The Final Four

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By Fred Jacobs

I have heard comments from a number of people – in person, in email, and on Twitter – that it’s time to stop this discussion about the “connected car” and get back to business.

Actually, now that that conversation about the demise of AM/FM in cars is behind us, it’s precisely the time to START talking about the “connected car” and what it means to radio.

Aside from the dustup at Convergence and its aftermath, this is a major issue for broadcast radio.  In fact, some might logically contend that it’s the most paramount challenge facing radio.

I’m one of those people.  I’ve been convinced of this for more than a couple years as I’ve watched our mobile business grow, as I saw people connect smartphones and iPods in cars during our “Goin’ Mobile” ethnographic study, since I’ve seen our Techsurvey data that shows the sharp skew toward in-car listening (and away from in-home), when I leased a vehicle with Ford SYNC, and because we all know about the critical importance and heft of the auto advertising sector for radio.

The facts are indisputable and the reasoning is consistent.  When you listen to the automakers talk about their priorities for the “digital dahsboard,” from Ford to Chrysler to Mercedes to General Motors to Toyota, it goes something like this:

  1. We want to give consumers the infotainment options they want and demand
  2. We want to provide a great user experience
  3. We want to do all these things in a safe environment

And they are thrilled that broadcast radio is a key option.  They respect what radio brings to their “center stacks.”  They believe in the value and relevance of hometown radio programming, information, and DJs.  They believe that HD Radio levels the playing field by creating a more seamless interface as consumer navigate from satellite to iPods to Internet radio to broadcast radio – and all variations in between.

But they never talk about an entitlement for radio dominance in cars.  Along with pushbuttons and cassette decks, those days are done.

The automakers are perfectly content to give consumers lots of choice and let Darwinian-driven choice take over.  May the best content win.

And that’s where radio needs to rethink its assumptions and givens.

I have long talked about radio’s two wars.  We continue to be brilliant and tenacious about killing the other Country station in the market, ganging up on that big Classic Rock station, and packaging all our stations to force the other cluster off the buy.

But in the process, we’re missing the boat on that second war – The Big War.  That’s the battle that features a billion channels.  Because that’s what we’re truly up against.  There is no more scarcity – a condition where radio thrived.  Instead, there is abundance.  And that’s why radio needs to step up its game, come to grips with and amplify what it does well, and use its assets intelligently and strategically in order to compete in a much more crowded, diverse, consumer-driven marketplace.

Every radio brand needs to answer the consumer question, “Why should I listen to you?”

And if there’s no ready, obvious response, then we’re looking at radio stations whose existences will be measured in years – or perhaps even months.  Because as automaker after automaker bakes in Spotify, Siri, Aha, Wi-Fi, and every other conceivable option, consumers will enjoy more and more stations and outlets to choose from.

Now we know that infinite choice can be intimidating.  That’s why I hate going to the Cheesecake Factory.  The food is fine, but a menu that is more than 10 pages long containing 200 items is no longer interesting to me.  In fact, it’s stressful, intimidating, and too time consuming to bother with.  Consumers like simple, clear choices, and so in some ways, AM/FM radio may win some battles by default – because it’s too difficult to consider all those myriad choices.

During one of the many interviews we conducted at CES this past January, we got a walk-through of Chevy’s newest digital dash offering.  The guy who gave us the tour started tuning in radio stations from Norway.  And he told us about which stations were “trending” on TuneIn.  Now maybe some people like to listen to audio entertainment with that sense of adventure, but I’m betting that most are more comfortable with a few, clear choices that they can navigate.

But if hometown radio stations are going to make the Final Four in the digital dash (OK, maybe the Sweet 16), they may have to rethink why consumers would choose them in the first place.

Playing it safe, toeing the line, doing what we’ve always done is what makes a brand forgettable in the new reality of audio abundance.  No one is going to talk about a station that’s been doing the same thing for a couple of decades – unless, of course, it’s remarkable.

A number of years ago, Jon Stewart was interviewed in Wired, and when asked how his fans would access his show in the future, he said this:

“We make the doughnuts; we don’t drive the trucks.”

The big conversation for radio companies has less to do with the delivery platforms and the gadgets.  It has everything to do with the quality of donuts we’re making.

It will be a battle for relevance, and given radio’s long association with cars, it’s a fight we’d better well win.

Fred Jacobs

About Fred Jacobs

Fred Jacobs, created the Classic Rock format, and has been a leading force in Alternative and Mainstream Rock. Currently, Jacobs Media services are used by nearly every major broadcasting company, including CBS, Entercom, Emmis, Cox, Greater Media, Citadel, Journal, and others. Jacobs Media has also provided consulting services to The Corporation For Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and public radio stations around the country.