Radio’s Bad Ideas That Won’t Die

“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.

7 replies
  1. Jayson Tanner
    Jayson Tanner says:

    Thank you for confirming a lot of what I’ve been saying for years, if not decades. I think you get back what you put out. Put out quality and you get quality listeners. Put out meanness and, well, you do the math. And yes, the denial thing. Some of TSL being low is just unavoidable as there are so many choices now for entertainment. In the 70s growing up with WLS as my best friend, there weren’t a lot of options. 5000 cable TV options, video games and fantastic internet radio at every turn – audiences are fragmented. I don’t think it’s only because people hate what they hear on the radio (although that’s a part of it), we all need to figure out if there’s a way to stand out in the midst of so many entertainment options.

  2. Bob Wood
    Bob Wood says:

    COMMERCIAL FREE is a joke. Promos ARE commercials.
    Insults advertisers too.

    THE OFFICIAL AT WORK STATION. Pure and simple bullshit.

    National contests where the station misses the cue to call by XX seconds.

    Don’t get me started.

  3. Bill Conway
    Bill Conway says:

    Good article, Sean. What about good ideas that radio has forgotten. The biggest is to build a product that is designed to entertain people. It involves figuring out what they would enjoy (research on many levels), having a staff focused used on great product( as opposed to wearing as manny hats as possible due to austerity), and planning social platforms that are useful to listeners (not just to have inventory to sell).

  4. Jim Smith
    Jim Smith says:

    When I was selling Strategic Radio Reseach products back in 1991 I had a prospect justify buying a competitor instead of our more expensive (and better) product and admitting he would now get “database” focus groups, actually defend it with “bad research is better than no research.” I replied with “is bad advice better than no advice?” since that’s really what he was saying.

  5. TheLazyComic
    TheLazyComic says:

    Radio hasn’t been “fun” for many years… and the
    listeners pick up on that. The last station that I worked at, where I had fun on the air, was an Oldies station, and that was all the way back in 1998. We had fun and were kicking butt in the ratings. Unfortunately, the bean counters don’t understand the fun and entertainment value of radio. All they know is the green backs. This is why
    I’m listening to Pandora as I type this.

  6. john parikhal
    john parikhal says:

    Bad ideas don’t die for a couple of reasons. First, the people who put bad ideas out there have some form of power that others are afraid to challenge.

    Consolidation was a bad idea from the get go. Those who criticized it were ‘punished’ by the consolidating companies – they were fired or not hired.

    That got rid of some of the brightest and best right away.

    Even though everything negative that was predicted came true, the media acted like it was unanticipated saying things like ‘who could have predicted this’.

    And, that’s the second reason bad ideas don’t die.

    Because the media in EVERY industry – who report on that industry – is beholding to the big players in that industry. They want access. They want ads. So, they simply pretend the emperor has new clothes. They don’t dig deep. They report whatever the press release says, even if says black is white. In many cases, they actually suck up to people who are talking out of both sides of their mouth just so they can say they know them.

    Sad. Typical. And, in the end, bad for everyone. Except the ‘experts’ – who move on to the next set of suckers.

    Nassim Taleb has brilliantly written about this phenomenon and the ‘experts’ who get it wrong in every industry in Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Anti-fragile. He doesn’t suck up to anyone.

  7. Brian Douglas
    Brian Douglas says:

    I’d missed this one, Sean. Great article! I worry less about the damage from those who offend than the harm caused by the mind-numbing attitudes we all slowly accept and internalize.

    We’re busy, but what are we accomplishing? Theater of the mind? Show biz? Painting pictures? Engaging listeners? People react to those things as enthusiastically in 2012 as they ever did. Why have we decided they don’t matter? Steve Jobs understood. Great TV shows and cable channels still get it. Why don’t we?

    As Jayson Tanner put it in his comments above, “we all need to figure out if there’s a way to stand out in the midst of so many entertainment options.” There are plenty of ways, I’m sure. We certainly have a powerful bully pulpit, but we have to make to make connecting, creating electricity and standing out a top priority.

    Where have you gone, Cecil Heftel?


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