Tuesday, August 10, 2004

"The real difficulty in changing the course of any enterprise lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping the old ones" John Maynard Keynes

The challenges faced by music radio today simply demand the aggressive employment of innovation and creativity. The mediascape is changing at a velocity that is difficult to grasp. This is particularly true for pre-recorded music which is again approaching a "pong" moment. The last such moments were in the eighties - Sony introduced "The Walkman," Jerrold rolled out Cable Radio and a new storage media was introduced - the disc and along with it the multi-disc player. Then, as now, we were warned that consumers no longer had a need for music radio. Then, as now, a significant group of consumers purchased the new hardware and began programming, producing and listening to their own mixes of pre-recorded music. Today consumers have iPODs and hard drives loaded with their favorite music, they burn their own cds. Provided a broadband connection, consumers can program, stream, download and purchase their favorite tunes in real time using services like Rhapsody or MusicNet. They may enjoy a stream of commercial free music programmed by genre, format or other criteria using AOL Radio among others. Satellite radio offers commercial free digital audio in a rich variety of formats. G3 cell phones already employ a great depth of function and music (audio) is very "mobile friendly" requiring modest bandwidth and storage. Apple offers the ability to play your iPOD tunes on your home/office stereo while BMW and iPOD now offer an adapter to allow iPOD tunes to play on your BMW car stereo. It is the dawn of "podcasting", no license required.

There are those who would argue that the incumbent - music radio - has six powerful elements working to its advantage. Ubiquity, embedded technology, cost-free usage, ease of access, and habit (media behavior). Moreover, it is argued that music radio's business model, its economic structure, is unique. Radio's high ratio of fixed to variable costs (the investments required to add additional users or listeners) decrease absolutely as listenership increases.

So why exactly should consumers continue listening to music radio? How should music radio address these latest challenges?

In the coming days I will offer an argument based upon the notion that increasingly it's all about audio and not at all about radio. The strategic issues of the near-term future (a planning horizon of 60 to 72 months) will include bandwidth, cohort replacement, marketing, revenue production and talent. Music radio can and should prevail. Innovation and creativity are no longer optional. We must dedicate ourselves to recruiting music programmers who possess an effective skill set eclipsing Selector expert and plays well with others. We must exhibit zero tolerance for mediocrity, putting promotion directors who fail to correctly identify Rosser Reeves, or at least Ries & Trout, on double secret probation and into remedial instruction. We have an urgent need to recruit and retain authentic marketing directors who have the facility, desire and passion requisite to conceive, create and execute amazing marketing and promotion initiatives. We need to engage real professionals who are able to write and produce copy better than that now on our air, a marketing director our sellers will go to first for ideas and, motivated by greed, demand to take on calls.

Going forward music radio must abandon the role of jukebox, must have the courage to walk away from the "music pump" raison d'etre. The "mornings, music and marketing" approach is not simply past its best used by date, it has, in fact, become dangerous to the future health of music radio. 5, 10, 15 in a row is not merely anachronistic it's banal, out of touch with the marketplace and deaf to consumer needs, wants, desires and latent fantasies. Let's agree to stop describing our programming as compelling unless something actually happens on the radio station after the morning show that is not a liner, a sweeper, a promo, that day's music log, or one exceptionally good phone bit with a contest winner. Notwithstanding the product war, radio also faces ad sales challenges nearing crisis proportion. Producing revenue growth to meet the street's expectations and continuing to generate growth rates competitive with other measured media are tasks of Sisyphian magnitude. It is time to admit it - we are operating in a fundamentally different business environment; the rules of the game are changing and so must we. The sales issues Norm Goldsmith wrote about over a decade ago now need our serious attention. Talent in all areas of daily operation (e.g., management, sales, on-air) has never been harder to recruit or more difficult to retain. The truth of the matter is whatever got us to where we are today is not sufficient to keep us where we are. Moreover, remaining where we are will only ensure music radio's demise. We must face reality as it is, not as it was, or as we wish it to be. Group executives and general managers must be preoccupied with more than the important daily grind of making their numbers, they must lead, they must create their future. The need for truly great general managers to lead the local charge has never been more manifest. Being a second-generation broadcaster I have the benefit of a view longer than most, am sensitive to the intrinsic genetic blindness of the trade, and nevertheless remain a rabid optimist. Certain that the glass is half full, I am more concerned with who's pouring. Game on! I welcome your thoughts.

Next - what we can learn about competing for the future from those dead tree guys