Birmingham is losing another radio station. And I’m willing to bet you’re seeing something similar where you live.
In this case, it’s an Adult Album Alternative format – and I suppose it’s a sign of the times that something rated AAA is no longer a safe investment.
Tens of thousands of fans flocked to show their support online, via petitions and emails to Citadel Broadcasting and Facebook groups. But WWMM-FM, Live 100.5 is not coming back. It’s not that the format failed, but the business around it is crumbling. The implosion in radio is unfolding differently than the implosions of television and print, but it’s happening for the same underlying reason.
In the next few days, right after the last song has played, 100.5 will become a talk radio station. It will be Birmingham’s third news/talk FM station, not counting the all-sports FM station. All three will simulcast the signals and shows of AM counterparts with longevity, which means that there will be little new exposure of new programming, just greater reach for the existing ones.
Evolution or De-evolution?
We’ve come to believe in the last couple of decades that AM was built for talk and FM was built for music, but that’s not the case at all. AM radios used to deliver a quality signal, and years ago sounded much better than they do today. The reason AM sounds so bad compared to FM has less-than-you’d think to do with stereo quality and bandwidth, and more to do with auto manufacturers who cut costs in the 1970s by putting the crappiest AM tuners they could find. Eventually, the advent of the portable 8-track and cassette tapes created an expectation of stereo separation, and FM’s natural advantage swung the balance of power.
AM languished until saved by the talk format, which relied didn’t require a stereo signal nor the same audio quality. Talk hosts on AM radio could take advantage of the night-hours of clear channels to develop larger regional audiences, therefore justifying the expense of their niche. Yet now the economics of the overall industry are pushing talk onto the FM dial, where we can hear angry hosts hang up on callers with the clarity and timbre that only a true audiophile could appreciate.
It would be easy to point the blame at greater choice for personal entertainment, such as the rise of Internet streaming music, iPods and mp3 players. Radio is adapting to new competition, but it has done that before. Just as much blame goes to an industry that continues to make the mistake of not knowing what it has to sell.
Content or silo?
Take the incoming talk station, for example. Its AM counterpart has not had a local weekday voice for some time now, bringing in syndicated national and regional content. Now, it is kicking up a local morning show for the launch. Citadel didn’t do market research to determine if a new talk show was needed, or what niche they could serve to pull in a desired demographic. It’s a case of Fire-Ready-Aim. Not knowing what else to do, it just fills the time.
Many aspiring hosts would think of this as an opportunity, but is it really? There are many working models now allowing people to start their own shows online, with the end product being more easily time-shifted for the convenience of the listener. If you want to build an audience for advertisers or for influence, why would you want to insert yourself into a silo that is more desperate for you than you are for it? Why saddle yourself with the restrictions of time-clocks and slots and breaks and expensive antennae and huge power bills? Moving forward, Radio will be further shackled by being a silo in search of content, instead of allowing the content to thrive.
It’s not just radio
Television and newspapers are running into the same problem. What they produce is very different from what they sell. Local TV stations are tasked with producing a “newscast,” which comes with very artificial restrictions about frequency, duration, and time of launch. Every newscast runs 30 minutes, and there will be 21 minutes to fill. No matter how important the news of that day, it will be crammed or stretched to fill. Because it’s all about the container, and not the value proposition.
Newspapers have fared a little better in the transition to online, but only because they had more resources in the field to begin with. The newspaper itself was the single published item. An edition went to press as one unit, and it was counted as a single unit for auditing purposes. The Times-Picayune sold more than half a million copies of its Super Bowl edition a couple of weeks ago. It’s counted as a single quantum.
But that’s not the value proposition. What the Times-Picayune and other papers sell is two-fold; access to timely information, and readers’ attention to advertisers. In an online venue, they are giving away the first in the hopes they can leverage the second. There still exists that dichotomy between producing to fill the container instead of producing to fill the demand.
Many journalists have escaped into a successful freelance existence, because they realize the product they produce – the story – can be consumed as an individual quantum of its own. News, like so many other things, is granular. We don’t buy albums anymore; we download the individual song (which, since there is no B-side, is finally a “single.”) It doesn’t pay for television networks to tentpole similar shows, because much of the viewing will be time-shifted, done online, or caught up later with a Netflix subscription. Many who read news online don’t even get to the other parts of the site, and stay on the Breaking News page.
When more of the producers figure out they can control the distribution of their efforts directly, it will no longer be a buyers’ market for journalism and opinion. And on that day, many of the silos will collapse under the weight of the assumptions that kept the roof aloft.
Surviving the new frontier
The Internet has been called the “Wild Wild West,” but the advent of digital distribution is bringing on a new frontier. To survive it, you need to heed the warnings from the crumbling media empires. Know the difference between a container and a unit of value. Understand (as best you can) how people will find, acquire, and most importantly share those valuable quanta of information you provide. Be nimble and flexible in the ways you release those messages – and be smart in how you track them, because there is no single finish line for measurement. And most importantly, be interesting. Only the most interesting or entertaining element gets remembered, the rest get dismembered.
In the future, there will be no ribbon for being the third-place news/talk station in Birmingham. There will be no prize for being first, either, if “being there” is a function of filling a slot and not providing value.
Ike Pigott’s work with social media tools in times of crisis and disaster has been cited often as a case study within that field. A former journalist and Emmy-winning writer, Ike founded Positive Position Media Consulting through which he has coached hundreds of managers and executives for media interviews and crisis situations. He writes about communications at Occam’s RazR.