Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Radio: the anchestor of the iPod

In a way radio was an iPod long before Apple invented iPods.

After all, radios were portable analog music devices that allowed baby boomers to carry their music around with them 24 hours a day.

The iPod of today gives the listener total choice -- the music they want, when they want it and in whatever (or no) special order.

Back then, the predecessor to the Apple iPod was a transistor radio and an entire generation grew up with their radios to their ears -- just as today, ear plugs and all.

The forerunner to the "iPod" lacked the level of choice that today's Apple device has, but it had something even more valuable to young baby boomers -- air talent.

DJs were personalities and, arguably, even after Bill Drake cut the clutter from the top 40 format they were still personalities -- just the kind that didn't run at the mouth so much. My friend Jack Taddeo, the consultant, describes format radio as a merging of science with art. Transistor radios may not have allowed the listener to program the device but it entertained in a way that Apple's iPod can't.

Of course, today's iPod doesn't have to entertain other than play music.

That's because the radio industry has been asleep at the mike for a long, long time. Hey, I've been in this business for a while and I take my share of the blame, too. Long before consolidation in 1996 radio stations began what I think led to its demise.

Before I get to it, keep in mind that radio has always been adaptable. Before television was available to the general population in the fifties radio was television without pictures. When the new medium took off and consumers could afford sets, radio found that it could no longer thrive in the same way with just the audio.

So, radio reinvented itself.

It became a jukebox. Then a talk and information source. Later a sports station. Radio saw its finest day when its owners and talent knew their main mission.

But I believe in the late 1980s radio programming began to go stale. The digital, Internet and mobile revolution was only a gleam in the eyes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Al Gore (didn't he invent the Internet?). Radio stations simply stopped developing new formats. I've said it before but it deserves repeating that if Westinghouse didn't stubbornly stick with 24 hour all news the money format wouldn't be available as a radio staple today.

Can you imagine a consolidator today making that commitment and losing money for as long as Westinghouse did in the 60's?

The kinds of formats that radio developed were niches of niches. For example, the offshoot of top 40 was Superstars classic rock which gave birth to classic hits and classic just about anything else. It was as if radio ran out of ideas and just kept fine tuning the handful of formats that worked -- with the help (I think) of researchers and consultants looking to deliver big ratings on small budgets with less risk.

I have never been a fan of consolidation which ultimately sealed radio's fate but radio's problems today started before greedy owners, Wall Street money people and Steve Jobs.

Now, radio is in its twilight -- as are its most ardent fans, the baby boomers.

The iPod was inevitable because once technology paved the way, radio had already become an iPod -- a portable jukebox with a lot of baggage.

Music with little personality.

Too many commercials, promos and clutter.

Before I switched formats at one of the Philly stations I worked for right out of college, it was automated -- Shafer automation. We were trying to kill radio off that early but our memories have become clouded. Yes, the radio industry was not satisfied dodging the bullet of a new medium -- television -- it wanted to be an iPod long before it was possible.

Radio news got stashed on the all-night show. Then less news and finally no news.

The all-night show went. First on weekends. Then to network syndication. The cost cutters were at work decades ago.

Local radio became less local -- more national syndication and eventually voice tracking.

The last hurrah was the morning "Zoo" personality programs and Howard Stern. Radio's legacy may be that Howard Stern was its last great personality who ironically defected to its arch enemy satellite radio.

I get into all this because 2008 is going to be another year of change and great disappointment for radio.

Radio will not recover its listeners or advertisers. In fact, it is going to lose more of both. How do I know? Clear Channel which goes private in a few months is already taking more and more stations away from live personalities and implementing voice tracking. The formula Clear Channel station is being developed for these geniuses at Lee and Bain.

Clear Channel has done a lot of things to help bury the radio industry and they are not through. Major dayparts in small cities like New York are going with voice tracked personalities.

And you can't even use the word personalities and voice tracking in the same sentence because voice tracking is boring radio. Just what you need when the next generation is leaving you.

Many remind me that radio survived television so it will survive the digital revolution, too. I imagine anything is possible, but don't bet on it.

For radio to find a place on the entertainment spectrum it needs to not be a poor imitation of an iPod. An iPod is better. Your own library. You control it or don't control it. And it's no worse than voice tracking. As I said, it's better.

Radio must challenge itself to be something very non-iPod. One of the things I do for radio companies is to help their people brainstorm new formats. You know what happens? They can't seem to come up with any?


I'm not.

But Gen Y students -- the next generation --- have no problem. It's just that you won't like what they come up with.

Because it isn't radio.

Radio stations want to be in charge of programming but the next generation also wants to make user-generated content (i.e., YouTube, mashups, etc). These two things are in conflict.

Radio stills works with boomers and Gen X, but there's no growth without the digital generation.

To put it in perspective there are approximately as many Gen Yers as there are baby boomers. That's how important the next generation is.

Which leads me to my point.

For radio to have even a small chance -- it can no longer be radio.

Jerry Del Colliano

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