Posts about radio

What should local radio be?

At last week’s meeting of the minds at NPR, there was much discussion about the difficult position local stations find themselves in as the value of their distribution diminishes. And it was said, as an article of faith or perhaps reflex, that going local is the answer — the same answer given for newspapers these days. But as I thought about it on the train ride back, I wondered what that really means.

Obviously, it’s not easy for a radio station to get hyperlocal; it has just one big pipe and no resources to cover a market broadly. It’s not easy for newspapers, either, but they clearly have a headstart with a larger staff of reporters and the ability to slice their products into local zones. So I asked myself what the strength of a radio station is and the answer’s apparent: promotion. A station can drive a sizable audience to something new online. But what do they get when they get there? And what content on the radio station continues to draw the audience to give it that promotional power? Not easy questions.

I’d start and the end and say that a local radio station must stop thinking of itself as radio. It has the power to develop local communities of news, information, and interest. It can use its promotional power to drive people there. It could, for example, get people in a market to record every damned school board and town council meeting and put them online, served by the station. It could create the meeting place where people share news and information, competing with or even in cooperation with local papers. It could be a home for talk about local issues and news.

So what is the on-air content? It’s not hyperlocal. But it could be a meta version of that: talk about the issues that cut across the region with reporting from the best of the local communities. It could feature the best citizen critics giving you reviews of local arts and entertainment. I don’t come up with much here. So I’d say that the station has a limited time frame in which to use its promotional power.

Here’s Zadi Diaz’ take on the same issue out of the same meeting:

So why listen to radio?

There will always be a need to connect in real-time. To know that there is another person on the flip side that can give you perspective on the present and can communicate back to us. It’s a living, breathing thing. And in a world that becomes progressively automatic, the need to connect on a deeper level will grow.

People like to be social. Twitter is proof of that. To me twitter is the text version of a well-oiled ham radio. People sending out ideas, and questions, and mundane little things that may only be of importance to a handful. But it’s that instant live connection that makes it so special. You know what someone is doing at that very moment. And in a sense, it puts you there with them.

People also love to tell their stories. To each other. Conversation. The thing about Twitter that makes it electric is that there are multiple conversations going on at once. You become a receptor, a connector, and a storyteller all at once. I feel this is the key to the future of live broadcasting:

Becoming a converstation. No misspellings there.

Creating a converstation within NPR can only benefit everyone involved. Maria Thomas, who invited us to the panel discussion spoke about how NPR was born of storytellers. It immediately conjured images in my mind of people sitting around a campfire and sharing their stories. Around that campfire there is the storyteller and the people listening. The storyteller isn’t in a vacuum, there is ambiance, they occupy space, they are also listening to the listeners. The storyteller is the independent producer who is an expert in the story they tell. NPR can build small campfires and enable those storytellers to begin and ultimately develop the grandest story of all.

Local member stations+storytellers= campfires

Campfires can especially grow in a beautiful way online. The use of a website becomes less about providing news (we have feeds for that), and more about being a social hub where people can go to connect. There is a reason why there are so many social networking sites. Why can’t organizations think of their websites like they do their buildings?
- You have your reception area where the receptionist answers your FAQs
- Office spaces which are only accessible to employees
- Conference rooms where you hold meetings
- Mess hall where people from inside can congregate and speak to each other
- Lobby where people from the outside can talk to each other and to the employees
- Etc.. play room?

If you’re not afraid to open up your building to the public, there should be no fear of opening up your web site to a little one-on-one communication.

So what you end up with is an endless number of little radio stations making their own connections. The old radio station is some collection of the best or widest of that.

I’m still not satisfied that there is a great answer for local radio. But if the Siriux, XM merger (below) goes through, I think that creates more opportunities for local NPR radio. The rest of radio — from the big companies and from satellite — will be national. NPR member stations can be the last outpost of local radio. They can’t afford to get more local on their own but they can do it in partnership with their listeners.

: Zadi was nice enough to note:

- just googled the word “converstation” and realized Jeff had blogged about the word a while back. How funny.

Satellite heaven

It’s great news that Sirius and XM have agreed to merge — and the FCC has every reason to approve the move. Without this, one of them would likely fold anyway. With it, we get the best of both their talent and technology and they can compete with terrestrial radio — which, Lord knows, needs the competition — and iPods. I’m a Stern fan and Sirius stockholder and satellite user and I’m all for this.

The death of AM?

In the U.K., they are beginning to debate the death of AM radio.

The radio monster falls

It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of assholes*. Clear Channel, the radio monster, is looking to sell itself to go private, according to the Times. Why? Because the radio business sucks.

This is why I have not feared media consolidation. Clear Channel, the poster child for evil media conglomerates, bought up stations and sucked cash out of them but now there’s not much left to suck. Consolidation is the act of a dying industry. Well, broadcast won’t die. But it sure as hell won’t grow.

At an NAB/RTNDA panel yesterday in front of mainly local TV news execs, I said their salvation will be in being very local and in using the asset of broadcast, while it is still an asset, to drive people to new and local services online that take advantage of the disarray in the newspaper industry to lurch ahead of them in citizen collaboration for hyperlocal news and in hyperlocal and directory advertising to support it.

I think the same may be true of radio, which is ironic, being that Clear Channel, et al, leached the local out of the medium. As the value of broadcast licenses falls, I’ll bet we’ll start seeing the deconsolidation of some of these companies as radio and TV stations, like newspapers, are sold off one-by-one (see the post directly below). If the FCC had lifted crossownership restrictions, as Michael Powell tried to do a few years ago, those stations would have been bought up by newspapers, or vice versa. But now, with the value of both in free fall (see that post below), I’m not sure that local consolidation will pay anymore (see also the disintegrating Tribune Company, which did benefit from crossownership… until now).

So, to bring the parlor game to the radio business now, what would I do with Clear Channel? I’d plan on an imminent future when people will get their programming delivered to them by the internet and mobile and satellite and I’d use local promotional power to drive the business there. As I said above, I’d make some set of the stations very local and I’d use that to drive local businesses that grab marketshare of news, audience, and local advertising from panicked newspapers. Or I’d just sell to the next idiot.

* The real reason I’m happy to see the owners of Clear Channel retreat is because they fired Howard Stern and did not stand up for free speech and the First Amendment against the FCC and a tiny band of reputedly religious nuts.

Free Howard

Tomorrow and Thursday, the world will be able to listen to Howard Stern for free again. And it’s going to be a good two days with a radio sitcom by Sam Simon of The Simpsons and a Gary Dell’Abate roast.

It’s a brilliant marketing move to push not only Stern on Sirius but also a new offering: an internet-only subscription to 75 of the channels online, no radio or antenna required. Note that subscribers with radios also get the internet feed included. But if you want to listen in an office or in Munich, like a letter-writer on this morning’s Stern show, you can.

More than a year ago, I argued in an open letter to Mel Karmazin (cheeky bastard, I am) that he should be doing just this: Don’t be trapped by your distribution, don’t think of yourself just as a satelllite company, be the radio company of the future.

There’s still one more thing I want: Howard as a paid podcast. As part of my subscription, I want to be able to catch up on Howard on my terms, without having to go to the hassle of recording or buying the new radio that can record. I missed the amazing show when Artie Lange talked about his heroin use and kicked myself. Thanks to a fellow Stern fan — a media exec in a suit; there are more of us in this club than you dare to imagine — I got to listen because he recorded it so he can listen to the whole show in his car. Now that Stern is being repeated around the clock, I actually find myself timing my commute so I hear different parts of the show in the morning and evening. I’d rather listen to it all on my iPod.

Once Stern et al are available however, wherever, and whenever I want them, then Sirius will truly be the radio company of the future.

Next: video.

This good life

At last, This American Life has thrown off the limitations of being sold on Audible. It’s now a free podcast.

Doc’s prescription for newspapers

Doc has a wonderful list of suggestions for newspapers. As a preface, he asks and answers why Wall Street hates the LA Times: “Simple: Because newspapers are a rusty industry. They have tail fins. They print lists of readers every day on the obituary page. Worse, as a class they are resolutely clueless about how to adapt to a world that is increasingly networked and self-informing. And Wall Street knows that.” I’ve been working on my own list. Bonus link: Doc’s prescription for his beloved radio.