Ross On Radio: When iCustomize My Station's Presentation

Clear Channel lets customized radio listeners add news, why stop there?

Have you ever wished that you could find an afternoon newscast without having to leave the music station that you’re listening to? Ever wanted to hear news during morning drive that doesn’t begin with “There’s more trouble for Lindsay Lohan”? Have you encountered severe weather or a big news story during the weekend and found the news/talk station still running syndicated programming? Now, there’s a place for you.

Personalized radio.

In 2011, Slacker announced a deal that allowed users to augment its music stations with ABC News. Last week, Clear Channel announced that iHeartRadio listeners could “add-in” local service elements—news, weather and traffic for their market, or “hundreds of others around the country” to their custom stations.

It’s a smart move and one that takes advantages of Clear Channel’s multi-market strengths. It’s something that CBS Radio, with its extensive all-news and all-sports collection of stations, could presumably do on as well. And when you get past the irony of possibly encountering breaking news sooner on Clear Channel’s Pandora-like channels than on some full-service FM music stations, the possibilities are endless. Why just hourly updates? Why not breaking news alerts as well?

When, in fact, does this become a logical thing to extend to preprogrammed stations? Streaming ad insertion is better and less unbearable with each year, but it isn’t yet seamless or a non-issue. Wouldn’t this package be a welcome choice for many people, weary from debt-relief spots and the same PSAs over and over?

And then, when does it go further, allowing users to customize every presentational aspect of a radio station? If I like WHTZ (Z100) New York, but don’t want Ryan Seacrest’s high-profile show in middays, can I have former middayer Shelly Wade back? Can I listen to oldies on WMJI (Majic 105.7) Cleveland on the drive home without switching away for local traffic? Take my hometown jocks with me no matter where I go? With years of voice-tracking experience, Clear Channel obviously has those assets as well.

Do you like Michael Baisden, but sometimes wish your favorite adult R&B station was playing music in the afternoon? Why not have both? Or take any of the former high-profile morning hosts who have gone the podcast route, or current morning shows that offer additional podcast content, and insert it between records, bringing, say, Adam Carrolla back to rock radio? Or top 40? Or oldies?

Last year at a RAIN seminar on personalized radio, Clear Channel’s Owen Grover allowed that these endless possibilities were under ongoing discussion. Not everyone is ready to go there. At a New Music Seminar panel a few months later, WBLS New York PD Skip Dillard displayed an uncharacteristic hint of irritation at the prospect of radio as a buffet table. “I’d like to think that the PD brings something to it,” he said, even though WBLS had publicly grappled with Baisden vs. music when rival WRKS vanished.

I’m with Skip. I prefer produced and shared experiences from my radio, and I extensively stream out-of-market radio in search of new ones. But if I can’t hear the real commercials that are running in another market, and I’m hearing the same syndicated shows everywhere, why not my own “K-Sean 101”?

There’s another significant implication of Clear Channel’s move. Regardless of whether you were willing to consider Pandora “radio,” it was undeniably a competitor on those occasions when listeners just wanted continuous music and minimal interruptions. That left radio to satisfy the people who wanted something more. If you can have “something more” from personalized radio, that changes everything.

Last year, even as Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman barnstormed America to emphasize the differences between Pandora and “radio,” Clear Channel was blurring those lines by putting KIIS Los Angeles and custom stations on the same iHeart platform and by promoting the ability to listen to both extensively on Clear Channel's own air. Now they’re blurring the lines again.

And, of course, they should. Anything that further threatens the hegemony of AM/FM radio should be an inside job. If the antennas ever come down, it should be because broadcasters made them obsolete. Not someone else. And while broadcasters should certainly co-opt those innovations that began elsewhere, whether it be personalized stations or the ability to add news, the real challenge for broadcasters is going to be finding the new online usage that doesn’t currently exist.