I was intrigued by an article I read last week from Sean Ross in his Ross on Radio blog. Always a keen and passionate observer of radio trends, Sean re-defined ‘radio’ and issued a battle cry for what he calls ‘Real Radio.’
As Sean sees it, ‘Real Radio’ has deep roots, though no longer necessarily limited to broadcast:
‘Real Radio’ is still defined for me by doing what a playlist cannot do—putting together music in an order that is different each time, but not random; telling me what’s happening in my town, or yours; advocating for the music it introduces to me; being punctuated by people who are funny or thought-provoking. Part of the initial appeal when I began listening, and part of radio’s identifying DNA now, is the shared experience.
Radio futurologist James Cridland offers a similar, if less specific, definition:
… an audio-first shared experience with a human connection…
The common thread here is the ‘shared experience’ and the human element. These pillars present a unique opportunity for a radio refresh and renew its relevance for the digital audio era. It just needs a bit of reframing and reverse engineering from where much of radio finds itself today.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The Shared Experience
Radio’s cultural impact on baby-boomers coming of age in the 60s and 70s was huge. It was a simpler time. There was no other medium speaking to baby-boomer teens—no other platform for shared experience. Yes, there was American Bandstand, or you could wait patiently through Catskill comedians, puppets, and plate spinners to see who Ed Sullivan had ‘for the youngsters’ on his show that Sunday night. Or, in the 70s, you had The Midnight Special, an hour and a half of live Pop and Rock acts relegated to the wee hours of Saturday morning. That was pretty much all that was on offer from other media. No wonder so many kids were glued to Top 40 or FM Rock, and the pied piper DJs who led the way.
Today’s hyper-fragmented media landscape offers infinite opportunities for shared experience. Unlike the 60s or 70s, we have no problem finding our tribe in a multitude of places.
It’s too much to expect radio having the same impact it did at a time when the only alternatives for a shared experience were sanitized network TV, newspapers and magazines.
Yet, when we narrow our lens to audio that shared experience is the sweet spot for radio. It’s where radio can best contend with millions of podcasts and the countless playlists offered by music streaming services.
Don’t take our word for it; the research speaks for itself.
In a June 2021 study in Canada, we asked weekly listeners to broadcast radio, podcasts, music streaming and owned music how they use each type of audio. Different use cases rose to the top for each audio type. For radio, it was ‘to be informed’ and ‘to connect with others.’
How can ‘Real Radio’ capitalize on its shared experience advantage? If we look at broadcast radio, it will require some reverse engineering.
Particularly in North America, too many broadcasters have taken the path of least resistance to respond to the growth of digital audio. Rather than invest in their product to amplify the shared experience, the imperative has been to cut costs to keep EBITDA up—all of it flowing from a lack of faith in radio’s future by the financial markets. The easy answer has been to program more music and less talk. That has always helped to drive share against format competitors. Unfortunately, against digital audio alternatives, it also leads to a loss of competitive advantage.
A Case Study
There is a North American success story of radio built on the foundation of shared experience: 102.3 Now! Radio in Edmonton. Now! is a music station that puts personalities way up front and solicits and includes a constant flow of listener interaction. No text goes unanswered. Their music mix is broad-based, and they delight in breaking a few radio rules along the way. (Note: Now! is not a Signal Hill client.)
Now!’s track record in PPM is stunning. In the 47 quarterly releases since the second book following their launch in February 2010, Now! has ranked #1 25-54 in all but one book. And it doesn’t look to be an Edmonton-only one-off. The same broadcaster (Pattison Media) launched Today Radio in Calgary in February 2019 and just celebrated their seventh consecutive #1 25-54 PPM showing.
One thing I would take away from the success of Now! Radio and add to Sean’s definition of ‘Real Radio’: part of that shared experience is being live and in the moment. It’s built right into the ‘Now!’ Radio brand name and brought to life in their invitation for listeners to ‘Join the Conversation.’ To me, ‘Real Radio’ is a shared experience in real time, another leg up over podcasts and music streaming services.
There’s no Now! Radio formula that will fit every market and every radio operator. Whatever the approach, it will take commitment, the ability to reverse engineer radio based on its unique role in today’s audio landscape, and the belief that the significant investment in that shared experience will pay off.
It’s perhaps telling that the company that launched Now! Radio and the company that bought it and are taking the format to other markets are both privately-owned.
Founder of Signal Hill Insights, Jeff’s career has kept him at the forefront of the changing audio landscape. He has spent the past 25+ years in research, sharing his passion for audio with North America’s major broadcast companies. More recently, Jeff’s been doing the same with podcast publishers.