Radio Democracy R.I.P.

In my former life as a radio station manager, I was in charge of a couple of underwhelming News/Talk brands and their companion websites, but I was always thinking about the bigger picture – the experience of radio and how to create unique content for mobile devices and tablets, and how to make the influence of the listener larger. This was an unpopular paradigm in a company that valued control over all other options. The suits humored me a bit, nodded and smiled but did zilch as I would try to sell them on radio’s potential to create unique content for our digital {sic} platforms.

I weaseled my way into a meeting once. We were going to hear from the CEO of a company that invented an app/website that puts individual listeners in control of a radio station. A colleague from one of our music stations was the target client. This company was doing something interesting. I didn’t think it was the Holy Grail of solutions for radio, but I admired their forward thinking and risk taking.

The concept was simple: listeners queue up a list of songs, the songs play, and everyone who is online votes on the individual tunes. You launch a “rocket” to propel a song to the front of the queue, or toss a “bomb” to try to prevent a song from being played. As a song is playing, users have two more choices. There are buttons that say ROCKS or SUCKS. You click your opinion. If the crowd decides the song does indeed suck, it removes it from the stream, even mid-song. You can choose to link your account to Facebook, which prompts you to put your particular vote on your wall. You can customize your message, giving a friend a shout out, ditto Twitter. You can buy each track from iTunes or Amazon. You can request songs that aren’t on the particular channel’s playlist.

This site used gamification.  When you were an active participant you earned currency (extra rockets and bombs). You earned more voting power over song requests and site functionality suggestions.

The end-user bottom line: you control the radio station. You and your fellow listeners are crowdsourcing the playlist.

Here’s the value proposition from the company – wouldn’t it be great if you could “play” this website online and on broadcast radio?

My colleague wouldn’t hear of it. He pushed back, he protested, he prattled about how it would wreck his ratings. He suggested the song choices be limited to the rather tiny playlist of the over-the-air radio station.  He wanted to be in control, not yielding an ounce of power to the end users.

I sat up in my chair, ignoring my colleague, addressing the CEO. “It’s not about “changing” the on-air radio station. It’s about creating an online experience where people can create their OWN version of the radio station brand!”

Mr. CEO nodded in agreement.

My co-worker kept protesting, attempting to explain all the reasons this concept had no possibility of being successful. He said, “Why would I let LISTENERS be in charge?”

I took a different tack, asking the CEO about revenue opportunities, other platforms, and how to make the experience more social.

The meeting ended with the co-worker politely excusing himself. He went back to his office. I stayed behind to steal a moment with the CEO.

“We’re not going to do business with you, are we?”

Mr. CEO shrugged. “No.”

I shared a shrug.  “I apologize for wasting your time.”


It’s been three years since this meeting.  I left radio via layoff in 2010 and reinvented. But I still keep an eye on what’s happening, and I watch the death of broadcast radio with great sadness. It’s analogous to witnessing a big rig jackknife accident on the freeway in super slow motion. A once-great medium is winning the race for irrelevance, it doesn’t have to be this way and it blows to watch it happen.

The major broadcast radio consolidators know only two strategies for survival: contraction and homogenization.

Radio executives have a staggering lack of understanding of how modern media is consumed and monetized. Do these people not have computers in their offices? Do they not read anything? Seriously. There are almost zero media thought leaders that are radio people, save Jerry Del Colliano.  He’s going to attempt to knock some sense into these media zombies in January at his annual seminar. Nobody gives a rip what radio people think about media, because they have (collectively) no ideas. Do a Google News search and see what’s there – crickets.

Disruptive nascent technologies batter the armor of the industries being reinvented. There are only two strategies for survival – adaptation and innovation.

This dinosaur may deserve its demise. I don’t know what to make of it.

John Scott is a media instructor, online education coordinator and the career services manager at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University, San Francisco. He also counsels individuals and groups in the art of reinvention. John’s debut book Broken Glass and Barbed Wire will be available during the holiday season. 

Follow John on Twitter @johnscottsf.

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