Historically, new technologies have frequently been used to replace people in the workplace.
But if country radio wants to successfully weather a difficult transitional decade, the medium will need to come to grips with new tech while maintaining a personal connection with its audience.
That was the big-picture takeaway from the Country Radio Seminar, as 2,904 full or partial registrants met Feb. 22-24 in Nashville to discuss the status of the industry and its place in the uncertain future of the entertainment business.
The good news: some 93.1% of the U.S. population 12+ listens to radio every week, Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman said during a cheerleading keynote speech. That figure represents a 0.4% increase over radio listening 40 years ago when the number of entertainment options was substantially less. Radio trails only television as the second-most-used medium among consumers aged 12+. And even in the 12-24 demo - where the Internet is not considered a new development, but simply a de-facto part of life - radio surpasses TV to remain the No. 2 medium behind the web.
The bad news: terrestrial radio will continue to feel a squeeze. In a "Digital Dashboard" panel, attendees viewed several images of media screens in foreign cars in which radio is just one of more than a dozen options, from personal mp3 players to the Internet to satellite radio. In some countries, it's even possible for drivers to play "Angry Birds" while behind the wheel. Alternative media - particularly Pandora and Internet radio streams - represent significant threats to terrestrial radio's future.
The solution: Well, part of the solution anyway, is to combat new media with radio's biggest differentiating asset, people. An Edison Research project, commissioned by CRS presenters Country Radio Broadcasters, found that more than 75% of listeners believe air talent is well-informed and entertaining, two-thirds say disc jockeys are an important part of the community, and more than half appreciate the companionship they provide.
On most web streams, and on all iPods, there is no personality that ties the music together and/or provides context. Radio stations have pared staffs back and voicetrack shifts in high volumes in attempts to cut expenses. Many stations have just one or two live shifts on a daily basis. But that trend could possibly erode radio's biggest advantage over the new technologies.
Edison president Larry Rosin encouraged attendees to go back to their bosses and "ask them to hire more people, in hopes that they don't fire more people."
As important as the human element is to radio's future, technology requires that personality is kept in check. Arbitron's PPM devices, which allow PDs to discover when listeners tune out, have shown that the audience typically has a short attention span.
WQDR Raleigh, N.C., station manager/PD Lisa McKay-Blake noted during a PPM session that even a superstar such as Carrie Underwood suffers tuneout when an answer in an interview exceeds 30 seconds. As a result, it's even more essential that talent deliver relevant information, get to the point and get back to the music.
"If Jon Stewart can interview a former president in two-and-a-half minutes, I don't know why we need 45 minutes for an artist interview," Lincoln Financial senior VP of programming and operations, radio division John Dimick asserted.
Not that human intuition was ruled out. Panelists repeatedly encouraged radio programmers to use their gut in making choices on music and in knowing when to ignore PPM's dictates. CBS Radio/Houston VP of music programming Mark Adams, who oversees country KILT, recalled a day when one of his personalities was grappling with the death of her dog. She talked about it in a very personal way on air, at one point going more than 17 minutes without playing music. Her honesty got great ratings but also made a connection with the audience.
"It broke every PPM rule," Adams said. "It was awful. It was great - best radio ever."
Country radio's future strategy isn't just about battling new technology for the listeners' attention. It's also about using that technology to enhance the terrestrial brand. That's part of the motivation behind Clear Channel's iHeart Radio, which provides stations' broadcasts via mobile apps and online.
"We need to be everywhere our listeners expect us to be," iHeart Radio senior VP Owen Grover said.
Particularly on the Internet, stations were encouraged to begin thinking of their websites not as a dumping ground or a sidetrack, but as a new creative pallet that's integrated with the on-air product. It's a requirement, MTV Networks executive VP of digital media Dermot McCormack said, to repeat on the web what's being presented on the air. But it's also important, he noted, to add value with extra features and attractions.
Ultimately, the tug between technology and people is a theme not just for country radio but for the culture in general during the coming years. Self-described futurist David Houle characterized the years 2010-2020 as a transformation decade in which the continued explosion of new devices and new ways for people to connect is changing the nature of the marketplace and putting power in the hands of the consumer. Intellectual property, he said, is the centerpiece of wealth in the new age, and as information increasingly shifts from old media to the net and from plugged-in PCs to mobile devices, country radio will have to adapt or be left in the dust.
"It has to change," he said, "because everything else will."