The Future Is Yours To Write

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” – For What it’s Worth, Buffalo Springfield

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As I sit in my hotel room in Mexico,watching the waves come in I find myself pondering radios future…because it’s my future too. But as Buffalo Springfield says, it ain’t exactly clear. My friend Mark Ramsey blogged about that every thing recently, and thinks there are two stories running in radio broadcasters heads.

The first story is “one where radio reacts reflexively to claims that “nobody cares about radio anymore” with evidence to the contrary. It’s one where broadcasters illustrate radio usage as being as great or greater than ever despite the huge number of distractions consumers have today that never existed before. It’s a story where we attack the new competitors as being “outside” our category or being “less than” radio in one way or another. As the attention and interest surrounding radio alternatives rises, we go for the jugular. We recognize that advertisers are attracted by these shiny baubles and fear the notion that they will take their dollars, previously earmarked for us, and devote them to these new ideas.”

This is a story of “if I close my eyes no one will see me.”. That worked when we were kids worried about monsters in the room at night, but it’s pretty delusional for adults of today. Even if it’s not exactly clear, there is something happening here.

The second story is one where radio welcomes new competitors because in the cold, harsh light of day those competitors may earn a seat at the table, but it’s still the kids’ table. And smart broadcasters know that these competitors will simply make their industry better, because that’s what competitors do.

This is the story where radio acknowledges that while reach is still awesome, folks are not listening to radio as much as they used to and that’s okay. Why? Because it’s not radio’s fault – it’s not because radio’s “bad.” It’s the “fault” of the zillions of alternative ways people spend their time nowadays and it’s why NO mass medium has the same intensity of usage it had 20 years ago. So get over that. The listenership is not going to iPods or Pandora or wherever. In fact, it may not be listenership that’s going anywhere. It’s time that’s going places. And time will follow whatever fun and entertaining things can fill that time, whether those things are audio-only or not.

Being a change agent, I chose the second story. In the 70’s it was pretty much radio only…if fact AM radio only. We were in control and could do what we want. Then came FM, and later on Al Gore invented the internet. Oh yes, then Steve Jobs put music on the telephone. A whole new playground. There are now hundreds times more attention grabbers than there were in the 70’s. And…wait for it…things aren’t going to get any less distracting. People aren’t going to drop other media to return to their one true love, radio.

Let’s forget about radio for a minute and think about people instead. We all know there are people who only want the music, and nothing else. Focusing intently on the music and paying scant attention to everything else will only hasten our demise. Others, like Pandora, have an on ramp for those people because it is only music… we don’t. Those people are going to go to any media that gives them their music without talk. We aren’t going to change that. Then we have the attention deficit disorder generation who actually are going to chase after the newest thing. We can’t change that either.

So what can we do to continue success? Forget the past and focus on a future rooted in the reality of today. Stay focused on people, the listeners who are loyal, and what they want. No, really, what they want. The reasons they listen to you beyond the music. The actual essence of the brand. You need to figure out how to be magnetic enough to draw listeners away from other sources, to you.

One answer goes to people, and by that I mean your people, the ones at the station. If listeners can get your music elsewhere, the number two success element of the station is who is on-air and who backs them up. That’s another blog for another time, but the answer to writing your future starts with forgetting the good old days and paying attention to the realities of today. Music is the foundation, the stage everyone else performs on, the start of your brand. But it’s not the only part of your brand.