The death of radio: Is it time to plan the wake?
Radio is dying. Or, it’s already dead.
The precise condition of the body depends on which futurist you read, assuming you read futurists at all.
As for “futurist,” that’s a job title that didn’t really exist 15 years ago — just like most of the things that are supposedly killing radio.
Gordon Borrell, who worked in newspapers before he became a media marketing guru, predicted a few weeks ago that half of the existing AM and FM radio stations would be out of business in a decade.
Seth Godin, a marketer, author, entrepreneur and overall wise person, wrote that radio has been teetering on a cliff for years, and it’s about to plummet.
The fairly clear inference is that if you’re about to launch a career in radio, don’t bother signing up for the pension plan.
But wait, says Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media in Bingham Farms. The future doesn’t have to kill radio, as long as radio looks to its past.
And wait, says Dick Kernen of the Specs Howard School of Media Arts in Southfield. What about the Weather Channel?
Kernen, 76, says he’s been hearing about the demise of radio most of his life — the first time from his dad.
In 1956, Kernen says, he had just landed his first job at what’s now WXYT-AM (1270).
Instead of applauding, since Kernen would now be able to take over the payments on his 1949 Mercury, his father followed a brief attaboy with, “Radio is dead. Who wants to listen to ‘The Lone Ranger’ when you can watch it on television?”
Changing with the times
Radio turned out to be an adaptable creature, much like the Lone Ranger himself.
Cassette players in cars were supposed to bump it off, cars being the place where Americans are most likely to tune in. So was SiriusXM.
Now the legitimate threats are all the ways to customize and deliver a playlist: iPods, cell phones, Pandora, Spotify, podcasts, downloads and everything else short of a mariachi band in the back seat.
Radio doesn’t help itself when it cost-cuts to the point of irrelevance. Rounds of layoffs by corporate-owned stations, Jacobs says, leave too many time slots with voices from afar that don’t know Taylor from Taylor Swift, so what’s the incentive to listen to their music instead of your own?
Jacobs is best known for inventing a format, classic rock, that’s now more widely heard than regular old rock. His company also consults and creates mobile apps for radio stations.
“Radio still does many things well,” he points out. It’s free, it doesn’t devour data, everyone knows how to use it, and you can summon it from your dashboard even when your house loses power.
“It’s not going away,” he says, “but it’s going to have to redefine what’s important to consumers, and be that thing.”
Keeping the focus
Good radio tells a story, Jacobs says. It’s not just a playlist; it’s a companion.
That’s how radio operated when stations were locally owned, and that’s what it needs to rediscover — even as it gets more tightly focused.
Kernen’s favorite example comes from television. “If you’d come into a station 25 years ago pitching an idea for 24 hours of weather,” he says, “they’d have called security.”
But the Weather Channel has flourished, along with endless others. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing radio format is Christian, with an audience advertisers can depend on to be loyal.
“You’re going to see a narrower and narrower focus,” he predicts.
The exceptions, he says, will be programs like “Essential Music,” weekends from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on WDET-FM (101.9), built around the widespread tastes and expertise of host Ann Delisi.
She gives you a reason to keep listening, Kernen says, unlike a host “playing one of the 350 songs approved by some goon in Atlanta.”
Delisi has her own channel at WDET.org. It’s nothing his dad could have envisioned when he was following the Lone Ranger, Kernen says, but it’s still called radio, the same way Honey Boo Boo is still called TV.
“Nothing is what it used to be,” Jacobs says, but radio will still be something.