Fifteen-plus years ago, a friend came to visit. We had worked together at a media research firm in the early ’80s. Later, he became a Promotion Director for an NBC affilate on the East Coast.
“In five years,” he told me, “the evening network newscasts will cease to exist.”He said shows like NBC Nightly News (at that time, hosted by Tom Brokaw) would succumb to 24-hour cable news and the exploding use of the World Wide Web.
Now, with the perspective of time, it looks like my friend’s prediction was just a little premature. NBC Nightly News, along with The CBS Evening News and ABC’s World Newsare still very much with us, thank you.
Now, it’s absolutely true that these shows are not what they used to be. These days, the three network newscasts garner around 20 million viewers…half as many as when my friend made his “visionary” prediction. But then, what shows are generating the kind of numbers TV used to? The Super Bowl? American Idol? It takes less than five fingers to count them.
The fact is, we’re taking society’s time for information and entertainment and slicing it into more and more, tinier and tinier pieces.
What’s the point of this story? That the predictions of radio’s demise are similarly way ahead of themselves. If you listen to some pundits, radio is already cooked, over, done…, a “dead man walking”…ancient technology shunned by a new generation in favor of texting, iPods and self-programmed information and entertainment on demand.
I’m not buying it. And hard data says it’s wrong. Arbitron Radio Listening Trends shows that radio’s 12+ cume rating was 95.3 in Fall ’98 and 93.3 in Spring ’07. It’s AQH rating went from 1630 to 1400 during that period.
A decline? Sure. A meltdown??? Hardly.
And honestly, how could radio not decline giving the tsunami of technology-driven time-wasters — err….innovative sources of information, entertainment, social networking, etc. — that keeps coming?
If anything, the fact that radio has held up as well as it has reveals the remarkable resiliency of the medium…
Not only has radio been challenged by new choices, but at the same time it has been battered by (mostly) horrendous management, led by mega-groups that ran up debt, increased spot loads and slashed programming to pay for it, and in general, miserably failed to serve listeners and communities. Great radio stations, always the exception, are now an endangered species.
Now is not the time for radio to abdicate what still are its significant strengths. For example, just a few days ago, I had an online discussion with some smart radio people who suggested that music stations should shift their information efforts almost exclusively to their web sites. Certainly, some should! But what about music stations that are also the information leaders in their communities? How many listeners have seamless, touch-of-the-button Internet access with text-to-speech software in their cars??? Do you???
When I was programming CHR stations, I learned early on that it was a mistake to get ahead of my audience. I learned that songs I was already sick of were ones that listeners were just beginning to become aware of.
In our quest to cope with the brave world of new media, let’s move to the future. But let’s not get ahead of the audience.
Here’s my view of radio’s future: One or more of the mega-groups goes down. Local stations are again taken over by locals and well-run, smaller groups, run by radio people who know that serving their local communities is the way for stations to remain relevant and viable.
Certainly, online content will be a essential aspect of this future. For example, who better to deliver local information online than stations that have decades establishing credibility in their markets?
But, don’t turn off that transmitter just yet…