December 1, 2015

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09/18/06 A Beacon Of Culture
One of radio's strengths has always been its ability to reflect cultural trends and stay current. In the past, we've reflected trends by playing the hits of certain generations and sub-cultures, and creating music stations whose formats reflected the mindset of those generations. Reflecting continues to be one of the most important things we can do.

Today's youth download and listen to music on their MP3 players or computers. They've never known a world without computers, e-mail, and instant messaging. They have always relied on websites and blogs for their information, and are accustomed to self-programming all of their media choices: music, news, video, and streaming audio.

The 25-34 demographic is transitioning from old media to new media. The demo is comprises 25-year-olds fully immersed in Internet culture and 34-year-olds who combine some old media with some new. Meanwhile, today's 12-24 demo has no recollection of old media. To them, and to the younger part of the 25-34 demo, we're antiques. This sea change will have a dramatic impact on radio, television, and print media usage and revenue and it's happening at light speed. Face it, radio is old media. There is no doubt we can adapt and regain relevance, but will we?

I'm very pro-radio, but I'm concerned that radio's reinvention under these circumstances — versus past threats — will be more difficult, and it seems as though radio is stuck in the mindset of “we've always had threats from CB radio, to cassettes, to cell phone and CDs. This is no different.” But it is different. It's a cultural revolution. As new demographics with no loyalty to old media become advertisers' primary buying targets, radio is faced with quite possibly its biggest-ever challenge: a generation that isn't addicted to radio, listens less, and isn't satisfied with the music that is “pushed” on them. The battle will not be won by playing more music, having more format choices, better music, or even fewer commercials. It will be won by becoming a beacon of culture.

Radio's strength will come from new formats that have highly entertaining personalities and interactivity with listeners. Stations that properly reflect culture will likely be a hybrid of eclectic music and talk radio with cultural reflection. This hasn't yet been invented, but it could change radio and make it relevant to this generation of Internet babies.

How do we do this? Hire young, tech-savvy people who also grew up immersed in Internet culture, and letting them reinvent. Allow them to take insane ideas you instinctively know won't work. Experiment. Following the core principles that have worked for decades, or even the last decade, is risky. For the first time, cultural changes involve a major shift in media choices and a new self-selection model, which could spell the end of “mass” hits and tight playlists.

Twenty-five-year-old MTV abandoned the playlist business, and reinvented itself through culturally reflective, non-music programming. What about radio? Music formats continue to attract listeners, but TSL is declincing. It's difficult to anticipate the long-term impact of self-programming through iPod listening, podcasting, and Internet-based selection on portable audio, video players, and cell phones. Instead of pushing buttons on the car radio, listeners are pushing buttons on thousands of choices based on what's important to them at that moment. Is the ability to predict — en mass — what people want to hear even possible anymore?

Radio will be comfortable continuing “as is” because things don't yet appear to have changed much. But mark my words: There will be a point when things actually seem to be getting better, and then — like flipping a light switch — listening and advertising will be significantly eroded. We must not let that happen. Isn't it smarter to experiment now while we still have cume? Rebuilding once audiences are diminished would be much more difficult.

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