's exactly how FM killed AM. (And the lower spotloads also had a lot to do with it.)
What does your gut tell you about radio today? Can we improve it? Can we make it stop sounding like "radio"? Can we shake it up, take some risks, try something new? Do we have to be so safe, so predictable?
As you enter this holiday season and maybe have some time on your hands, please consider radio as it stands today and ask if you can shake it up, make it different, make it better. Safety equals complacency, and it plays into the hands of others who want to take advantage of our weaknesses.
We are a strong and a great industry filled with brilliant and creative people, too many of whom are told to stick to their knitting and take no risks. We have tremendous strengths and amazing ability to reinvent. Will we use these resources and challenge ourselves to be better in 2014? The decision lies in your hands.

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