Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My Summer Surf-sation stations

I hope your Memorial Day weekend was as nice and relaxing as mine was.

It got me to thinking.

I’m often misinterpreted on my opinion of terrestrial radio. Let me get a few facts straight. I don’t believe terrestrial radio is dead. Far from it. Let’s make that clear.

Of all existing agencies by which information and entertainment are conveyed or transferred, radio remains the most accessible medium.

There are roughly four terrestrial radios in an average household. Nearly every car has one. They’re portable. You don’t have to be hard-wired. You don’t need a Wi-fi connection to listen.

And there is the opportunity, though often unrealized, for a wide variety of format choices.

Radio’s problem – and it’s a serious one - is the product it’s delivering not its physical unit.

A common enemy unites people and industry. Had there not been satellite radio and iPods – the radio industry would have to create something to blame for its loss of audience and revenue. Successful products create their own competition. When they merge with another company of similar passion one and one will equal three.

The year is 1965 and the biggest mistake Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner is about to make is not creating Penthouse magazine first. Had he created his own competition, he’d still have those clubs and hotels that had to be sold off at a loss when his company went south. Hefner reacted to Penthouse by buying the North American rights to a French magazine, Oui, which he attempted to make edgier than Playboy. He was too late. Oui was his HD radio.

Ever walk into a building that houses an emergent high tech company? Compare that to visiting a radio station. Creativity breeds creativity. Fear breeds fear.

Many of the characters running radio are not entrepreneurs. They have their fat contracts and golden parachutes. They collect huge salaries and have liberal expense accounts while paying their underlings with anxiety and disdain. They don’t care about the product. You can’t accuse them of selling out because they never bought in. It’s rampart dumbassery. Please tell me what was Clear Channel’s exit strategy ten years ago? BainCapital?

I still use the radio and fervently trust the medium can be saved – and grown.

It’s Friday and I’m listening to WATD, an FM that serves the south shore of Boston, to check the local news, weather, traffic, and high tides.

I love WATD. It’s a genuine community radio station. Their listeners know well in advance of road closings, detours, and special events so there are no unwanted surprises when traveling through the south shore or down to the Cape.

I enjoy hearing spots voiced by local business owners – Boston accent at all – and if I find myself at a store or business I heard advertised on WATD, I always let them know. For the record, it sounds like WATD has a significant number of local advertisers.

WATD, which is licensed to the south-of-Boston suburb of Marshfield, Mass, is a full service news operation and not typical to what small market radio has become over the past decade.

Since 1991 WATD has earned eleven national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) and an additional forty five awards in the RTNDA/New England regional competition. They’ve also won over 30 awards from the Massachusetts/Rhonde Island Associated Press division.

In hours they’re not doing news, depending on the daypart, they’re Hot AC or oldies – and they do have the customary weekend programming many locally owned and operated stations have. Even in those hours, they do continual local and regional news and information updates. Live and local. What a concept!

Once I had the local news and information needed, I switched over to WMVY, the Martha’s Vineyard triple-A station, which provided me with hours of pure musical diversion.

I love WMVY, too. They provide a musical soundtrack to Cape Cod and the islands. I heard a lot of songs I hadn’t heard in a while and enjoyed most of them. I also heard some new music, half of which inspired me to learn more about those artists. Remember when all music radio used to make you want to do that?

It was the ideal audio milieu to a lazy holiday summer weekend. I don’t mind hearing the jet skis racing along the shore. They’re as much as part of the summer sounds as those single engine planes flying overhead, surveying the coastline and kids playing in the sand. But nothing compares to being in the sun and surf and hearing a radio station play your favorite music.

I was plugged in and listening to same stations others with similar tastes were listening to at the same time. I felt part of a community – and, in doing so, spent significant TSL with them.

It also reinforced my belief that every profession has its lunatic fringe. The lunatic fringe of radio programmers is occupied by a group of people who are convinced that everything can be solved with data.

A few weeks back a program director of a struggling music station told me he was perplexed by his ratings. He’d followed the rules and regs primed by his current paint-by-numbers consultant; carefully mined his research and perceptual studies – and ended up losing substantial audience. His TSL was also in the toilet. I asked him how his station felt emotionally – and how he’d define its personality. He asked me to explain. Another victim of paralysis by analysis. If you can’t feel your radio station and define its personality, you’ve already lost.

The Harvard Business School has a new slogan, which says it best: Great minds think alike...and that's the problem.

Both WATD and WMVY are judiciously and keenly connected to the Internet as their companion medium. Both stations stream on line, which allows one to hear them anywhere – worldwide.

One could argue that those stations exist in this manner only because they have mom and pop owners. I neither agree nor disagree. They may not have the enormous debt service the chains have – but they still have time to sell and numbers to reach – and they’re up against clusters from Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Entercom, and Greater Media, all of which have clients on the south shore of Boston, and Sandab, Quantum, and Nassau on the Cape.

So WATD and WMVY, along with the sun, the sights and sounds of the coast, the hot dogs, hamburgers, and home-made potato salad, topped off by my favorite Harpoon IPA and a new brew, Magic Hat ‘s Hocus Pocus (gets my approval) – made the long weekend a memorable experience.

I wrapped up the evening watching the Red Sox play the Indians. I could’ve listened to that on the radio, too – but TV won out on that one. I’d already given my life to radio for most of the weekend.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spywitness News

I’ve been asked dozens of times over the past few weeks about my take on radio’s relationship with Google. I don’t have an answer. There’s no measure to compare it to. Some believe it could be beneficial to radio sales. Others compare it to opening the chicken coop to the fox.

Have you heard the comparison between Google and Clear Channel? Google can also used as a verb while Clear Channel is an expletive.

Here’s another comparison. Google encourages creativity while mediocre is the new good and excellent is the new “your fired” at Clear Channel.

Clear Channel had a unique impact on radio. Just not the one they expected. They forced listeners to turn it off and drove advertisers away.

Google has been around roughly half the time it took for the Clear Channel Empire to rise and fall. In five years – short even by cyberspace standards - Google established itself as the search engine of choice. Now, they're out to rule all media. They’ve already made inroads into newspapers, magazines, and radio advertising and about to do the same for television. Google’s game plan is to control the advertising world and redefine brand identity.

A few weeks back I was asked if given the opportunity what slogan would I pick for Google. I said i3: indomitable, insistent, and inexorable.

They make no secret of their goal to exploit both personal and professional data. Face facts. Privacy is so overrated. We live an age of identity craving where generations bare their hearts and souls and whatever else to be seen and heard on My Space, Facebook, and other social networks. Counting cyber friends is more important than real-life relationships.

By the way, did you hear the one about Clear Channel launching its own social networking site? Actually, it's not a joke.

Two years ago, Google quietly launched a personalized search, which by its very use permits storage of an individual’s surfing history.

Business runs on metrics and Google plans to offer whatever research is needed for any industry anywhere – and their pitch is having the skill to do it better, faster, and cheaper than those old school research firms.

Two words we won’t be using five years from now: focus groups.

Three worlds, which are already obsolete, call out research.

Google wants to – let me rephrase that – Google is creating a world – yes, world - where all promotion, marketing, advertising, and programming will be fully targeted to individual consumers based on their wants, needs, and fantasies. Its end result is to systematize and manage worldwide information. Google already knows more about its users than they know about themselves.

Still don’t believe it? Recently, Google launched a new technology – Project Panama, a profiling service, which allows them to monitor what users do on its portal and target advertising most related to their Internet use habits.

What does that mean for present-day perceptual research? Remember the lyrics to that Eagles song: They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along.

What about those privacy zealots claiming that Google users know not what they do and insist the company should be flagged for invasion of privacy? It doesn't wash. What they're doing is perfectly legal. Use grants permission.

Google also made a deal with the feds to limit its information storage time to two years. Two years? Radio formats live and die in that time line. Remember Jammin’ Oldies? Free-FM?

Then there’s iGoogle. It’s been around for a while – but was recently rebooted, retooled, and relaunched as a service that allows users to personalize their search page and publish their own content.

You would be correct to presume that the Silicon hit the fan over Google’s $3.1 billion proposed purchase of Double Click. Privacy watchdogs barked themselves hoarse claiming it provided Google another opportunity to strip away even more user privacy by doing a clickstream - combining an individual’s web search record with Double Click’s cookies. Sense a pattern here?

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to block the merger unless it can guarantee a user’s privacy.

Let me ask you something. When was the last time you cleaned out your cookies? Case closed.

Armed with all this saleable information, Google can peddle your personal information – remember you gave them to right to use it – for purposes ranging from divorce, bankruptcy, arson, and God only knows what else.

Big deal. The health insurance business has already done a pretty amazing job of denying coverage to those with – here comes more double-speak – pre-existing conditions. What's the dif?

Litigation against Google? Bring it on. If your lawyers want to take on their lawyers – let the games begin. Isn’t that what the Mays family used to say to anyone threatening a lawsuit against those ethical titans at Clear Channel? You know the game. First they’d ignore you, then they’d laugh at you, then they’d threaten to toss you into a shark tank filled with their well-connected high powered attorneys.

So, I don’t really have much of a take on radio’s relationship with Google…or do I?