Not Dead…But Maybe on Life Support

I recently spoke to the Interact club at Washington High School.  Interact is the high school extension of Rotary, and it’s been my pleasure to have visited this club several times as a member of Cedar Rapids Rotary West.  On this day, however, I was there to talk about my day job.

A lot of us are worried about the radio business, particularly stations like KCCK that specialize in music.  The consolidation and homogenization of radio formats by big corporate owners happened just as technology gave consumers (particularly young, early adopters) the means to bypass the traditional radio and records arbiters of taste and discover music on their own.
Just when new media offered creative people new audio and video platforms to re-invent and re-imagine how to entertaintheir local audiences, companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus started cutting back on staff and relying on syndicated voices from out of town, figuring listeners either didn’t care or couldn’t tell the difference.
So, it’s with no small amount of trepidation that I take a speaking engagement with any group whose members are under 40.  Is radio still relevant?  Is there room in their busy, online lives for any station, let alone our little jazz outfit?
Well, I took a deep breath and toward the end of my talk, asked them about radio.  The results were a mixed bag.  What I observed during my decidedly unscientific poll?
  • About 3/4 of them said they listened to the radio frequently, but none indicated they used it to discover new music.  Recommendations from friends and Pandora were the methods identified to find new favorites.
  • What’s wrong with the radio?  Too many commercials, no new music, play the same things over and over again.  Too much talk.
  • What could radio do better?  More variety in music, take some chances.
Ironically, these are the EXACT SAME COMPLAINTS people have had about radio for years.  The only difference is that before, the audience was more captive.  If you wanted to hear music, you either had to carry a case of cassettes or CDs with you everywhere.  Or, you found a station that tended to play types of music that you liked, knowing that you’d have to sit through talk, commercials and songs that didn’t appeal to you on the way to your favorite.  That was just the way it was.
Today, your entire music collections resides in a little box smaller than the little box that controls your TV.  Looking for new music?  Go to Pandora and if the “station” the site creates for you plays a song you don’t like, you can banish it forever, along with anything that sounds like it.
So yeah, I was a little surprised when 3/4 of my teenage audience reported they listened to the radio.  What I said was, “Hey, that’s great!”
What I was thinking was, “in Heaven’s name, Why?”
Now, this sounds like I’m pretty down on my business, and in a way that’s true.  I think radio has totally missed the boat with the post-Boomer audience, and station Facebook pages and contests that can be entered via text message are too little, too late.
I’d like to think we’re doing a little better at KCCK.  As a true local station, we can be responsive to our audience in ways most stations can’t.  And there’s no consultant telling us what to play.  Our producers have the freedom to play what they think is cool.  But no station can provide the customization and instant gratification a Pandora or Ipod can.
So, is radio dead?  Not yet, but we certainly need a flu shot.

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