Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, is the new Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, he is driven to reinvent the way things are done, with the perspective of an industry outsider. Musk is redefining cool, and his Tesla is a very hot brand and currently the cool car on the market. They can't keep them in stock. Some even wish Musk were running Apple, which some feel is losing its shine, becoming more like Microsoft as it changes how it operates and treats its customers -- and Apple's lame new television campaign shows nothing of its former cutting edge.
I'm always intrigued with innovators, and Tesla is currently high on my list. I recently had dinner with one of the company's top executives to learn more about why Tesla is different, and how they think differently. I learned that Musk, like Jobs, is obsessed with quality even when it cannot be seen, is driven to change the world, and expects exceptional, innovative performance from his key people.
Innovators always meet with resistance, and I would imagine lots of traditional car makers in Detroit are explaining all the reasons Tesla can't succeed and all the things Musk is doing wrong. Yet because Musk does not come from the automotive industry, he's finding ways to do things those within the industry were sure couldn't be done.
I assumed that Tesla had some innovations for the radio dash as well -- things that may lead others to emulate its direction. So last week I visited Tesla to learn more about its digital dashboard, radio and audio. Here's what I learned.
The Tesla center console dash media player is like a giant, 17-inch iPad. AM and FM radio comes standard with the car -- which is great news -- and the touchscreen allows you to scroll the dial with the touch of a finger, much like turning pages on an iPad. Of course, you can also set your favorites. The Internet radio interface is a game-changer, allowing you to search by artist and find all the stations playing that artist, including Internet-only stations.
There's voice search as well: A simple "Find a station playing Lady Gaga" will bring the listener to any station in the world playing her music. And with just a touch, you can find stations from around the world and set them as your favorites. I scrolled through and found NRJ, my favorite station in Paris. Of course Pandora, iHeart, and SiriusXM are also available, giving consumers lots of options.
For years there has been an argument that, considering road and engine noise, it's not necessary for cars to have really great audio. But in the Tesla, you'll instantly notice a difference: With little or no engine noise, you can fully enjoy the stellar sound system. If electric vehicles continue to catch on, sound quality in the car will be increasingly important.
So why does Tesla matter to radio? After all, the car is very expensive, and unlikely to appeal to the average car buyer who is listening to your radio station. It matters because Tesla's innovative ideas will be copied by others. It's also important because the way consumers use audio in an automotive environment is changing quickly. The reality is that, in our study of automotive dashboards as they relate to radio, we found that the way audio and radio are presented has changed on almost all new car models. Though everyone is approaching audio differently, almost all car companies have changed the listening experience. As Internet radio is becoming universally available in the car, radio broadcasters no longer have the exclusive "radio" franchise on the dash.
Though the fear of losing AM/FM's position on the dash has been lessened by assurances from some automakers that they plan to keep it around, we must be very aware of how the listening environment has changed. Unless you've driven in one of these vehicles with these new audio entertainment options, you cannot possibly relate to the challenges they bring for those of us within the industry. Imagine the impact of voice search for stations or songs. Imagine how having all the stations in the world available at the driver's whim can impact how people listen to your station.
Most in our industry are responding like any industry that's challenged: defending the status quo and finding all the reasons consumers won't change. And it might even be true, in radio's case. But how likely is that? The questions all radio broadcasters need to be asking themselves now is how they can develop listener loyalty and cement their brands so deeply that listeners will seek out their favorite stations even when they have a choice of 75,000 stations from all around the world. Though you'll still be available on the local AM FM dial, you need to assume people embracing online radio may only seek out stations in an online environment.
I hate to admit it, but since moving to Austin four years ago, I'm not sure I can remember the names or frequencies of more than three AM or FM stations. (And I'm a radio person.) I have come to rely on my scan button until I find something interesting. Though I have a couple of favorites, my five presets are not filled. What matters most to me as a listener is finding something I love, something entertaining, something that scratches my itch. On the TuneIn app on my phone and iPad, presets are few -- stations I grew up listening to in my hometown, stations I've found around the world that I like, and a couple of local stations. All the more reason branding and station loyalty are critical.
If you're operating a station, I encourage you to go sit in a Tesla and experience AM/FM radio in the Tesla's new media center. I encourage you to visit car dealers and ask to see all the latest ways the different car companies are reinventing in-car audio. If you've not seen it, how can your station properly reflect how consumers are using their cars? Every GM and programmer needs to deeply understand the new in-car dash, whether it's from Tesla, Ford, GM, or other automakers. Every one of them is approaching audio differently. Each needs to be seen and understood.
Though Tesla will remain just a dream car for most, its innovations will be adopted by others. The radio experience in a Tesla is one of the best I've seen yet, and my visit to the company was an eye-opener. Everyone running radio stations today needs to study the way the car dash has changed in order to find a way to continue radio's dominance in the car. If the 50 percent of listening that takes place in the car gets divided up among other entertainment sources, your job will get a lot more difficult. By understanding it now, you can still find ways to keep your listeners engaged and seeking out your stations.
PS: In 25-plus years of
writing at Radio Ink, no subject spread more widely or received more
response than a recent editorial about the future of radio and its
presence on the automotive dash. It cut deeply and resulted in
statements assuring radio's future in the dash from major automotive
companies, had radio companies concerned, and had local and national
advertisers wanting to learn more. The considerable response made me
even more certain that the automotive dash is critical to everyone
involved. It's for that reason that Radio Ink has partnered with Jacobs
Media and with Shuman Consulting Group to create the very first event
designed to get the automotive and radio industries in a dialogue to
understand how we can be working together, and to help radio understand
what car companies are planning and thinking.
We may look back on this event as a major milestone for both industries. People are attending from most major car companies, from Internet radio, digital audio apps, radio groups, radio stations, advertising agencies, and even car dealers. This is an area important to them all. I invite and encourage you to attend on October 23-24 in Detroit. It's a day and a half that may help you reinvent the way you do business and create and deepen the relationships between audio, radio, advertising, and the car companies. To learn more, visit www.dashconference.com.