Doctors don’t save patients in cardiac arrest by treating an unrelated skin rash. Radio, currently somewhere between serious and critical condition, is busy trying to treat its problems with calamine lotion.
(So why did the headline borrow from print to write about radio? Why wouldn’t it? The two have so much in common these days.)
Maybe it’s time for radio to stop focusing on the wrong treatments for what ails it.
While it wasn’t the most egregious wrong question that the industry is asking these days, I was struck by the recent Radio Ink headline that asked “How Do Radio Talent Survive AI?”
Stay tuned for more on that question, but let’s start at the most pointless topic of the moment: why is anyone in radio expending one iota of time or energy on the notion of zonecasting? To answer the question in the headline of the article I just linked from David Oxenford’s excellent Broadcast Law Blog, y’know what’s at stake in the zonecasting “debate?” Not an effing thing.
Have we truly descended to the point where we’re debating whether local radio should be able to set up repeaters in – to use L.A. as an example – Orange County, the Westside, the Valley, the I.E., etc. in order to sell spots for the market #2 equivalent of a dollar a holler?
Ignoring the technical challenges, the sales issues, the programming challenges, the inevitable traffic foul-ups, and all the other problems with zonecasting, let’s drill down to the fundamental question: in this era of perpetual budget bloodshed, who precisely is going to drop the dollars into the cap ex budget to build these things and rent the land upon which to install them?
Outside of an experimental build or two, I’m guessing the correct answer here is…no one.
Oh, and were an operator to throw the necessary cash at building all those repeater sites, what’s the breakeven timeline on that investment?
Talking about zonecasting is a waste of time at a time when there’s no time to waste.
The next waste of time and effort? “Saving” AM radio. Read this if you want the whole thought, but the executive summary is this: AM radio is a zombie, the broadcasting undead. Yes, there are some great AM stations out there, but kill off AM entirely tomorrow and every single one would end up on FM, replacing a me-too third A/C or Country station in the market.
Let’s be honest: the real reason the whole Save AM Radio movement exists is that the minute carmakers stop putting AM tuners in cars, FM radio will be next on the chopping block.
Speaking of chopping blocks, let’s get to the question that started this little screed. Asking how radio talent will survive AI misses a tiny little point: maybe there are slightly bigger threats to air talent than AI. Threats that have been growing exponentially in magnitude for a couple decades.
Let’s start our analysis with a simple exercise: check your on-air headcount.
By way of example, when I started programming KCAL in 1998, I had an airstaff of – wait for it – 20, eight full-time talents and (counting me) a dozen part-timers. (Remember the mad scientist lab for developing radio’s next big stars, weekend overnights?) When I quit in 2012, in market #25 with a company that holds on to talent far more than most, we were down to 14, six full-timers and eight part-timers. My friends couldn’t believe our luxury of riches.
Fast forward five years and when we turned off the volume on The Sound in L.A. in late 2017, we had a full-time airstaff of six and five part-timers. In market #2.
You can do the body count math easily enough.
Asking whether air talent can survive AI is like asking whether a person whose entire body is shutting down can survive a new infection. If that’s not the symptom that eventually does them in, something else will. Heartbreakingly, the majority of air talent already hasn’t survived, and the vast majority of the survivors walk into the studio every day with a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.
Google “how to get out of a death spiral,” and you’ll get over 60 million results. None of them are all that encouraging, however.
Is radio in a death spiral? I don’t want to be that negative, but if it isn’t, it’s close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: radio is a reach medium. 90-howevermany percent of Americans still cume radio every week! To quote the high school teacher who led my article about the pointless “saving” of AM radio, whoop de doo!
When your industry’s leading companies have flirted with, or gone through, bankruptcy in recent enough times, and when public companies are at or near the point of delisting, you’re in deep deep, er, doodah.
When a human body is in septic shock, you don’t treat the patient for tennis elbow. When a plane is bordering on entering the death spiral, you don’t worry about whether it’s time for beverage service.
When PUMM/PUR levels are evaporating, the bankruptcy lawyer is explaining Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 11, and the vast majority of your crew is concerned about whether they’ll be part of the next round of reductions in force, maybe you want to focus on the stuff that really matters.
Zonecasting ain’t it. Saving the diseased appendix that is AM radio ain’t it. Fretting over AI ain’t it.
So what is it? Building the next iteration of product that can maximize radio’s cume advantage and bring back as much of that PUMM/PUR as possible.
That means (1) creating the industry and legal conditions that will allow radio to move forward while (2) realizing that, when you’re in showbiz, you win by putting on a great show.
Have the lobbyists focus on what matters: the ability to consolidate resources by wiping the now-pointless ownership caps off the books so that the industry can truly consolidate its resources and better focus on a fuller sweep of available audience, rather than fighting over who’s the second CHR, classic rocker, or conservative talker in town. Not zonecasting. Not AM radio.
On the product side, develop the painfully inevitable: true national formats, but ones that are built around entertaining narrower audiences. Then, be prepared to supplement that with the right local talent, and build, say, a four-person drivetime show of high-functioning creatives in, for example, Tucson or Gainesville.
Notice that I didn’t say morning show? Why?
Blow up the notion of traditional daypart shifts. Why not have the same beloved talent entertain the audience during both commutes? Why act like 10am to 3p is precisely when you’re concerned about at-work audience?
If you’re the talent, accept that the rulebook you’ve lived by your whole career is gone.
Also, accept that your competition stopped being only local a long, long time ago. You’re fighting with the whole planet for attention, and you’d better differentiate yourself from everything and everyone. Also, accept the fact that you need to partner more and more with both of the audiences that can keep your career afloat – listeners and advertisers.
Just being “better” won’t cut it. Playing to the old audience tropes won’t do it. Thinking you’re above the business end of this thing will end you. (The greatest performer I ever coached – one with several top-10 markets and an international career to their name – is out of the business now because they simply couldn’t accept that doing product endorsements is now a mandatory part of the gig.)
Be different. Build your survival plan around being so undeniably great at something that there’s a place for you in a world where liner card readers are no longer sustainable.
Then, connect with the people who love who you are and what you do in every way you can think of.
Oh, and make sure that you own your brand. Not your employer. You.
BTW, for my friends in Hollywood who I only talk with on the phone since the Vegas move, you do realize that this stuff applies to you too, don’t you? If you’re not making tentpole productions, you better be superserving your niche.
And whether you’re the CEO or the midday voicetracker in 32 markets, you start by focusing on the bleep that matters.
Not worrying about AI.
Not saving AM radio.
The bleep that matters.