These are the times that truly test some of the core tenets of the media business, and radio is at the epicenter of the debate.
Specifically, the issue of control.
Who controls the music you hear? Who selects it? Who filters it? And how can the music experience get better at a time when it’s great to be a consumer?
All arrows point to the customer being in the driver’s seat – literally – if you attend automotive/telematics conferences – and by all reports, she’s enjoying the ride.
From Pandora to Spotify to iTunes Radio, it’s about creating playlists or songs that are selected by theme (artist, song characteristic, mood) to create a unique music experience. (Remember when “playlist” was a negative word we would never use to refer to our music libraries?)
But at the core of it all is consumer control.
As we have discussed in this blog in recent weeks, radio may own the transmitters and towers, but anyone can now create their own radio station – on their phone, their tablet, or laptop. And they can do so from an infinite reservoir of songs, genres, albums, and performances.
So what does radio bring to the table? And who is really in control?
That’s why the new announcement about controlling music adds by Cumulus sets up an interesting contrast to the direction in which the rest of the music consumption train is moving. Last week, a number of industry trades reported that “adds” for Top 40, Rhythmic, and Hot AC stations owned by Cumulus would now have to be approved by Atlanta, another indication of corporate consolidated control.
To the consumer it may not matter who says thumbs up or thumbs down on music decisions. But another impact of these moves is that it contributes to making radio sound and feel less local, more formulaic, and less reflective of the communities and towns it serves. When radio starts sounding top down, it cedes one of its key attributes. It may be easier to control hundreds or even thousands of stations from a central headquarters, but what is lost in the process?
Whether it’s rampant syndication of personalities, entire formats voicetracked nationally, or music adds coming down from corporate headquarters, the radio industry is making a statement about control. It is suggesting that some companies place a higher priority on consistency and efficiency than on service and reflecting the local ethos.
And at times, it’s reminds me of the opening of Outer Limits, the ultimate statement about who’s got the power and who is on the receiving end:
It somehow seems counter intuitive to the growing trend that as consumers gain more control over the music they listen to and love, radio continues to move in the opposite direction, attempting to control the entire music experience. By removing the things about local radio that make it different and connected to local communities, a unique attribute of radio is lost, brand loyalty erodes, and consumers will simply stop caring.
I don’t know about you, but in the past decade, I’ve seen fewer station bumperstickers and logoware wherever I go. People are less willing to display their favorite stations on their cars or their bodies. I realize this is anecdotal and non-quantitative, but it matters. Radio stations used to be reflections of who we are and what we liked. Homogenizing them only serves to neutralize and corrode brand equity and fan interest.
We have discussed the issue that the proliferation of all these streaming music services may only end up confusing consumers by creating a decision stress situation. iTunes Radio shouldn’t scare us. Losing our sense of purpose as radio stations should.
How does the consumer know which pure play service is right when there are so many? And doesn’t a true alternative to all these pure plays – broadcast radio – stand a strong chance of thriving in this environment?
Earlier in the year, I interviewed Walter Naeslund, the head of Swedish ad agency Honesty. We talked about radio’s place in the new digital ecosphere, and he put it this way:
“The era where limited frequency space provided barriers of entry is coming to an end. Make the most of the time you have left to build really strong brands and addictive content and you’ll have a better chance of bringing your listeners with you into the open infrastructure era where content and brand will be your only assets.”
Control – who has it and who’s losing it?