Last month, nearly every newspaper publisher in America had an obituary for Charlie Sheen ready to go. All of the information was filled out except the date of death, and the document was placed in a drawer labeled “TBD.” Right in front of it was the radio industry’s obit. Written over five years ago, it too was waiting for a death date. I don’t believe that radio is on its last breath, nor do I think that radio is “winning.”
I got into commercial radio in late 2002. I was the last generation of radio people that could walk in the door, get a job from the ground up, and learn every department. I went on sales calls and cleaned toilets. Drove a van and did overnights. Chauffeured musicians and nursed their hangovers. Produced a morning show and ran errands for office supplies. Then the world changed, and we as an industry were not ready for it. More so, we didn’t accept it.
There was no longer young talent and there was no place for them to be groomed. Companies were freezing hiring, downsizing, giving more responsibility to less people, and becoming anxious. Instead of letting an intern go live at 2 a.m. to learn, veterans voice-tracked. Promotions teams were sacked, jocks were fired, and computers were given those duties. Programmers were dismissed and multiformat national consultants were given the duties. Sales people were let go and local businesses stopped being represented. There was nobody to train interns or handle promotions. Nobody to build the mystique and culture of radio — and nobody to defend it against the writing of the industry’s obituary.
Consumers’ listening habits changed. The economy blew up. We didn’t do enough for our local advertisers that supported us for years. They went out of business. The internet moved from a part of our day-to-day life to an integral, Maslovian need. As an industry, we weren’t early adapters to change. We kept the same technology at our stations, assuming the public would never know. What we found out was that the public was smarter than us and adapted quicker.
Instead of hiring young people with new ideas, we kept hiring the same people that refused to budge. Local ownership lost their stations to the banks and big corporations, and the big corporations used radio as a commodity for their even bigger businesses instead of treating the industry with respect.
Mainly, we ignored our listeners and stopped asking them what they wanted. Instead, we gave them what we thought they wanted. From talk radio to NPR and FM music radio, we forgot that we are only as viable as the people listening to us. Listeners want to not only be entertained and informed; they want to feel like they are a part of something.
Unlike TV, radio has always been able to make that connection because it is a nonvisual medium. A listener is forced to escape into the radio. Instead of embracing that, the industry has run away from it. The DJ has gone from a celebrity to a bland sound-byte. The programmer has gone from a tastemaker to a button pusher. Sales people are selling snake oil and making bad deals for their clients. Promotions teams that at one time drew customers to businesses and worked with the community to provide exciting events are nonexistent.
Instead of serving our listeners, our clients, and our community, radio is now serving the banks and board of directors. We have stayed behind the eight-ball.
We are on a never-ending Monsters-of-Rock nostalgia tour, never creating a new audience and disappointing and lowering the expectations of the ones that we have. We play scared. We allow Arbitron to control us instead of maximizing the listener’s influence with our advertisers. We’ve become reactionary instead of having courage.
Stations flip formats less than a year after they’ve signed on. Talk show hosts are fired after one negative e-mail. We’ve insulted our listeners by succumbing to the lowest common denominator, so they leave. We’re not in competition with internet radio, satellite radio, or digital music.
We could have embraced those options, but we ran our listeners off to those outlets. We missed the opportunity to create an atmosphere where both could exist profitably.
Stern didn’t go to Sirius for the money. He went so he could do his job at his highest level. Pandora’s mission statement wasn’t to overtake terrestrial radio. It was supposed to be a supplement. We’ve created the demand for these services by having an inferior product. Instead of being innovative, our best idea was HD radio, which has a top spot in the Laser Disc Hall of Fame.
This is the industry that I have had a passion for since I was 12. This is what kept me up at night and depressed during the day. I’m not a button pusher. I am not an inside-the-box thinker. I believe that radio should do more than simply pump audio through your car speakers. I believe that a disc jockey is an authority. I believe that songs are on a chart for many reasons, and some of those reasons have nothing to do with quality of the tune. I believe that the industry lost its right to use charts as an authority the day that sales from Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Target alone can certify an album platinum.
Here are some solutions. If you are employed in an authoritative position, mentor a young professional. Bring in interns and let them work. Be OK with mistakes and teach people how to correct mistakes. Don’t think about the next trend or book. Think about the trend or book three years down the road. Service your local advertisers, regardless of budget. Find out what your listeners want. Program for the masses while still respecting the fringe. Be cool again. Be cutting-edge. Don’t be scared to piss people off or to make them feel good. Respect the airwaves. Respect your community and be a part of it. Care about making a profit but be OK with occasionally losing money within reason. Don’t just skim through music. Listen to music.
Don’t treat radio as a commodity. Radio is a canvas that can entertain and educate. It can make profits and support families. It can be an authoritative voice and a voice for the people but it is not a commodity.
Respect the profession. Respect the industry. Take chances. Reflect your community. Good radio is winning.