Monday, May 5, 2008

Does Radio Have a Future?

There was a time, not too long ago, when creativity was encouraged; when programming ingenuity was valued. It was a time when there was a balance between sales and programming. Radio air talent were admired for their originality. I can assure you that that time has passed. These days radio stations are run like fast food franchises. Air talent are considered a necessary nuisance and their numbers are kept to a minimum.

Many management types are wondering what is happening to the business? Audiences are shrinking!


Maybe it's because, for at least a decade, radio has ignored the 'product'. Back in 'the day' cutting edge programming was it's hard to find. Conglomerates have sterilized the system and curtailed creative growth. Once there were places where fresh young talent could go to make their mistakes, hone their skills and move on. Once there was a time when struggling stations took creative chances.

Radio has lost a lot of it's 'fire' and it sounds like it. Back in the seventies, when I had the good fortune to work at great stations such as WDRC, WBZ and WCBS-FM, the industry was 'alive' with new ideas. Stations took pride in their 'product'. Today the environment is different and radio has no one to blame but itself.

Back in the fifties, radio blamed TV for an industry wide depression. It's doing the same thing today when it points the finger at New Media. Trust me, New Media isn't the culprit. If you must blame someone, then blame many of the high level corporate leaders...the decision makers. They've eliminated air staff and cut back on the product for years. They underestimated their audience; figuring that the listeners would settle for what they give them and never catch on. Local programming became bland and predictable.

Imagine, if you will, a car company that is run by people who don't know what it takes to actually make a car; run by a management team top heavy with sales types and lacking in automotive engineers. Chrysler was that way, and it almost disappeared from the automotive landscape, until a former engineer named Lee Iaccoca took control of the company. Japan made it's biggest inroads in the US car market during the eighties when General Motors was more concerned with quantity than quality; more interested in sales than service. All Honda, Toyota and Nissan had to do was fill that void. New Media is giving listeners creative programming options. It's a hard thing to have to say but there are very few truly creative people in radio today. Most programmers follow the tail of some other programmer who, in turn follows the tail of the programmer in front of him. An original thought or idea is a rare thing in today's radio.

There was a time when radio was filled with creative people. And I'm not referring to simply the air talent. There was creativity in sales and in support too. Today stations are run like a bank and it sounds it. They've been homogenized and pasteurized to the point where they are void of anything worth listening to. The old creatives have been swept aside and the young creatives have seen the light and moved on to other opportunities outside of the business. Radio has a future but it's a dim one if it stays on it present course. It can't continue to do what it's always done. It has to think outside of the box and to attract bright, imaginative people. It has to embrace new technologies. It has to think, not just of tomorrow but, about it's long term future. It has to reinvest in PEOPLE. The company with the BEST PEOPLE will ultimately be the most successful. That isn't a prediction based simply on 'hope' but rather historical fact. The best armies, the pioneering businesses, the strongest nations all succeeded on the strength of their people.

The good news is that radio recovered back in the late fifties and early sixties; it rolled up its sleeves and went to work and by the mid-sixties it was in the midst of the 'second' golden age of radio. It can do it again, but it has to think outside of it's self imposed and very limited box; it has to stop thinking like bankers and get back to thinking like 'creative' broadcasters.

And the strange thing is...if you return creativity to radio, it's bottom line will grow.

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