What I’d Say At Worldwide Radio Summit If I Wasn’t On A 40-Minute Panel With Five Other People
Alternatively titled: Stop waiting for someone else to figure out the digital future for you.
If you are a busy person, and if you work in commercial radio, you are probably an overworked person (which is kind of the same thing), let me give you the one-sentence version of this essay:
Stop waiting for someone else to figure out the digital future for you.
Before I back up to the beginning and tell you why I say that, let me also say that this essay will end with a very clear, very easy way for you to punch through and find your own pathway to your future in podcasting or whatever we end up calling digital on-demand audio.
First, I’m going to explain why I plan to never give a speech in front of a room full of FM broadcasters again, ever. The problem is that I’ve done this probably a dozen times: given a talk or been part of a panel to talk about digital audio to a room full of commercial radio folks. Often it is on a stage filled with middle-aged white people talking to a room of other middle-aged white people (this is a huge problem, by the way). Often right before or right after there is a presentation by an analyst who will cleverly spin some research or audience data to demonstrate the miniscule audience for digital compared to good old FM radio. I argue with them, but it is pointless. They are there to build the case that the future isn’t happening. I say what I’ve been asked to come say. They thank me for my time.
And nothing changes.
And then I go home wondering why I agreed to do it in the first place.
Now, I’ve decided that it is time to stop doing this. Those conversations get stuck in denial or a really boring argument of “old vs new media” that no one cares about. But the thing that most people don’t get is what I’d really like them to get: it isn’t about the distribution platform. In fact, if you focus solely on platform (and doubly so if you focus on one platform), you’ve already lost.
I’ve said it before many times: I believe that in our lifetime, there has never been a more exciting time to be in radio. Period.
People look at the disruptive landscape and wonder what I could possibly mean and how that could possibly be true. I think it all hinges on how you define “radio.” To me, and many others, the word “radio” has been redefined. Not “will be” redefined, but “has been” redefined — as in, it has already happened. Radio is no longer a word that describes a technology, it is a word that describes a type of listening experience. It is an engagement between the creator and the listener. It is the experience of being moved, emotionally and intellectually, by something that comes in your ears. When it works right, a listener taps their foot, smiles, or perhaps even cries.
Even though I work at Audible, I still consider what I do “radio.” Talk to most podcasters — and podcast listeners — they describe the experience of listening to anything as radio.
Think I’m crazy?
Go to the iTunes app on your computer. It probably looks something like this:
Now, look for this icon in the upper left:
It’s easy to miss, even if you’re an iTunes user. If you hover your mouse over it, what word pops up? “Radio.”
The funny thing is that if you look at the thousands of stations listed under that tab, only about 10% of them are brick and mortar terrestrial FM broadcasters. Yet the rest of them, according to both their creators and audiences, are “radio.”
I think the real question — a simple, direct question that everyone in this room should ask themselves: Do you work in FM broadcasting or do you work in “radio”? If you answered FM — great, you have a clear path in front of you: managing decline. There is no other path forward. Full stop.
But if you answered “radio,” the future is full of possibility. That version of “radio” transcends distribution technology and goes everywhere (and yes, including FM broadcasting, at least for awhile).
The problem for many commercial broadcasters is that they are either in denial of change or sitting around waiting for someone to hand them a road map for the future.
It is obvious to me that you all love radio, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t still be around. No one goes through the consolidation, commodification, staff reductions, consultants, outsourcing, and crushing pressure of even more crushing debt and investor frustration if you didn’t once fall hard for radio and still believe in its potential to reach that once again. What I’m here to tell you is that if you think a path to the future will happen with just an FM broadcast signal, it will never happen. Not unlikely to happen. Not difficult to happen. For radio as we know it today, it is unimaginable.
But what you hope for is possible, once you expand your definition of “radio” to include what the audience already defines as “radio.” They call streaming “radio.” They call Spotify and Pandora “radio.” They call podcasting “radio.”
Podcasting, or any type of on-demand audio, has been a thrilling evolution to many radio people. And a lucrative one too. And here is some good news and some bad news.
The good news: it can be thrilling and rewarding for you too.
The bad news: The people you traditionally depend on to chart the course aren’t going to get you there.
Your GM. Your owner. Your cluster leader. Your regional vice president. Your CEO. Most likely, they don’t have a fucking clue what to do. And even if they did, they long ago forgot how to do it. These chieftains of denial have been telling you for 20 years that digital doesn’t matter and FM is king, not because it is true (it isn’t any more), but because they’ve created a world that can’t adapt and wouldn’t know what to do if it could.
But you: the programmer, the operations guy, the production manager, the reporter, the evening and weekend jock. You know, the people who can still operate a console. The future can be yours.
So, if you can’t depend on anyone else, what do you do?
This is my free advice. And I hope you take it. It will probably take the same amount of time as you spent reading this.
Here it is: The ingredients you need are five people from your station or cluster and ten beers.
First, the five of you should drink the ten beers.
During the drinking, talk about your ideas. If you could make anything as a podcast, what would it be? It could be about anything — the only criteria is that it be something you are passionate about. It can be a voice in your community that you are dying to share with others. Perhaps it is your own voice. But think of something you are excited to get into a studio and make happen.
I am pretty certain that among the five of you, you’ll have at least one idea worth trying out.
What’s next? Just do it. Go into the studio and try it out. Try it a few times. Stop between attempts and discuss it with your friends. Ask: what works? What doesn’t? How can we make it even stronger?
Then, take the best version of your best idea into your boss’s office. Make them listen and see how they react.
Their reaction, and the amount they encourage you (or don’t), tells you a lot about their ability to lead you into the future.
And whether or not you do this exercise should tell you a lot about yours.
Your idea may not evolve into your next job — but it may be part of your job, or expand the work that’s done at your station. No one is looking to do more, but if that “more” could unlock the future for you and/or your station, isn’t it worth it?
So, that’s my case. The future is big and scary, yet equally bright and attainable. And why did I fly across the country to sit in a room full of broadcasters in order to say these things? Well, I’m not. I’m on a panel with five other middle-aged white dudes with 40 minutes between us. I doubt I would get through two paragraphs of this. But that’s why I took the time to write this out.
I did it because I believe in you — or at least some of you. Because a handful of you will actually do what I suggest. And to me, if 3 or 4 people create something awesome that’s inspired by this, it was worth it to me to make this trip.
And when you publish this thing you made, you will feel so proud of it. It’s the same feeling you’ve always imagined you’d have, because you are in the unique position of doing what you love.
It’s what got you into “radio” in the first place, and you, like the definition of the medium itself, can change.