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Radio Is Dead…again

I’ve been following a discussion on one of the Facebook radio boards that I find quite hilarious, though at the same time very sad. One ‘side’ on this thread believes consultants are a valuable part of a station’s makeup, while the other ‘side’ complains that consultants are ruining radio by convincing management that to compete with Spotify or any of the music providers, radio has to become more like those providers. As you might guess, I fall into the latter group. Sorta. Don’t get me wrong. Programming gurus have their place in the radio hierarchy, and I know a few really amazing people in that line. The amazing ones, few though they are, understand the big picture and do NOT tell owners/programmers to be more like iTunes and such. They get it. Completely. Here’s why. Let’s begin with a little history lesson. It was July 12, 1979 and a Chicago shock jock named Steve Dahl (97.9 WLUP) played host to a twi-night double header at Comiskey Park between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers. The theme for the night was “The Destruction Of Disco.” Fans were charged 98¢ and a disco record to get in and Dahl promised to destroy all the vinyl. White Sox management, tired of chronically low attendance, had hoped the promotion would sell 20-thousand seats, 5-thousand over the normal gate. What they got was 50-thousand paid admissions, plus several thousand more fans who snuck in, all with disco records. The backlash against disco music at the time was obviously pretty strong, based on the turnout that night. Anything by The Bee Gees, Yvonne Elliman, The Trammps, Donna Summer, The Village People or Barry Manilow (Copacabana in particular) were reviled by rock purists and Steve Dahl was leading the charge to obliterate disco. Well, the first game ended, the giant crate was wheeled out to the center of the diamond and blown up, just as promised. Thousands more records were thrown onto the field like frisbees and the crowd surged and proceeded to riot. The second game was forfeited by the Sox because police had to clear the stadium. Dahl declared that “Disco is dead!” and that was apparently the end of an entire genre. Not. Dahl became persona non grata for a time with Major League Baseball, but he continues to entertain on WLS/Chicago today and even has his own subscription based podcast network. He’s done well, as I think he should...he's quite talented. Oddly, though it’s not called disco anymore, so has the music he blew up. You might hear it called house, trance or simply dance, but let’s face it, disco is alive and well, in spite of Mr. Dahl’s pronouncement. It seems like every decade or so, somebody who is touted as a deep thinker in the radio biz, announces that broadcast radio is dead. Usually, said deep thinker is an idiot. A more accurate way to look at it would be to declare that radio is changing…again. Radio was the primary source of home entertainment for a long time in the early 20th century, delighting old and young alike with shows like The Shadow, Gunsmoke, Amos And Andy, The Jack Benny Show and dozens and dozens more. Along came television…and radio pundits declared that radio was finished. As the total number of television stations continued to expand and more and more people brought the small screen into their living rooms, folks in the radio biz kept wringing their hands in despair as their world continued to shrink. But a funny thing happened on the road to oblivion; the radio business evolved. Instead of all the stations carrying the big network shows out of New York, local stations became local. By the time President Kennedy was killed and The Beatles led the British Invasion (two events that are strangely interconnected), radio had surged once again into prominence in the entertainment business. By then, transistor radios were everywhere and so too were the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Roy Orbison. Radio entered a new ‘Golden Age,’ one that lasted nearly five decades. In the late 90s, those all-wise, all-seeing radio pundits once again declared that radio was dead. Just as television had taken away the story-telling of radio, the internet and satellite radio came along and started draining away the lifeblood of radio, music. Between Sirius, XM, iTunes, Spotify and a bunch of other providers, people had their choices of music suppliers expand at an unprecedented rate. Music was no longer the sole province of broadcast radio. Don’t cry for radio. It’s not dead, even though a LOT of people have done their level best to make it happen. Some, including me, have decried what all the consolidation has done to radio. Once ownership restrictions were set aside, companies like iHeart Media, Cumulus and Entercom went about buying every decent-sized property they could get their hands on. The bean counters we all love to knock, started cost-saving measures to maximize their profits. Voice-tracking became a ‘thing’ and they successfully destroyed our farm-team practice of searching for really talented jocks in small to medium markets and moving them up to the bigs when there was an opening. Now, when there’s an opening, there aren’t any jocks in the small-medium markets because those shows are all being voice-tracked by someone in a larger market. I feel like these companies were trying to revert to the radio model of the early 20th century, with programming flowing from a central hub. Playlists from New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, voice tracking and national contesting (which really takes the ‘F’ out of fun), started the business down a road that made radio no longer recession-proof. Thus, the big companies have been struggling financially. It seems like every 6 months to a year, these big companies shrink their payrolls again and commercial and imaging producers lose their gigs to someone who has to do that work for 3 or more stations. The days of one producer for one station are long gone now, and I honestly don’t know how much more workforce contraction this business can handle. The sad thing is, many of the producers who are left have to sacrifice quality for quantity. Are you getting more depressed? Chin up, my friend. Radio is STILL not dead. Getting back to the consultant pro/con debate, one of the assumptions made at the very beginning of most of those not amazing consultant diatribes is that listeners tune out because of commercials. They compound it by equating anything that isn’t music as cause for tune out. This has become an almost religious mantra in radio that I keep hearing everywhere I go. They’re concerned because it’s now so easy to have non-stop music at the listener’s fingertips, 24 hours a day. What a load of guano! I just don’t buy the theory that people tune out because of commercials. I believe they tune out because of “BAD” commercials. Too much hype, too many clichés, too many phone numbers are all ingredients for “bad” commercials. If we can touch an emotional nerve, say something that’s interesting, funny or compelling, they will continue to listen – every time. Think about the Super Bowl on TV. Every year, millions of people tune in. It is constantly one of the highest rated TV events of the year. Why? There is that little thing about the football championship going on, but there is definitely more than that. If the Yankees don’t make the World Series, I don’t watch the World Series. My team isn’t in it…what do I care? I’d rather watch reruns of Family Feud. BUT, the Super Bowl has something the World Series doesn’t…brand new commercials. We ALL watch the commercials during the Super Bowl, every year. Try to tell me that commercials make people tune elsewhere.

The assumption that people tune out because the music isn’t playing just doesn’t sit right. If people wanted juke boxes in their cars, we’d have been out of business decades ago, first with 8-Tracks, then cassettes , CDs, and now cell phone playlists and satellite radio. Broadcasters have been guilty of feeding that assumption too. How many times have we said, “More music, fewer commercials?” It’s almost like we’re saying Music = GOOD…Commercials = BAD. I’m sorry, but that’s really stupid. (Perhaps short sighted is more like it.) Even worse is “More music, less talk.” If people really wanted less talk, they would have already jumped. Services like iTunes certainly have a place in a lot of people’s lives, but when listeners want to know what’s going on in their town, those services can never compete.

I really believe that the emphasis should not be put on fewer commercials or less talk. Put the emphasis on the real listener benefit, entertainment. Not just music, not just vital information, but entertainment is the key. THAT is why people listen to the radio. We’re their carpool companion, their office-mate or shower karaoke machine. Without the mortar we put between all the music, we become a pile of bricks with no personality and no compelling reason to listen.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have fewer commercials or less talk. Believe me, the audience is hip to the idea of more music, and will undoubtedly migrate to the station that actually provides it, but…we really have to stop saying that commercials are bad. All we accomplish by doing this is plant the idea in the listener’s mind that when a promo or commercial comes on, they should jump to another frequency. It’s almost like we’re giving them permission to change stations. Stop that! Instead, make sure that every promo, sweeper and commercial is entertaining! We want them to listen to at least some of the commercials or our revenue will dry up. Commercials are GOOD. Commercials pay our salaries and pay for all the cool toys we play with every day. Make the commercials and promos special. Make sure they reach out and touch the listener in some way. Make sure they have emotional content. Make your promos, sweepers and commercials as good as the music. Radio dead? Hold off on the hearse.

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