WARNING: ONE OF MY RANTS
For almost a hundred years Terrestrial Radio has ruled the airwaves. And as readers of this blog know, my first love (besides Natalie Wood) is radio. That’s why it really pains me to not only see it heading towards its own demise but sprinting.
my book-on-tape. At one time the only way you could hear the hits was to tune to a terrestrial station or maybe two. Now there are literally thousands of alternatives. On iTunes radio there are 543 stations streaming Top 40/pop music. Right this minute a Lady Gaga song is on 523 of them. There’s probably a 24/7 station that plays nothing but Spandau Ballet – and they only had one hit.
So how does Terrestrial Radio deal with this? By ignoring it. By increasing their commercial load. What’s the single biggest complaint listeners have about Terrestrial Radio? No. Rush Limbaugh is number two. Commercials! Of course! So to counter-program all these alternative delivery systems they just add more commercials. Do stations know they’re mortgaging their future? Of course again. But they don’t care. They just want to bring in a profit now. In their list of priorities, the listener falls right below watering the plants in the lobby.
Listen to your local Top 40 station (if you can). There are probably close to 20 minutes of commercials an hour. When one of those stations goes into a spot break it can last up to seven minutes. Do the math. Most commercials these days are 30 seconds. That’s 14 commercials all at once. Even the Guantanamo detainees weren’t subjected to that.
And not only is that horrific for the listener (assuming he hasn’t already tuned out or given the name of Bin Laden’s courier), how’d you like to be the sponsor with your commercial number 8 of 14? What impact does that have? None. You’re taking your advertising budget and lighting cigars with it.
And what about news and sports formats? Those stations are either on AM or if they’re on FM they come with the full load of commercials.
Here’s the problem with AM: You can’t buy AM radios anymore. Go to a Best Buy or any major store selling radios. Good luck finding an AM. And if you want an AM transistor radio – the one-time staple of every teenager -- your best bet is to buy one on ANTIQUE ROADSHOW. Transistor radios that receive AM are almost impossible to locate. You have to special order them as you would a Betamax player or Teri Hatcher’s self help book.
Most people listen to the radio in their cars. For any of these new delivery systems to really make a dent they have to be easily available on the dashboard. Satellite radio already is. For a number of years now auxiliary outlets have been available so you could play your iPods over your auto’s audio. And in newer models iHeart Radio – a collection of stations although most commercial – is an option. Manufacturers are hard at work making receivers that will play streaming internet radio. You’ll be able to set push buttons for your favorite internet station the way you’ve set one for KISS-FM (every city has a KISS-FM). On the new Prius you can mix and match the push buttons. 1 – a satellite station, 2 – your favorite FM station, 3- satellite, 4—an AM station, etc.
And once internet stations are as easy to play in the car as terrestrial stations then the terrestrial stations are toast. Internet stations contain little or no commercials. Their overhead is minimal. And it’s only a matter of time before a few break out and become viral hits. That means that some dude’s station that he runs out of his mother’s walk-in closet could be worth more than the terrestrial stations Clear Channel and Cumulus and CBS overpaid millions for.
I am firmly convinced that the next great radio star, the next Howard Stern, will come from an internet station. Actually, that’s almost a given since Terrestrial Radio, in another effort to cut costs, rarely employs live talent. They just run syndicated programming or voice tracks. So there’s no training ground for young talent anymore.
Asking Terrestrial Radio to clean up its act is like asking Lindsay Lohan to clean up hers. You know it’ll never happen (even after that jaw-dropping Liz Taylor movie). Terrestrial Radio needs to cut way back on the commercials for starters. Then they have to figure out what they can provide that all of the alternatives can’t. Local programming is one answer. I’ve heard so many stories of tornadoes and freak storms hitting cities and the citizens turn to the radio to get disaster coverage and are treated to Carrie Underwood’s greatest hits. It used to be that radio had an obligation to provide public service to the community. That’s now a joke. Who cares where the emergency shelters are located? Taylor Swift has a new single!
The other thing Terrestrial Radio can offer is personalities. If everyone plays the same songs it’s what’s in between them that make the difference. But personalities cost money. And reducing commercials loses money. So it will never happen. Lindsay Lohan will be arrested for urinating on Kim Kardashian and Terrestrial Radio will go on believing surveys that say that most people still listen to them. I think those surveys are from the same pollsters that predicted Romney was going to win.
As Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a ‘changin’.” You can find that song on one of 267 iTunes stations streaming Classic Rock and 212 Oldies streams. With little or no commercials.
Note to Terrestrial Radio: Cigarettes will kill you.