Taking Control Of The Infinite Dial

Even before Wednesday’s announcement that Chrysler would make its 2009 models Internet enabled, terrestrial broadcasters faced multiple challenges in securing their place on The Infinite Dial: the WiMax car radio of the future that would make every station stream in the world available to motorists.
The first is creating a unique selling proposition for their stations in a space with scores of Top 40 “Kiss FMs” or multiple Jack-FMs. That situation exists already, as it happens, on Clear Channel and CBS’ respective media players.
The second is being located among thousands upon thousands of choices — current terrestrial brands, Internet-only stations, repurposed satellite radio channels and likely hybrids of all of the above. Page through the offerings of even the best organized stream-aggregators now, and you’ll see what a challenge this represents for a potential listener.
And now we can add the issue of whether the Infinite Dial is even offered to consumers. It has long been believed that the automakers would regard streaming audio as only one aspect of a broad package of in-car options, and would probably offer a heavily culled list of radio choices. And so far, mainstream terrestrial radio’s track record in that environment, while improving, is spotty.
Some of the new tabletop Internet radio devices give special prominence to Webcasters like Slacker’s showcase on RCA’s Infinite Radio and presumably Pandora’s just announced deal with Grace Digital. Some stream aggregators, like iTunes, have long emphasized Web-exotica over mainstream terrestrial stations. Others rely heavily on fans as curators — wikiradio, essentially — and on even the well-tended sites, “W” and “K” call letters sit in the middle of an dizzying list of available choices.
Recently, the large groups have become more aggressive about securing their place among the stream aggregators. CBS Radio stations are now available on iTunes — practically the only mainstream commercial stations that are. Clear Channel got a lot of press for announcing it would make its streams compatible with the Receiva radio guide, but it had already done the same for RadioTime.
The majors are doing what they ought to be doing, but in their doing so, there is now a particular challenge for those stations that are neither major-group-owned or Webexotic in a curator-friendly way. Mark Ramsey correctly points out the distinct possibility of an automaker plugging in Slacker, Pandora, AccuRadio, or CBS/AOL radio, to which he could add the 750-plus stations now available in one place on Clear Channel’s player or Citadel’s stations, which have all been available on a single player for more than a year.
So what then can radio as a whole do to take control of the Infinite Dial?
1) Radio, as an industry, must assert itself into any dialogue now taking place on the architecture of the WiMax car radio of the future or any of the devices that precede it to ensure both ease of use and representation of as many voices as possible. Part of NAB’s job must be ensuring that smaller and standalone operators are not squeezed out.
2) Radio, as an industry, needs to redirect the effort that has gone into interesting Detroit in HD Radio into selling the value of 12,000 stations with an established listener base — not merely a less developed handful of “stations between the stations.”
3) Radio is already in the business of providing news, traffic, weather, and (in the case of most Rock radio websites) adult content. If streaming audio is going to be one of multiple applications offered by an in-car or tabletop device, radio should be offering one-stop-shopping. The only thing wrong with the multi-group initiative to offer traffic through HD Radio is its apparently limited scope.
4) To that effect, more broadcasters need to stay in the business of providing other services. Broadcasters’ willingness to let news, traffic and weather come through a relatively small number of pipes has given the advantage to the major groups to whom broadcasters already handed those functions on a local level.
5) Part of the job of every marketing director in radio should today become the on-line presentation and search optimization of their stream. Radio people know that Chicago’s Jack-FM rocks harder and L.A.’s Jack-FM plays more ’80s alternative. Nothing on the good-looking CBS Play.It tuner would yet convey that to a listener.
6) Part of the job of every program director must be honing a station into a franchise that has a reason to exist among thousands of others. Broadcasters cannot count indefinitely on the affinity that listeners currently show to their local stations, even on-line. (That said, the franchise for a station among thousands of others may indeed lie in being “New Jersey 101.5″ for their market, and broadcasters who want to own that franchise must now reassert their sense-of-place among hours of jockless content and syndicated shows that may not even be available on their own stream.)
There’s no intended bias toward mainstream terrestrial broadcasters here — they’re the emphasis of this article because, if anything, there’s been some bias against them in the early days of stream aggregation. On my fantasy WiMax car radio, there are already presets set aside for WHTZ (Z100) New York, Radio IO’s R&B Oldies channel, eclectic suburban Phoenix Classic Rocker KCDX, London’s Capital FM, Sirius Hits 1, and a few hundred others. I’m not going to be happy if every one of them isn’t readily accessible. Consumers shouldn’t be happy if their current choice of two dozen locals is replaced with somebody else’s limited slate of options. And the industry as a whole should be ashamed of itself it lets that happen.

8 replies
  1. Frank Bell
    Frank Bell says:

    As usual, Sean, your observations are right on the money. Hopefully the NAB will apply some of its resources to getting a “must carry” rule for independent, local Radio stations similar to what exists for local TV stations dealing with cable MSO’s.

    Reply
  2. Bill Moore
    Bill Moore says:

    Nicely stated Sean. It’s not internet radio. It’s just radio. Listeners appetite for free, live, local, and personalities won’t fade. Listeners don’t organize radio around a holding company, but format, location, and brands like Z100, Don Imus, Funkmaster Flex, or Fresh Air.

    Reply
  3. Frank Zappala
    Frank Zappala says:

    Your are on target! I would also add that this is another indicator that the industry needs to devote more resources to re-engineering for the digital age. They need to take action in technology and in perosnnel develoopment.
    When need to prepare both our facilities and our people to compete in the new age.
    I don’t think we are doing enough at the grass roots level. We are waiting for someone to drop a killer app in our lap. Meanwhile we are being surrounded and smothered.

    Reply
  4. Steve Williams
    Steve Williams says:

    “Part of the job of every program director must be honing a station into a franchise that has a reason to exist among thousands of others”: The great thing about that idea is that even if the in-car streaming flops as have many other “paradigm shifts” over the past 10 years, programming that way will make radio stronger and more competitive.

    Reply
  5. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    All the more reason to continue to offer CD players in cars. It’s what you want, when you want it, for the most part!

    Reply
  6. Bill Conway
    Bill Conway says:

    The marketing and branding aspects are very interesting. And will it be advantageous to market a station nationally? It would be interesting to research the number of stations that will satisfy the average consumer by demo/gender/geography. You know the ” only 7 items in your memory file” thesis. Are people in Fargo looking for more than people in NYC because they have fewer terrestrial choices.
    Infinite dial = infinite questions.

    Reply
  7. Ernie Singleton
    Ernie Singleton says:

    In the late 70’s radio lost it’s personality. Later we would begin to witness some fall out due to Deregulation. In the 80’s hip hop artist redefined programming with the CNN of the inner city and the personality of the music and a new breed of broadcaster would cause the FCC to redefine the standards of broadcast tolerance. So the community involvement component has been ignored by most stations except for the occasional paid remotes. So it is not surprise that today technology is the driving force and Detroit Auto Makers are shifting some of their ad dollars to the internet while and competing for more market share with everything from Bling to in car internet. The public wants more in car gadgets. The NAB may intervene, and personalities like Tom Joyner, Howard Stern others will continue to command their target audiences. Just like cable TV has done, radio will continue to evolve and the internet will be a defining factor at home and in the car.

    Reply
  8. Andrew Rhomberg
    Andrew Rhomberg says:

    I think the fear about station culling is a little bit overblown. Users complain bitterly if “their” station is not available.
    However, it is true that the manufacturers planning IP-based car radios (whether UMTS, WiMAX, LTE etc.) have requested one form of “culling”: namely the relegation of stations with poor sound quality (low bitrates), slow connectivity time (limited server capacity) or poor reliability (low QoS) into a 2nd tier for those users who are willing to tolerate a poor user experience for the sake of accessing “their” station.
    How likely is the emergence of Internet radios in the car? Extremely high. There are projects in the works at most major automotive groups.

    Reply

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