No one knows radio better than you. You’re in the trenches. You’re experienced. You can make most important decisions in your sleep, because you’ve faced similar situations time and again. I respect that. But in my world of chasing curiosities, I wonder about the direction our industry will take.
Will the industry look the same in one year, or in five? Or will there be dramatic differences? Will the revenue streams at your radio station come from the same places, the same advertising? Will local advertisers follow national trends? Is money shifting before your eyes, without your even being aware of it? If you listen to the Silicon Valley types who often speak at our Convergence conferences, you’ll hear them say that radio will cease to exist in its present form because we cannot deliver the customized experience consumers want.
On the other hand, if you listen to your own experience and to some industry leaders, you may hear them say that we’re stable even without big digital revenues, and all the hype about digital and streaming is a waste of energy. “Stick to your knitting,” they say. “Focus on doing great radio. Our death has been hailed with every new technology, and they’ve been wrong every time.” Who’s right? Probably both. At least for a while.
Look at the history of any industry that has been through dramatic change, and you’ll hear the same dialogue: “Things are fine. Business is solid. Customers have not gone away, we’re strong — nothing can affect us, because of our deep market share.” Many an industry believed its own defensive rhetoric. They believed what they wanted to believe. And many an industry turned out to be wrong. What about you?
What do you want to believe? There are always early warning signs. Veterans hear that others, often outsiders who know little about the industry, are working on paradigm-breaking change that could dramatically disrupt the present model. Signals of change include a lot of publicity surrounding disruptive models, as the press predicts that these new models will kill the older industry. A new generation of business owners — often the children of business owners — will claim to have a better way, one the older generation can’t see. You may have longtime customers dipping their toes in new, experimental waters.
Some established industries take defensive measures to prove they’re still strong, but more often the prospect of change is met with denial. And in radio, we tend to ignore the outsiders. We know more about the industry than they do. How many programmers do you know who say they can outprogram Pandora? Change is met with resistance. It may even appear, for a while, as though it’s not going to happen after all.
And then, smack! It strikes like a thief in the night. Though I believe radio remains strong and I know each of us has a responsibility to “stick to our knitting,” I also know radio is seeing every early warning sign. The strong adoption of new online models, advertisers’ growing desire to be more digital-centric, a generational shift in control of businesses — and even now, strong denial from within our own ranks. The first shift will be advertisers shifting dollars to digital. The second wave will be a bigger shift by consumers to new forms of distribution. It’s happening gradually now and being ignored because the numbers appear insignificant.
My guess is that it will take a full seven years before all of America is using digital dashboards that give them access to any online audio alternative in the car. This is the big push from Ford and others, and it’s a reality we need to explore. Sticking to our knitting is practical. Chances are your company demands it, and chances are corporate is not very concerned about the digital audio shift. While some companies, like Clear Channel and Cumulus, are willing to invest in businesses that may replace their existing business model, most others are not.
What about you? Though I cannot decide for you, I think employment security today involves deep study of the digital trends around you. Those who don’t get ahead of the trends will always be playing catch-up. Ultimately, you’re in control at your station, and you need to make your own decisions. Stop, look at the signals, and think deeply about what others are starting to believe. You may come to the conclusion that it’s in your best interest to start exploring what those outsiders are thinking.