What Radio Can Learn From Pokémon Go

Pokemon GO listening to the radio

In an insightful article describing the lessons brand managers and marketers can learn from the explosion of Pokémon GO, SocialMediaToday’s Mark Miller summed up the phenomenon with a phrase that immediately made me think of radio: “a franchise that you probably assumed dead was given a boost of life by finding a place in the hearts (and pockets) of millions of people across the world.”

As recently as a month ago, both radio and Pokémon were considered pop culture artifacts, or at least past their respective primes.  The original Pokémon had been eclipsed by newer games like ARK and any number of first person action games that put the players in the middle of a battle.  Similarly, many see radio as having been pushed out of relevance by companies like Pandora and Spotify who offer the same content (music) but with sexier technology. You could also describe Talk Radio, once considered AM Radio’s unstoppable driver, as being nudged into obsolescence by the growing popularity of podcasts.

So how did Pokémon GO, the newest iteration of a 20-year old invention become arguably a bigger hit than it was originally?  And what lessons can radio learn from that story? The answers lie in a magical 3-part formula: technology + nostalgia + community.

  1. Technology – The heart of the original Pokémon brand was all low tech aimed at kids aged 7 to 12: playing cards, toys, and Saturday morning cartoons. Most of those kids outgrew those things. Twenty years later, Pokémon GO utilizes Augmented Reality gaming. AR is the kind of advanced tech that appeals to those grown up kids as well as to the new generation. Radio hasn’t found the cutting edge technology to put them over the top yet. There is an FM chip in every smartphone, but most of those chips aren’t ever activated.  Many radio stations offer their own apps, but there isn’t one app that unifies the industry — one app to Rule Them All. The lesson: Radio has to identify and leverage the right technology to make the old seem new again.
  2. Nostalgia – The twenty-somethings playing Pokémon GO are mostly fans of the original franchise. They have a deep connection to the brand and are willing to take a chance on a new game for the opportunity to re-establish that connection.  Aren’t all of us in radio always talking about how radio’s greatest strength is the connection it has with listeners? Most consumers alive today grew up listening to the radio, which provided the soundtrack for first kisses, family road trips, and sweltering summer evenings at the community pool.  The lesson: Radio needs to harness that connection and use it as a tool to remind people what a huge part of their lives radio music and personalities have been and still are.
  3. Community – Merely days into the Pokémon GO craze, communities have sprung up online and IRL to find Pokémon. Businesses are signing up as Pokémon hotspots. Some users are even using it as a kind of dating site.  It makes sense; we want to have mutual experiences, and doing anything is more fun with others who enjoy it too.  Since its inception, radio has created communities. We all have these pictures in our heads, scenes from a montage of what radio has meant to us and generations past: depression-era families gathered around the Philco listening to The Lone Ranger, teenagers dancing at sock hops hosted by the local deejay, love stories played out on long-distance dedication shows, call in advice shows bringing people together (think Sleepless in Seattle). Communities do more than provide word-of-mouth brand marketing, they create the space for growth and the forum for directing that growth. The lesson: radio needs to look to its user communities for direction.

Pokémon GO is the first big AR success because it hits all of the sweet spots that are needed for success: technology, nostalgia and community.  Radio has one of the three points above fairly well covered and that is community. Whether it is taking calls from listeners on a morning show or hanging out at a festival or concert radio brings people together all of the time.  Creating new tech or piggybacking off something new is within reach for the industry but requires some investment and willingness to take risks.  Harnessing the power of nostalgia might be the easiest to accomplish either by painting a picture with audio using the considerable talent in the industry or using an effective visual in TV or online.  If all three get locked down, radio just might be bigger than Pikachu.

 

CBS: Chinese Broadcasting System?

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Last week’s announcement that CBS plans to sell or spin-off all of its 117 radio stations sent a shockwave through both the business and broadcast media communities, spurring commentary from industry insiders and speculation in big and small media firms nationwide. The potential sale of such a high-pedigree network raises questions about possible suitors, conjectures about the financial feasibility and perceived interest of other major media owners in such a large acquisition, and, of course, about the state of radio in general.

Around the watercooler in my Chicago-based office, we discussed the number of CBS owned stations in our market: who could take them on without going over the current ownership cap? Considering the tenable situations in which iHeart and Cumulus find themselves, what kind of investor would want to get behind such a large chunk of debt?  The consensus was that CBS radio would have to be sold piecemeal. But, maybe not. As Michael Harrison, publisher of the trade publications Talkers and RadioInfo, says in a recent piece by Meg James of the LA Times, “Radio stations aren’t a bad business, they are only a bad business if the companies that own them are burdened by debt.”

That question — who would have the interest and capital to purchase all (or most) of the CBS radio stations in toto stuck with me all weekend. Surely, CBS would not announce such a large sale without at least one potential suitor in mind? While scanning the trades for a hint of who that might be, I happened upon another item that gave me an idea.

Last week, in all those same outlets that reported on the impending CBS sale, there were also columns about several media conglomerates (21st Century Fox, Disney, Univision, the NAB and, yes, CBS) petitioning the FCC to relax foreign ownership rules stated in section 310 of the Communications Act.  The filing these companies presented to the FCC includes an endorsement of “up to 100 percent aggregate foreign ownership in a broadcast Section 310(b)(4) entity,” and “aggregate non-attributable foreign ownership of up to 49.99 percent without prior Commission consent.”  The filing downplays the importance of FCC oversight in the case of such transactions, citing the existing national security review infrastructure involving other government agencies that has been in place for two decades.

Now, I’m not a media mogul or a broadcast lawyer or a deep-pocketed investor; I’m just a guy who’s worked in the radio industry for fifteen years, but if I’m reading that correctly, in layman’s terms, it means a foreign owner could purchase almost 50% of a network like CBS Radio without FCC approval and potentially own it outright.  Current rules prohibit foreign ownership beyond 25%. Is it merely coincidental that CBS teases the sale of its radio holdings at the same time it is lobbying for across-the-board relaxation on foreign ownership regs?

Speaking of timing, it’s important to consider how this being an election year figures into all of this. First of all, with 2016 poised to break all records in terms of political ad spending, it has been noted that CBS would be foolish to give up this year’s election ad dollars, so they aren’t expected to sell until 2017 at the earliest. More importantly, depending on who wins the presidential election, this major change in foreign ownership rules could be streamlined and happen quickly next year.

What are the potential consequences of a Chinese company or a Middle Eastern company, for example, owning all or part of an American radio network? Would it provide a much needed investment in tech and marketing?  Would a global radio network provide more resources or lead to job cuts to reduce redundancies and help pay for the acquisition? How would it impact editorial decisions? We could be on the precipice of a landmark rule change, the far-reaching impact of which is something we haven’t seen in the radio industry since deregulation in the 1990s.

Define Deejay

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by Sean Waldron

I never identified with the term “disc jockey.” Even back when I was a radio broadcasting student at Columbia College here in Chicago, I would imagine my future radio career as a funny morning or afternoon drive host who played a little music but mostly made people laugh. I associated the phrase “disc jockey” with vinyl records and a job description that seemed pretty obsolete by 2000. My first radio job after college was at a small AM station in Beloit where we did, amazingly, play actual CDs. But even though I played discs, I still didn’t consider myself just a DJ. I was part of a team whose service to the community involved more than playing records. I mean discs. I mean music.  Shortly after I arrived at my next stop in Rockford, the station transitioned to a digital program called Audio Vault. Certainly “disc jockey” is outdated now, and not just because most stations play music from a hard drive instead of a record or CD player.  Considering all the skills now required of a radio personality, maybe “digital jockey” is more appropriate.

Today, a radio personality needs to be:

  • a music provider
  • a content creator
  • a social media expert
  • a video/graphics editor
  • a writer

That is a pretty tall order, especially considering most of us have never received any training in many of those skills.  In fact, most college students still graduate without learning how to best use social media as a marketing tool, and radio isn’t the only industry where this is the case.  Recently, Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes wrote an editorial for Fast Company about how even though 90% of American companies are on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, most provide little or no training to their own staffs on how to use these platforms effectively.  Instead, companies hire Millennials, assuming that the younger generation who grew up with Facebook magically knows how to use that personal social media proficiency to grow a large, interactive audience for a business. William Ward, Professor of Social Media (that’s right, you can be a Professor of Social Media) at Syracuse University, compares that logic to assuming someone is a business expert because they grew up using a fax machine.  

Many of us went into radio because of a love of music, and that is a natural part of us that clearly translates on the air. Mastering social media on the other hand takes specific education, training and strategy.  You may personally have five hundred Facebook friends or Twitter followers, including aunts, uncles and old high school classmates, with whom you share pictures and exchange memes, but that’s not the same as implementing a brand-appropriate marketing plan by engaging with your station’s listeners.  In an economically challenging environment, it is imperative that every station, or at the very least every cluster, hire a social media guru with a proven track record of developing and maintaining social media audiences for a business, someone who will train every host, producer and promotions assistant on how to curate or create original content for the station’s social media networks that are in line with the bigger picture of who you are and the role your station plays in its community.

Other industries are tackling social media in creative ways, and some go straight to the source, such as ad agencies like Leo Burnett Chicago, who invited Twitter representatives to their offices to educate their staff on using Vine and Periscope, and BBDO New York, who did  something similar with Facebook and Instagram (read more about it in this Digi article here). Large radio owners like iHeart, Cumulus, and NPR should invite social media companies to teach the staff at a central or regional location and then those employees could go back to their stations and pass the new knowledge on. Or maybe there should be a big Social Media for Radio Conference. Who should host it? Where should it be? What kinds of panels and classes would there be? Who should present? What job titles from your station should go? Should “disc jockeys” attend? What about “digital jocks?” More on that next time.

Radio content, whether it’s music, talk, or programming, doesn’t come from discs anymore. It lives on long after you’re off the air through interaction with the audience on social media channels. The work of a digital jock is never done.

Edited by Erin Fleming

Radio and Serial – Guilty by (No)Association

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by Sean Waldron

Earlier this week, Pandora announced that it will stream the second season of Serial upon the hit podcast’s release. The inaugural season of Serial was downloaded roughly 100 million times, and was the first podcast to cross over into the mainstream, as evidenced by, among other indicators, a popular spoof on Saturday Night Live. However, the consensus is that this partnership with Pandora will bring even more listeners into Serial’s already record-breaking audience. The arrangement benefits Pandora as well — the addition of the powerhouse podcast will bring spoken word fans to a service known primarily as a place to stream music.  My guess is that streaming Serial is Pandora’s smart first step toward expanding its brand and audience.

The partnership is being reported as an exclusive streaming agreement between Serial and Pandora, but assuming Pandora did not demand exclusive rights for broadcast beyond the traditional podcast outlets like iTunes and Stitcher, it may not be too late for traditional radio to jump on the Serial bandwagon. In fact, it is disappointing that Pandora beat terrestrial radio to the punch.

One of the large or medium size broadcast companies could do well reaching an agreement with the folks at Serial for the exclusive radio broadcast of Season Two. If Serial’s producers are looking for exposure, radio can certainly deliver the numbers.  The smart radio company to land the rights could either pay a flat fee or cut Serial in on a portion of the revenue they generate from broadcasting the podcast.  

And radio offers more opportunities for promotion and audience-building than podcast platforms and Pandora have been able to, at least so far. Radio can easily mimic what television does with hit episodic shows: like airing the first season leading up to the second season’s premiere. Or, much like Talking Dead, the show that airs after The Walking Dead, imagine a Serial postmortem where hosts take listeners calls to discuss their own theories about what really happened. For the final episode of the season the stations airing Serial could host listening parties across the country, creating an event out of the penultimate program including expert interviews after the podcast concluded.

The creators of Serial are talented, smart and see value in partnering with platforms that can extend their podcast’s reach. Lets hope an equally smart and talented radio exec finds a way to bring the biggest podcast hit to terrestrial airwaves.

Edited by Erin Fleming

What Radio Can Learn From the Rise and Fall of Tower Records

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by Sean Waldron and Erin Fleming

I’ve been working my way through the episode of The Nerdist where Chris Hardwick talks with Colin Hanks about Colin’s documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.  Chris is fun to listen to because he’s energetic, pulls great stories from his guests, and of course gets the biggest names in entertainment on the podcast.  The conversation turned to the personal connection people have with music and what made Tower Records special.  Hanks and Hardwick, (who could make a very watchable buddy comedy together) discussed how changing technology has affected that personal connection. We no longer buy physical items like vinyl, tapes and CDs, we no longer hang out at record stores talking about music with the staff, or waiting in line together with strangers for a new album release. Maybe, they mused, the way we get that in-person, social experience now is from attending concerts. This drove home a couple of points for me.  

First, that Townsquare Media and Pandora are positioned well with their ticket and event management acquisitions.  iHeart has also seen value in the concert and event arena.   

Secondly, that radio has daily opportunities during the morning and afternoon commutes to connect with listeners. Radio hosts are able to take our listener requests, dance with us at concerts, discuss music with us at events, and introduce us to new music the way record store geeks used to do.

Apple knows how important this personal connection is.  It’s why they created the Beats 1 service, not just to separate their pure play service from the pack, but because as a brand they understand, possibly better than anyone, how critical that emotional impact is.  Afterall, since the beginning of personal computing, there have been two camps, two types of people: Apple people and PC people. The most current iteration of that dichotomy is that we now have iPhone people and Android people. Anyone in a mixed marriage between these two brands can tell you just how fiercely loyal and passionate we can get about our products and brands.  It’s the passion that keeps us coming back and spending our money on the latest upgrades.

What’s your station doing to spark that kind of passion and earn that kind of  loyalty? What’s it doing to foster a Tower Records kind of community? Who is showing up at concerts– the jocks or a few interns from the promotions department? When listeners go to your website or app is it all about the music, or can they also connect with the people behind the voices they hear every day on the radio? In order earn the listener’s loyalty, radio must connect with them first. What kinds of connections are you making with your audience?

Trust me I’m on the radio

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by Sean Waldron and Erin Fleming

An idea that gets repeated a lot in our industry is that we are in the relationship business.  Radio, at least good radio, connects with the listener on a personal level. Maybe it’s the twinge of nostalgia you feel when you hear the song that was on the car radio during your first kiss, or the voice of your hometown team’s announcer reminding you of when they won the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s laughing along with the morning crew as you drive to work Monday morning, bracing yourself for a tough week. All of these connections, all of these moments are part of the relationship we have to radio. Relationships are the reason listeners listen and advertisers advertise which is why I was taken aback when reading Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Report.

The report highlights data that people are acting on advertising from sources they don’t trust.  For example, the lowest trust level reported by the survey was regarding text ads on mobile phones: Well over half — 64% — of respondents said they distrusted the ads, but in spite of that distrust, 46% still reported that they either made a purchase or sought out more information based on that “untrustworthy” advertisement.

Why do consumers act on information from sources they don’t trust? One reason might be that after growing up with constant exposure to media, today’s consumers are media savvy.  Consumers recognize sales pitches when they hear them. In fact, they expect them. The pitch doesn’t negate the need or want for a product. So if they read, hear or see an ad from a source that they don’t deem trustworthy, it won’t necessarily prohibit them from wanting to find out more about the product.

If untrustworthy text ads have an action rate at 46% it seems only logical that a trustworthy medium like radio would be significantly higher.  According to the report, radio is more trustworthy than those text ads, but not overwhelmingly so, at 54%. The portion of listeners taking action after hearing a radio ad is also 54%, so, better than half, but it feels like both numbers should be higher.

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What advantages do the less trusted but actionable mediums have? Convenience for one and that is a big one.  Randall Beard, President of Nielsen Expanded Verticals, points out that “The formats where action exceeds trust by the greatest margin share a common attribute: Easy access to products/services.” When a user can click on a link and get more information without having to hunt for it, they are likely to take action.  Radio now needs to find ways to make it easy for the listener to interact with a product immediately.  Giving out an easy to remember URL, a number to text or an ad on the station’s app are all options, but barriers must be removed to maximize action from the audience.

I was dismayed by the prospect of radio losing out to other forms of advertising when I found a connection between the Nielsen survey and some research from Mark Kassoff & Company. The finale to Mark Kassof’s series ListenerThink focused on P1 listeners and revealed that P1’s identify their favorite radio stations as a “close friend” or a “casual friend.” There’s that relationship again. Tie that in with the Nielsen survey that showed listeners are most likely to take action based on the recommendations from people they know, like a close or casual friend.

The takeaway, I think, is that we’ve been right all along; it’s our relationship with listeners that is our defining characteristic, our advantage and our challenge. It’s more important than ever for us to cultivate that relationship. And, just like in any relationship, we need to start by checking in with the other person more – what do they need, what do they want, how can we make things easier for them.

Café Radio

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by Sean Waldron and Erin Fleming

While enjoying my third cup of coffee the other day, I read this article about Huge, an Atlanta marketing company that opened a coffee shop in the lobby of their building to use as a kind of creativity hub and test lab – an observable, real life space where employees can gather to interact, collaborate and innovate. Huge plans to hold various events at Huge Café focused on testing new ideas and fostering conversation about creativity and innovation. In this way, the coffee shop itself will become the agency’s R&D facility.

Huge’s out-of-the-box idea made me think 1) we really need a new phrase for “out of the box,” maybe, out of the mug? and 2) what a great idea for a radio station.

Morning drive is one of the most important dayparts, so imagine if a station hosted the show in its own coffee shop, where on-air personalities could literally be a part of a listener’s morning.  Listeners could drop by in the morning or early afternoon for a cup of coffee. Hosts could join them during breaks, or bring listeners into the studio.  Naturally, the station is on in the shop and the jocks can come out during commercial breaks to chat and engage with the patrons.  Hosts from other dayparts could also come in to connect with listeners and even play the role of barista. Maybe traffic, weather, news headlines and the station’s Twitter feed could be displayed on digital screens as part of the the decor. And as for that R&D, the program director could get real time feedback on songs that are really connecting with the listener and those that are experiencing burn out. What better way to get someone to try a show? It would be a natural fit for an AC station in, say, Seattle.

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The average American drinks two cups of coffee per day according to a survey Zagat conducted on our coffee consumption back in February.  And, although this wasn’t covered in the results, I’d wager the average morning show host consumes at least three times that number. I’m on my fifth cup right now, bringing up the average and the caffeine, and in my over-stimulated haze, this all has me thinking about growth in radio.  

Radio can only grow by continuing to find new ways to be a part of listener’s lives. Growth was something we used to measure by acquisitions, by looking at which companies were buying stations, which companies were buying other companies.  Then the market bottomed out, debt became unmanageably high, and, with a few exceptions, groups stopped growing. At least in that way.

Recently, there has been a new kind of growth in radio — one that is fueled by the diversification of the industry.  Townsquare Media has expanded greatly into live event management and profited greatly from it.  Both Hubbard Broadcasting and the E.W. Scripps Company have either purchased or invested in podcast-only companies to exploit an obvious audio partnership.  

Just as how we view what characterizes a “successful” radio station has evolved to include digital, social media, great personalities, the perfect song rotation, and live remotes, the growth of a successful radio operation now must involve valuable partnerships that previously may not have been linked to radio. The connections are there if you look for them, so put on a fresh pot of coffee, turn on your favorite radio station and get growing.