How Do We Make Radio Sexy Again?

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

Television manages to make a big deal about their new fall line-up and create lots of interest in their programming. Cynics might say this process is helped because of four months of re-runs. But you have to hand it to television because they manage to convince other media to promote the new programming for free. Chances are your morning show and other dayparts devoted several breaks to talk about the new shows. As I did my normal seek and scan around the dial I heard more “experts” being interviewed on radio stations across the country this year than in previous years. Sadly, most of these people failed to tell me anything that I could not easily find online.

Recently, the CBC created some additional hype by airing a program about the Royal Family in 3D. Viewers were encouraged to call into a Canada Post outlet to pick up a free pair of glasses so they could experience 3D on a normal television receiver. This was all designed to create a greater interest in television, which loses eyeballs over the warmer summer months as more people spend time outdoors. Frankly, television needs all the positive promotion it can get, since viewership numbers have fallen after actors started demanding $1 million per 20 minute show and some ‘genius’ in Hollywood came up with the idea of reality television. By the way, did you know that Bob Geldof thinks he invented the concept of reality TV, as it was his media company that pioneered the hit show Survivor? The former Boomtown Rats rocker formed Television Company Planet 24 in 1992, and the firm produced The Big Breakfast – an early morning magazine show based in a real house – and developed the original concept for Survivor. And he’s convinced the show became the blueprint for Big Brother, the program widely credited with creating the reality TV genre.

So what can we do to create some excitement in radio as a medium? Digital Radio has failed in most markets and Satellite Radio continues to lose both money and subscribers. The good news is that the new PPM measurement system is reporting more people listen to more radio stations than was ever reported under the old diary recall system. Also, dayparts that we thought were less important have many more people tuning in than we ever thought was the case. Listeners spend a lot more time tuning into weekends, nights and overnights than was ever reported in the diary based audience measurement system and now some radio stations are reinvesting in these dayparts.

So here are some ideas on how we might make radio sexy again:

Improve the Audio Experience: I once had a sales manager tell me that as long as there was some noise coming out of the speakers we were good and he could sell it. While I applaud his belief in his ability to sell anything, I feel that we need to ensure that what comes out of the speakers sounds great and enhances the audio experience for the listener. The audio landscape has changed and today consumers are enjoying higher quality audio in their normal day to day lives than ever before. Go to your local movie theatre and you will hear high definition 3D Dolby surround sound. Chances are your car’s audio system has several speakers strategically placed around the interior so you can listen to your favourite CD in super high fidelity. Home theatre systems are better than ever and Blu-ray DVD has upped the audio video experience even further for the average consumer. Laptop computers are also being promoted as providing a higher quality audio experience for the user. So what is radio doing to improve the technical quality of our FM radio signals? There have been some substantial advances in audio processing for radio in the past few years. Better sound cards, more dynamic audio processing and advances in the way we record music onto hard drives have all helped  improve the quality of audio that radio can deliver to the consumer. Both Omnia and Vorsus have recently released new audio processing equipment to allow radio stations to deliver both loudness and quality. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the dynamic range of the song “I’m like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado verses a song that was recorded 10 years previous. The technical quality of FM is amazing, and its coverage and penetration is far superior to that of digital, so I suggest broadcasters need to embrace these positives and do all we can to make the technical quality of our radio signals the best they can be. Chuck McCoy from Rogers said at the last CMW conference in Toronto “If FM radio had been invented in the last few years everyone would be singing its praises, but because it’s been around for 50 or more years, some regard FM radio as old technology.” Take a look at your audio chain and see how you can improve it and then promote this as a benefit for your listeners.

Improve the Mobile and Web Audio Experience: More and more people are choosing to consume radio via their computer or mobile device. When we first started streaming, most stations did not bother with a stereo signal or providing any processing on their stream. Now, with more people using iPads to surf the web, radio needs to take advantage of the tools at hand to ensure that both the visual and audio experience are as good as they can be. There are a number of audio processing companies who sell equipment designed to enhance audio streams. With the release of the next OS for iPads, these devices will become even more popular and are likely to be the hot Christmas gift this season. Apple does not support Flash, so any radio station website or media player that uses that technology won’t function well on an Apple device. Make sure your website is configured to look good on all the web browsers, and mobile devices such as the iPad and iPhone. Also, make sure the audio player performs as expected in all the browsers, in all the operating systems, and on all the most common devices.

Promote Radio’s Immediacy As A Benefit: Local radio proved to be the most efficient way to reach a mass audience when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 250,000 people. Local radio stations such as Signal FM, Melody FM, MINUSTAH Radio FM and Caraibes FM became critical to spread key information, acting as a bridge between the international aid effort and the local population. The U.S. military distributed 50,000 solar-powered and crank-powered radios in Port-au-Prince since there was no electricity and any cell phones that were still working quickly failed as batteries ran flat. One local reporter was quoted as saying “In Port-au-Prince, everyone has a story to tell. This is why radio is playing such a key role in establishing contact between survivors and rescue teams. The stations broadcast useful information in the local language, and air regular programs that provide updates on the situation. They also allow the population to express its needs and expectations, and help forge solidarity among the victims. People listen to the radio to find out when and where banks will be open, and to listen to ministers explain the decisions the government is making to resolve the situation.”

When a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand in the early hours of Saturday 4 September, it caused $(NZ) 4 billion in damages, but luckily no loss of life. Local radio stations were the only electronic media to stay broadcasting because power, telephones and the internet were cut to most of the city. As you would expect, radio staff quickly sprung into action informing, re-assuring and broadcasting vital information regarding road closures, school closures, and other vital emergency information. These are but two examples of how local radio is the dependable “always on” medium that is easily consumed even when a city’s infrastructure has been critically damaged. Radio is still heard and becomes a lifeline for people.

Improve the Portable Experience: Radio is a truly portable medium and it’s easy to carry and easy to use. But today, the cell phone has become the most common device carried by the consumer. In the USA the NAB has been pushing Congress to mandate the inclusion of FM radio receiver chips in all cell phones for some time, and it looked like it was making progress. However, this issue has somehow become attached to the performance royalty debate, which means this bill is less likely to become law.

One of the selling points for adding the receiver is that it has an inherent public safety benefit. Most people carry their phones all the time, and when an emergency hits, they can use the radio feature to get information. In times of crisis, the cell phone networks tend to be overloaded and are not reliable, as was the case during the big brush fires in Australia two years ago. I know – I was there. The public safety aspect seems to fit with the Commercial Mobile Alert System mandate already in place. The biggest advantage would be to provide instant-on emergency alerting, which is something that has been lacking in every consumer device except a weather radio.

Clearly the overall idea of adding a radio receiver to cell phones has merit. With Blackberry on our doorstep we need to be encouraging RIM to include a FM receiver in their devices and we need to talk to government to sell them on the benefits of insisting FM receivers be built into every cell phone. This may be the only way to force the likes of Apple to include a FM receiver in their hardware, given where they are heading. Success in this area would breathe some new life into radio and make it simple for users to see a list of all the available radio signals in the area and easily tune in.

Ensure Radio Leads Your Community: There are numerous examples of radio stations that have brought about change in their community by doing amazing things. Standard Radio was very involved in the annual fundraiser for the Sick Kids Hospitals in their communities. Astral also has an “Annual Day of Caring” where the funds raised benefit specific community-based organizations. And I know there are many others that continue to positively impact the lives of people in communities across the country. While radio cannot take on every possible cause we know this is one of radio’s strengths, so taking the lead in your community where appropriate can not only change people’s lives, but it also entrenches the radio station in that community. Does your radio station have an annual campaign to benefit your community? If not, consider the benefits of starting such an initiative.

Improve and Train Your Talent: Radio used to be the place where you heard interesting personalities telling interesting stories. When I was growing up the announcers on the radio played the best music and told the best jokes, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to get into the business. Today that is no longer the case, and radio is not seen as the glamorous industry it once was. We need to find ways to entice the “interesting personalities” to look at radio as a career. The broadcasting courses offered at many educational institutes arm students with solid multimedia skill sets. But when they graduate are there any jobs in radio for these young people? Overnights, nights and other dayparts are largely automated at most stations these days, which often means there is no place for these graduates to start out. It’s sad that there is only one live 24-hour-a-day radio station in Canada’s largest market. Is that bottom line driven or is it perhaps listeners no longer expect to have someone live on the air? We all need to look for the best talent, train them properly and then find places for them to perform either on the air, or on our digital platforms.

Be Local: One of radio’s true strengths is our ability to be local and make a real connection with the community we serve. That may look and sound different from market to market, and could be as simple as reading birthdays on the air or as complicated as running a mayoral debate live on the air. With radio becoming more interactive via websites, social media and by maximizing our terrestrial opportunities, we have a real opportunity to be the local “go-to” medium. Radio can react quicker than any other medium when something happens in a local market. We can have reporters on the ground, or staff covering an event within moments. Technology is helping to make this “instant response” an easier, more cost effective proposition. Have you seen the new Tieline application that is available for the iPhone? It instantly allows a reporter in the field to go live to air! Newspapers are now shooting video and television is becoming more nimble and portable in the way they cover events. Are we as an industry allowing the “local” benefit to slip away by using technology in ways that will harm us in the long term? Radio cannot be all things to all people and market size and the economy may play a part in what can be done, but radio needs to be looking at ways to get back the local ground that we may have given up and then tap into the social media tools to drive tuning to local radio.

Improve the Image of Radio: Why not create a national radio campaign promoting radio’s strengths and consumer benefits? Radio reaches almost every Canadian in any given week, so let’s take advantage of that reach. But one word of caution, as with any campaign we need to make sure we get the message right. I saw a failed attempt of this idea a few years ago when a campaign was run called “Remember Your Radio.” This was a series of radio spots (complete with a catchy jingle), newspaper, and billboards that encouraged consumers to take their radio with them to work or play. But it was unsuccessful because it did not connect emotionally and it didn’t communicate any real benefits. So, let’s get together and create a powerful radio campaign that focuses on promoting the benefits of radio in Canada. Perhaps this could be something that the newly formed CARB organization could champion.

Conclusion: Radio needs to play to its strengths and focus on content and delivery systems. It provides a strong quality signal to a large geographical area, while at the same time is personal and relevant to the listener. My goal in writing this article is to get broadcasters to think outside the box and do things to improve our product and the end user experience. I welcome your feedback and ideas on the matter. Feel free to pass along your thoughts via email at chris@byrnesmedia.com or toll free at 1-866-332-1331.