“Why Don’t Bad Ideas Ever Die?” That was a question posed recently by Washington Post financial columnist Barry Ritholtz. “This time of year is filled with retrospectives and ‘best of’ lists,” Ritholtz wrote. He opted instead to take on “zombie ideas: the memes, theories and policies that refuse to die, despite their obvious failings.”
Ritholtz’s list began with the concept of “shareholder value” before taking on austerity and the notion of “economics as a science.” As 2012 ends discouragingly for those who love radio, one of the biggest frustrations is writing an article that could have been written a year ago, or five. So it’s now time to discuss some of radio’s bad ideas that won’t ever die.
Victimizing People as ‘Entertainment’: Defenders of 2day FM Sydney’s Michael Christian and Mel Greig call their role in the suicide of pranked nurse Jacintha Saldanha tragic but unforeseeable under reasonable circumstances. But there was a precedent. Despite its fortunately different outcome, the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke incident in February/March showed that this industry was far too willing to victimize civilians in the name of “creating great radio.” Then there was also the death of a contestant in a ‘wacky radio stunt’ years earlier.
For years, calculated outrage in the name of showmanship, punctuated by periods when a station or personality suddenly did something pro-social to show that they weren’t such bad guys after all, was a cynical but usually winning formula. Now, radio’s place in listeners’ lives is no longer guaranteed. And we have to ask again whether an adversarial relationship with the audience is better than no relationship at all.
Denial: Radio’s strategy for selling itself as an industry over the past few years hinged on two dubious strategies. One was reminding investors and advertisers that radio is still widely cumed and just hoping that nobody asks about time spent listening. The other was to enthusiastically assail Pandora, Spotify and other competing forms of audio as “not radio.” At year’s end, there was less brio involved in either tactic. Arbitron’s RADAR 109 figures included a 28 minute drop in weekly TSL in the year ending in March 2012. And after a year of selling prospective iHeart Radio listeners on the one-stop ability to listen to programmed or customized radio, the debate over “what is radio” seemed to fade a little. Ironically, it was Pandora’s Tim Westergren who was trying to separate his service from Spotify at year’s end by trying to position the latter as “not fundamentally competitive with radio listening.”
It’s true, actually, that I use programmed radio, Spotify and Pandora in different ways. But I’ve never listened to them all at once. Had existing broadcasters claimed personalized radio as part of their industry sooner, they could have displayed a robust and expanding product line that increased the usage of programmed audio, even if it did not leave existing radio listening untouched. With a TSL decrease impossible to hide anymore, the ratcheting down of the anti-Pandora rhetoric seems to acknowledge a late willingness to co-opt other forms of programmed audio.
Holiday Layoffs: Yes, things are tough out there. And maybe the radio personnel who lose their jobs in January instead find only cold comfort in the month’s delay. But the round of budget cutting that usually takes place in early December always leaves even radio’s fiercest defenders a little less bullish about the health of their industry. And this year, it became more of a consumer press story, possibly because Clear Channel’s Bob Pittman had spent so much time enthusiastically plugging radio from coast-to-coast over the previous 18 months.
Radio From Nowhere: I believe in great local radio whenever broadcasters are able to practice it. I completely understand when they’re not. I don’t deny two post-Howard Stern decades of evidence that sometimes a national show is indeed more compelling than the local option. And having grown up with AM superstations that thrived off selling “bright lights, big city” to an entire region (or nation), I’d actually welcome the creation of more stations that take advantage of being national. (The Christian AC network K-Love is a great example of a WLS Chicago for our times.) What we’ve gotten instead in recent years is broadcasters who are unable to avoid using out-of-market resources and unwilling to walk away from the notion of localism, leading to a lot of radio that satisfies on neither level.
Research From Nowhere: We’re a research company. We pride ourselves on our transparency and accountability. We are obviously not a neutral observer when we bemoan the willingness over the last decade by broadcasters to use, say, Internet callout sampled from a listener database instead of a random sample, because it’s cheaper. It wasn’t a tradeoff we agreed with, but at least it was a conscious choice for some broadcasters who knew what to expect and were willing to accept it as a viable alternative to no research at all. The acceptance of database-driven research has led to a lot more hybrids over the years, and we frequently now encounter programmers who seem to have lost all track of who is being sampled. At minimum, these approaches put the “No Research At All is Better than Bad Research” mantra to the test.