How could The Flintstones adjust their stone-age approach to the world and still succeed in the futuristic era of The Jetsons?
That's the cartoon version of the question broadcasters addressed during the 49th annual Country Radio Seminar (CRS) Feb. 5-7 in Nashville. The audio-only terrestrial radio medium will turn 100 in 2020, drawing dinosaur comparisons as it struggles to define its place at a time when the automated lifestyles of George Jetson and Jane, his wife, are on the horizon. Amazon Alexa is transforming the computer into a Star Trek-like interactive speaking format, and a company from The Netherlands, PAL-V, is plotting the 2019 introduction of a flying car.
Radio is most certainly challenged. Its time spent listening is down, staffs have been pared to the bone, and two of the medium's largest firms -- iHeartMedia and Cumulus -- are addressing long-standing financial straitjackets.
Under those circumstances, does radio have a future? "Yes" was the collective answer during CRS, though creating that successful model involves tinkering with its bedrock self-definitions and thinking of the on-air broadcast as just one piece in a media portfolio. That brand combines the AM/FM signal with a streamed product, podcasts and social media -- all places for personalities to showcase their skills.
Oddly enough, both iHeart and Cumulus have taken that multiformat approach, though heavy debt during growth years has slowed their efforts.
Broadcasters "need to grow a pair," suggested Cumulus CEO Mary Berner during a Q&A in which she outlined the company's efforts to retool since she took over leadership two years ago.
Cumulus, she said, had undergone four consecutive years of decline and was besieged by "widespread employee dissatisfaction" under the previous regime. But the negativity in the industry as a whole surprised her. The single-digit annual slippage in broadcasting was far less daunting than the double-digit shrinkage that is rampant in print media, where she previously worked.
"I join this industry," she said, "and we act like someone's ugly stepchild."
Evidence of revitalized entertainment businesses surrounded radio execs during the three-day event at the Omni Nashville Hotel. Record companies, who are beginning to see growth from streaming revenue after years of falling sales, were on hand to court programmers and showcase such established acts as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett, as well as a barrage of newcomers, including Kassi Ashton, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen.
"This is a bad week for livers in Nashville," quipped Brett Young, alluding to the liquor and entertainment spending at the seminar during a performance at a Big Machine Label Group lunch.
But even the artists themselves demonstrated flexible approaches to their businesses. Dierks Bentley followed a Day One Q&A by hosting a '90s throwback party at his newly opened club, Whiskey Row, and announced on Feb. 8 a new Desert Son clothing line that will debut in the summer. Brad Paisley's convention-closing Q&A touched on his explorations in animation, painting and comedy -- all of which allow him to continue sharpening his art and his brand.
"The essence of entertainment," he told the crowd, is to make a consumer think, "I didn't expect that."
Two developments are important in aiding radio's play for new life. One is the often-cited statistic that 93 percent of American adults use radio weekly; a market still exists, even if the time spent with the radio has decreased.
The newer development is the impressive growth of the smart speaker, led by Amazon Alexa and Google Home. A year ago, according to statistics presented by Edison Media, 7 percent of American households had one. After a run at Christmas, penetration has reached 16 percent, and more than half of respondents say their usage has increased as they have grown more comfortable with the devices.
Some 96 percent of respondents indicate that music listening was a factor in their purchase, and a full one-third expect their new speaker to replace an old radio. That's significant because radio hardware has slowly disappeared from homes. A third of 18-34-year-olds have no radio in their house, but Alexa -- which shows early signs of becoming a standard piece of personal equipment, akin to a mobile phone -- is now teaching them ways to integrate hands-free audio consumption into their lives.
Attendees were encouraged to be aggressive with getting established early on smart speakers and to educate their listeners along the way. KKBQ Houston PD Johnny Chiang has incorporated the Alexa voice into its programming four to five times an hour while instructing the audience on how to connect on their smart speakers.
But participants were also challenged to find ways to make the actual product more competitive, since that same smart speaker can be used to activate Spotify streams, collect information or get traffic updates.
"You're up against anything and everything," said Edison president Larry Rosin.
Some of the suggestions for becoming more competitive include developing products that take advantage of the brand in different ways -- creating contests or games that can be used on smart speakers and establishing music platforms that can be more interactive, allowing the user to personalize their listening.
But even that primary terrestrial signal needs some fine tuning. Several panelists lamented that advertising rates are too low -- "We're giving it away," complained iHeartCountry senior vp programming Rod Phillips -- while implying that higher rates could help reduce spot loads, thus increasing the amount of programmed minutes, giving consumers a more favorable experience and providing advertisers with more meaningful placement.
Ultimately, for radio to maintain its importance -- with the audience and with the country artists who traditionally court the medium -- it requires an expansive George Jetson approach. It's imperative for country radio stations to create two-way communication between the brand and the audience across multiple platforms, and veteran broadcasters will necessarily be the most challenged to make that kind of leap. As younger employees enter the ranks, they will come predisposed to adapt radio brands to newer gadgets -- including smart speakers and mobile phones -- since they're a more natural part of their lifestyle.
Millennials, said Cumulus executive vp content and programming Mike McVay, "don't think they have the same mental handcuffs that we have."
That creative adaptation is what it will take for radio to shed its ugly-stepchild viewpoint and cruise into a sleek Jetsons future.