Why new media should never underestimate the importance of old school radio principles

There is much about the art of radio that the new players don’t yet fully understand or appreciate.

Radio is easy to use, it’s live and it’s human.

It sounds simple, and it really is. For more than 80 years radio has survived and prospered by being the easiest of media to use. Wake up in the morning, have a shower, get in the car, turn on the radio.

Radio has a special place in our daily media mix. It’s our companion in the car and our friend in the shed. Feeling lonely? Turn on the radio.

As radio people, we get this. We understand that radio is more than just announcers, news and songs. We know that what radio is really about is companionship and the emotional connection between our product and the listener.

But times are changing. New online services are starting to appear that call themselves radio. On the music side there is Spotify radio, iTunes radio and Pandora. Spoken content is changing too. AGOGO, Stitcher and Omny are some of the new products vying for a slice of the radio audience.

All of these products are in the early stages. The music apps are at version 1.0 and the spoken content apps are in beta. The point is, these products are very new to market and they have a lot of evolving to do.

Somewhat concerning, free­‐to‐air broadcasters tend to look down their nose at these new interlopers. The feeling amongst existing radio people is that these guys don’t get radio. But who’s driving the innovation? Whose new products are appearing on car dashboards? It’s certainly not the local radio broadcasters.

The radio industry is poor at innovation. What little innovation has been done has been in formats, not in defining what radio actually is.

Other industries have R&D departments, radio does not. Radio people have a habit of waiting for someone else to invent something. When it comes to innovation, radio is reactive. Radio people tend to rely on other people to solve their problems.

In the radio industry DAB and online streaming are regarded as ‘innovative’. They’re not. They are simply new ways to deliver an 80 year‐old product. There is nothing innovative about DAB radio and there is certainly nothing innovative about streaming content online that was first created for over­‐the‐air broadcast.

The music industry, on the other hand, is rife with innovation. New products such as Pandora and Spotify have completely changed the way that we consume music. The roadkill in this space has been the high street record stores (including iTunes), not the content owners. In a roundabout way the subscription music services have helped record companies get control of their product again.

So are radio stations high street record stores (distribution) or record companies (content owners)?

If you answered content owners then chances are you’re not being true to yourself. Yes, radio makes content but the financial success of the radio industry, especially here in the Australian market, has always been about the tightly controlled distribution channel. As soon as the distribution channel opens, which is happening right now, radio stations will have to compete against any number of new entrants who no longer need a broadcasting license to reach the same audience.

Thankfully, there is much about the art of radio that the new players don’t yet fully understand or appreciate.

You don’t need to listen to the new services for long before you realise that something is missing. Sure they’ve got the content, but boy are they impersonal. Granted, these services are all brand new and are just finding their feet, but the emotional connection that you get with free­‐to‐air radio just isn’t happening.

For the new players everything is about content. If it’s music radio, like Pandora or Spotify, it’s about having great algorithms and every song in the known universe. For the new spoken content radio products it’s about having as much talk from as many sources as possible.

Is this radio? No.

An unlimited supply of content does not make good radio. Radio is all about routine, it’s habit, it’s a lean­‐back medium. Unlike television and print, people are normally doing something else when consuming radio. No one sits in front of the radio staring at the speaker (at least not since 1945).

Even the simplest of the new radio apps, such as Pandora, require you to seed the playlist and then continually fine­‐tune it with up votes and down votes. Pandora is the simplest of the apps, hence its large market share. The spoken content radio apps, such as Stitcher, AGOGO and Omny, require a huge amount of user input to create the programme.

These products are great when you are engaged, but when you’re mowing the lawn or cleaning the gutters it’s a bit of a hassle to be thumbing up and thumbing down or searching for podcasts and spoken content.

The new players have erroneously decided that if they have the content, they have a radio service. They don’t yet understand the real elements that make radio.

Radio is about companionship and community

There are four main elements that make for successful radio. These are: companionship, immediacy, content and community.

Companionship

Social scientists use the term ‘parasocial relationship’ to describe a relationship where one party knows a great deal about the other, but the other does not. A couple of years ago two researches from the University of Southern California, Paula Woodley and Lauren Movius, published a study on the parasocial interaction between on­‐air radio personalities and listeners.

The study concluded, with an overwhelming majority, that broadcast radio listeners have parasocial relationships with their favourite on­‐air personalities. 82% of the respondents felt that they had a “real” relationship with their favourite on­‐air personalities. 34% of the respondents said they listen to their favourite radio personality for 26‐50% of time spent listening to the radio. 25% of the sample stated they have been listening to their favourite radio personalities for over 10 years.

The key findings of the report are:

  • 81% listen to their favourite personality whenever they can
  • 75% turn on the radio because they know their favourite personality is on the air
  • 79.4% listen longer to that radio station because their favourite personality is on the air
  • 58.6% listen more frequently than in the past because of their favourite personality
  • 85% change the station less frequently when their favourite personality is on the air
  • 71.6% talk to their friends about their favourite personality or what they heard on the program

Now, lets apply this theory to the new online radio services. Clearly the new music services, Spotify Radio, Pandora and iTunes Radio offer very little in the way of companionship. The closest these services get to companionship is using the same voiceover in the promos.

The spoken content radio apps haven’t got much to offer in this area either. While these services have a lot of people talking, the number of people talking and the chopping and changing makes it almost impossible for the listener to develop a relationship with any particular personality. These services are like being at a party where you don’t know anyone. There is a lot of talking going on, but there is no tight emotional connection.

For the new services to succeed in the radio space, they are going to have to find a way to provide companionship and an emotional connection with the listener day‐in, day­‐out over an extended period of time.

Immediacy

One of the strengths of radio is you turn it on in the morning and in the space of half­‐an­‐hour you’re up to date with all that is going on. If sport is your thing, you listen to a sport station and in very short period of time you are up to speed. Most hit music radio stations play maybe three or four songs an hour at breakfast, the remainder of the time is spent entertaining the audience with the latest news and gossip.

Live radio holds a mirror up to the audience. At any time of the day good radio reflects what the audience is thinking. The on­‐demand services haven’t quite mastered this yet.

Leaving music aside, the new spoken content radio products simply don’t broadcast ‘in the moment’. Life unfolds in the present, and that is the strength of traditional radio broadcasting. People want to live in the moment; psychologists will tell you that people feel happier living in the now.

Podcasts have never really taken off for this reason. If I want to learn about a subject I’ll study it online or watch a video. Very rarely will I listen to an audio recording (many people will disagree with my view on podcasts, but the reality is podcasts don’t have anywhere near the audience size of broadcast radio). Spoken content is all about companionship and you can’t be a good companion unless you are present and in the moment with the other person.

Content

You have to give credit to the new music radio services for their curated content no matter your taste in music. These services have got so much data coming back from their listeners that they can predict what you will like and dislike based on the experience of other users. You can’t ignore the success of Pandora, as a music­‐only service it has caused major disruption to the radio industry in the United States.

Many of the new spoken content services are trying to mimic the approach of Pandora. Unfortunately for these services, they don’t quite have the volume of data that Pandora and the Echo Nest (the platform that powers Spotify radio and iheartradio) have and are therefore not as well equipped to use algorithms to curate.

That said, curation is often as much about what you don’t play as what you do play. Curation, especially in terms of spoken content, needs to sit alongside the other elements of radio — companionship, immediacy and community.

A person may say that they like news, entertainment and sport. The spoken content radio apps will go off and grab a news report from PBS, an entertainment report from E! and a sport report from ESPN and then regard that as job done. Is that radio? No. It’s just a selection of audio items played one after the other.

To be successful in this space, the personalised radio apps will need to create unique content to suit the particular task. A radio listener in Boston will not relate to a newsreader in Sydney. A radio listener in Sydney will not relate to a news report from New Zealand.

You can’t create an engaging radio service by pulling content from multiple sources and sticky­‐taping it together. Any radio service, on-line or free­‐to‐air, live or on­‐demand, must have its own voice.

Community

We’ve all heard the phrase “live and local” to describe the strength of radio.

In the connected world, local is a figure of speech. At it’s core, local is me, my family and my neighbourhood. I need to know the traffic before I go to work and I need to know the weather to figure out what the kids should wear to school. In the connected world, there are now multiple sources to get this information — radio is no longer the best medium for the job (apps and satnav are a million times better for this task).

More important than local is community. As the national youth broadcaster in Australia, Triple J has a very strong community of listeners. Whether you listen to Triple J in Adelaide or Broome or online from overseas you are part of the same community of Triple J listeners. You have similar interests and a similar sense of belonging.

The programming of Triple J talks to this community at all hours of the day, from morning to night. Not so for the new online radio services. When you listen to music on Pandora you have no idea who else is listening with you. There are no personalities to bring the listeners together. There is no sense of belonging, its just music.

On the spoken content side, the many different voices of the new radio apps like AGOGO and Stitcher make it impossible to form a sense of community. The announcers’ have nothing in common with each other and its very hard for listeners to get a sense of belonging. It’s just one audio clip after another with no sense of community between the announcers or the listeners.

Without a sense of community you can’t attract the routine listening that radio relies on. In their current form, the new spoken content radio apps provide content, not community. Without a sense of community, it will be hard to get listeners to make a daily habit of using the product.

What are the steps to creating successful personalised radio?

The first step in the process is to realise that you are creating personalised radio, not on‐demand radio.

There is a big difference between the two. Personalised radio is taking a product and adjusting it for each individual listener. On‐demand radio is giving the listener unlimited access to a library of content. The new players in this space seem to be treating personalised radio and on­‐demand radio interchangeably. Is Stitcher personalised radio or on­‐demand radio?

Step 1 — Work out who your audience is

For radio broadcasters, this is an obvious first step. I feel slightly embarrassed having to say it. We all know that prior to launching any new product, whether it is a radio channel or a box of cereal, you need to know who your audience is.

Obvious, yes?

Well, not so obvious for the new players in this space. Turn on any of the new spoken content radio apps and there is no audience segmentation. A 60 year‐old listener in Australia is served audio from the same content pool as a 16 year‐old boy in Canada. Even if you do have multiple audiences using your platform, if you can’t segment them you can’t create a compelling program for them.

Let’s take business news for example. A 60 year old will want different business news to a 30 year old. The average 60 year old probably wants stock and finance news while the 30 year old might be interested in tech and start‐ups (not to mention the different styles of presenting and the different idiosyncrasies of each location).

Sure, the new platforms will argue that they can do this by providing different audio clips for the different categories of users. But how do you apply this across the entire listening experience, not just on a clip‐by‐clip basis? The overall sound of the product needs to be different for each group of listeners and if you can’t segment your audience it will be hard to provide a listening experience that is anything more than just clips.

Step 2 — What content do you need?

The new players in this space have shown just how much audio content is available on the Internet. The new radio products have been built around what content is available, not what content is needed. Instead of cooking a meal from a recipe, the new radio services are preparing a different meal everyday based on the ingredients in the cupboard. If the ingredients are not there, the meal changes.

The decision on what to broadcast should not be based on what is available but what is needed. If someone is producing the exact content that you need, such as traffic reports, great. If not, you’ll need to create the content yourself.

This is also a trap for existing broadcasters looking to get into the personalised radio space. The initial temptation will be to use highlights of audio already in the cupboard — for example, highlights from the breakfast show. Inserting content like this will most likely fail. Unless the content is produced for the exact task at hand it will simply sound like an inserted audio clip and not part of an emotionally connected radio product. The audio won’t be ‘in the moment’ and the emotional connection with the listener will be lost. Remember, its not about what content you have, but what content you need.

Step 3 — How will you emotionally engage with your listeners?

The key to successful radio is companionship. This applies as much to personalised radio as it does to broadcast radio. Live or on‐demand, if there is no emotional connection with the listener, there is no radio product.

The obvious way to build an emotional connection with your listeners is to build your product around a team of personalities that your listeners can relate too. If you are targeting Australian women aged 18‐35 you will need to find personalities who can talk to these women. There is no point in just grabbing a few audio clips from the fashion channel and the food channel and then plugging in a Spotify playlist because that’s what you think women are interested in. Sure, the music and the content might be right for the target audience, but there is no companionship and certainly no emotional connection.

Step 4 — What is the workflow?

Creating a radio product requires more than just algorithms and auto‐ingested content. A personalised radio service needs a format and imaging just like any other radio service. Whilst the listener can personalise their version of the radio station by adding and removing elements, the product still needs to have its own unique sound.

Processes need to be developed to make sure the required content is in the can when it is needed. Some of this content will come from outside sources and some will need to be produced in‐house for the service.

Step 5 — Build it

What is often regarded as step 1 is actually way, way down the list of things to be done. There is no point in building the product until you know what the product actually is. Hopefully by this stage you have a good understanding of your audience and you can build a product suited to the task.

Now is the time to start investing in the next generation of radio

The technology is advancing and what we listen to on the radio and how we listen to the radio is changing. New start­‐ups are experimenting with new ideas using new distribution channels.

Broadcast radio is at a pivot point where it needs to slightly change direction or risk being left behind. In two or three years the ship will have sailed.

Revolutions need revolutionaries and radio needs them now.


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