“I think radio did a very poor job of marketing itself, and everybody started talking all about the shiny new things.”
That’s Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman explaining why radio lost much of its public mindshare at Adweek’s Power of Personality event.
Sure, that claim is plausible to someone who hasn’t been listening to radio for the last eighteen years. We’re talking about a medium that was, for all intents and purposes, ubiquitous. Then, over the course of nearly two decades the largest players, led by Clear Channel, hoovered up stations like hoarders at an estate sale, firing staff, consolidating operations, outsourcing programming decisions away from local stations, tightening playlists, resulting in thousands of stations that sounded both alike and so bland that listeners were ready for any alternative by the time MP3 players, internet broadcasting and mobile broadband were available to the general public.
Pittman made his remark while revealing results from his company’s study on the influence of radio personalities. Now, the results of the study also shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who listened to radio before the bloodletting of the late 90s and early 2000s.
Findings from the radio conglomerate showed on-air personality endorsements were similar to a friend’s recommendation—and they trusted it more than a sponsored Facebook post, sponsored tweet or TV commercial. Six out of 10 listeners said that radio hosts were “like a friend” whose opinions they trusted. Forty percent argued that they felt radio personalities made the broadcast more personal, which turned listening to the radio into a more social event.
So, those “radio personalities” they’re talking about: we used to call them DJs. And in even the smallest towns there were at least a few of them, up to dozens upon dozens in major markets. Listeners knew their names, could call them and make requests, and maybe even meet them at a live appearance. Listeners thought of them “like a friend,” because not only were they on the radio, sharing their talent and expertise, but they were also in the community, much closer than your average television or movie personality.
Sure, 25 years ago there were national, syndicated radio personalities, too. Whether we’re talking about Kasey Kasem, Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, listeners then, as now, tuned in for companionship, as well as entertainment. There are still plenty of national radio personalities, with public radio talent becoming much more prominent in the last decade or so. But local talent is another story.
Commercial radio lost the attention of audiences because these companies took listeners for granted. They said, effectively, “Hey, we don’t need some $7 an hour local DJ to man a board and play the same 40 tracks in rotation. We can get the same $7 employee to record voice tracks for a dozen stations in the same amount of time as one local airshift, and the audience will never be the wiser.”
Only problem is, the audience was the wiser. They didn’t necessarily figure out that the DJ they heard at 3 PM on Tuesday actually recorded that voice break last Saturday, 500 miles away. But they could tell that the DJ didn’t sound like s/he was really there. The DJ kind of said the same thing when introducing the same songs. There seemed to be fewer and fewer requests being played. And when requests were heard, nobody mentioned what town they came from. Most glaringly, there didn’t seem to be much attention paid to local artists or local favorites. Indianapolis had the same playlist as St. Louis, Louisville and Des Moines–a fact that couldn’t be avoided if you drove a day across the interstates.
Simply put: Commercial radio, especially Clear Channel, started delivering a cheaper, cut rate service, and listeners figured it out. Once they didn’t have to listen, when they could plug in iPods and smartphones to the car stereos or use their computers for Pandora, they stopped listening.
So, yes, when there is still a talented radio personality on the air, I don’t doubt audiences respond positively. It’s just that commercial radio trained a whole generation of listeners not to expect very much.
Go ahead, Bob Pittman, tell the current generation of high school and college students how fantastic some of Clear Channel’s radio personalities are. You’ll probably hook a few willing to flip on their car radios, or maybe check out their parents’ radio. But these kids mostly don’t even own radios anymore. They might tune you in online, but that’s where you’re at a distinct disadvantage.
Face it, Pittman, your “let’s just market ourselves better” pitch is at least a decade too late. Your company led the charge in ruining commercial radio, and lost a whole generation of listeners in the process.
You say you want to focus on personalities? How about hiring a few, at every local Clear Channel station in the country. I can’t guarantee that will fix the bind you’re in. But it’s a start.
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