Radio broadcasters have made much fuss about Seth Godin’s post this past week titled “an end of radio.”
In it, Seth referenced the conversation he and I had eight years ago about the future of radio and how it would likely be impacted by access to unlimited online radio alternatives.
It’s hard to believe our conversation was that long ago – 2006 B.M.E (that’s Before the Mobile Era).
At the time, Seth theorized an end would come with city-wide wifi. He writes:
I realized last week that this has just happened. Not via wifi, but via Bluetooth and the smart phone. The car-sharing driver (Bluetooth equipped car, with a smart phone, of course) who picked me up the other day was listening to a local radio station. It was almost as if he was smoking a pipe or driving a buggy. With so many podcasts, free downloads and Spotify stations to listen to, why? With traffic, weather and talking maps in your pocket, why wait for the announcer to get around to telling you what you need to know?
The first people to leave the radio audience will be the ones that the advertisers want most. And it will spiral down from there. Just as newspapers fell off a cliff, radio is about to follow. It’s going to happen faster than anyone expects.
Let’s step back from Seth’s somewhat overheated rhetoric (and I know my overheated rhetoric) for a second.
This week I was in a late model UBER SUV driving from Manhattan to JFK in morning drive-time. Of course, the driver had his Bluetooth and his smartphone. And he was listening to a remarkably conventional radio on the dashboard, its green LED dial positions softly glowing like a CASIO watch from the mid-70’s.
For more than 30 minutes I watched him navigate the radio dial at the most cluttered time in one of America’s most cluttered markets.
He punched the button probably a dozen times. From WKTU to AMP to The Beat to LITE and back again.
As I watched this customer experience I was struck by how potentially crappy it was. He punched out of one station’s traffic report (his navigation device featured traffic info) only to land on another. When you tune out for traffic the last thing you want to land on is more traffic.
The same thing happened with spots. Punch: Spots. Punch: Spots. He didn’t punch out at the first spot, but he seemed to reach a breaking point after two or three.
And quite often, the on-air conversation was tough to differentiate from spots. I could see the subtle workings of his mind in action: How close am I to a song? Is it worth “rolling the dice” on another station, or should I simply wait?
It’s not that this was frustrating for him. This was simply all he knows. It’s what radio has taught him to expect after generations of stations that have no other points of reference than each other.
We have cluttered ourselves in direct proportion to how our competitors clutter themselves. We have tried to satisfy all the demands of every listener every morning even though all other stations are trying to satisfy all the same demands, thus reducing the distinctions between stations. We have turned service elements into profit centers thus guaranteeing that they can never go away, even if their disappearance would make us better at the one thing listeners come to us for.
Stations only counter-program each other – they don’t counter-program radio alternatives, like Pandora, even though these are real and rising options to your local station. They are the very alternatives Seth is alluding to.
I asked the driver: “How come you don’t listen to Pandora?”
“Do I have to download that?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I don’t know how to do that,” he said.
“You download it on your mobile phone,” I replied.
“We’re not supposed to play with our phones while driving in New York,” he replied.
I could have explained that downloading an app on his iPhone was not only super-easy, but I’m quite sure he knows how to do it. I could have explained that an upgraded technology package in his car could help solve that problem. I could have explained that one day, Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto will automatically update his vehicle to the latest technology. I could have explained that Pandora would function with minimal distractions in such a setup, or that he could even simply hook up his phone to his Bluetooth for music the way it was hooked up for calls.
But that would require having a consumer with a problem. This consumer had none, and thus he was not anxious to seek out a solution.
And that’s why the driver in Seth’s car was listening to the radio in the presence of all that technology, whereas Seth and I and perhaps you might have long since bolted to the musical stylings of Pandora or the bountiful world of podcasts.
So when Seth says “just as newspapers fell off a cliff, radio is about to follow. It’s going to happen faster than anyone expects,” he is not talking about this particular consumer – and this guy, don’t forget, spends his entire workday in his car. To be sure, there are more people like him than unlike him.
I asked a local auto dealer how many inquiries from would-be buyers they were getting for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. One of their lead sellers put it simply: “None.”
Is there a cliff for radio? More like a gentle slope, but one that slopes downward. Make no mistake about that.
When Seth argues, “the first people to leave the radio audience will be the ones that the advertisers want most. And it will spiral down from there,” the truth is that it will be less a spiral than a slow leak, but leak it shall, nonetheless.
And it has already begun with the most urban and affluent and tech-savvy and young among us. Indeed, if you find yourself in a circle of these folks good luck finding a fan of music-oriented radio stations. That’s why an Apple employee once memorably told me “Steve Jobs doesn’t think anybody listens to the radio.”
Steve was notoriously binary, of course. The truth is that average folks – like my driver and Seth’s – are many – that’s what makes them average. And while advertisers value the affluent and young, they place more value on the many over the few.
The real question is this: When will the radio industry realize its competition for the attention of consumers is not simply the other stations in the Nielsen ranker, it’s also all the other ways I can entertain myself while in my car, thanks to the rapid march of mobile technology.
Viewing your universe the way the Nielsen ranker does may help you secure the buy, but it will also speed your long-term demise.
Even if Seth’s timeline is wrong, his essential conclusion is not. Things will change. Today’s drivers will be replaced by their digital native offspring.
If you don’t get ready now, later will be too late.