It must be great being a new-media pundit. You just declare some traditional medium near death, describe the problem using words like apocalypse, doom and irrelevancy. Then offer a simplistic solution that upon close examination is nothing more than nonsensical gibberish made up of a string of words like symbiosis and digital connectivity.
The latest pundit to weigh in on radio’s problems is Bob Garfield, ad critic for Advertising Age. The fact that a magazine columnist claims to know how to save radio is delightful irony. It’s like GM giving advice to Ford. The medium most challenged to remain relevant today is print. Newspapers and magazines are disappearing at a dizzying rate. Try to find a print copy of Blender, Portfolio, Radar, Men’s Vogue, or Teen. Mr. Garfield’s own publication offers a recent count of the dead and dying magazines here.
We note that Mr. Garfield’s employer still prints ink on paper, a rather quaint process tracing its roots to Gutenberg. But while Ad Age seems comfortable toiling as if it were the 15th century, he apparently believes that using 20th century technology dooms radio.
One might think that working in an industry itself struggling to survive would raise issues of credentials and credibility, but new-media pundits love to fawn over each other’s faux insights. It helps validates their own self-professed wisdom. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mr. Garfield found a warm reception from a fellow “radio is dead” soothsayer.
Under the headline Radio: The End is Near unless you heed Bob Garfield, a radio blog recently gave Mr. Garfield center stage. Declaring that the conversation with Mr. Garfield was so profound that it was, “one of the most important pieces you will read this year,” he begins with this quote from Mr. Garfield:
We’re in the middle of an apocalyptic episode in our industrial history, equivalent to the industrial revolution. And because of the digital world, all of the old structures are shrinking, fragmentation is calamitous, and the yin and yang of media and marketing are flying apart, never to be rejoined.
Don’t you hate it when your yin and yang fly apart? Whatever he means, it sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? Revolution is one of those words that pundits love. Everything new is a revolution. Old media is always dismissed as missing the revolution. But on second thought, isn’t that what new-media pundits said in the 1990s?
Ten years ago radio was declared dead. By this time, everyone was supposed to be listening to internet radio. Broadcast.com signed on in 1998, and a little over a year later was absorbed by Yahoo. Broadcast.com never made a dime, and despite a 10 year head start, Yahoo has yet to figure out how to make money with internet radio. Just for the record, WXYC, a terrestrial radio station, started streaming four years before Broadcast.com
You can probably guess by now that Mr. Garfield has a book to peddle, and you don’t sell books by telling companies to go slow in adopting new technologies. You tell them everything is changing and that they are missing the next big thing!!! Fear sells books. So he declares radio quaintly out of touch:
Radio is an industry that is built using a lot of electricity to transmit radio signals into the ether, a technology that is almost hilariously obsolete in the digital world.
I guess he’s never heard of satellites or cell phones, both of which transmit radio signals into the ether. So does television. Without transmitting radio signals into the ether, a great deal of the digital world would cease to exist. Perhaps Ad Age’s printing presses are steam powered, but let’s not dwell. Hyperbole is also part of selling books. Here’s his punch line:
If you think of yourself as being in the business of sending radio waves through the sky to remote receivers, forget it. It’s all over but the shouting, because that’s not your business. You think it’s your business, but it’s not. It’s just how you used to distribute your product.
Do you think sending radio waves through the air is your business? The broadcasters we work with don’t think their job is sending radio waves through the sky. Were Arthur Godfrey to return from the dead, even he would understand that Mr. Garfield is simply stating the obvious. We are content providers that happen to send our content through the ether. Mr. Garfield is breathlessly announcing something that radio knows all too well.
Mr. Garfield works for a magazine that covers media, but ignores the fact that 90% of Americans use old fashioned radio delivered through the sky. So when Mr. Garfield says that its all over but the shouting, he must not have checked with listeners. If we turned off all the transmitters in this country and made listeners tune to our on-line products, there might be a protest or two. We wonder whether Mr. Garfield might be willing to take some of those calls.
Radio is hilariously obsolete? It is Mr. Garfield who is hilariously out of touch. Perhaps the author is confusing broadcasters with ham operators. The fact is that radio (and television) send signals through the ether because it remains the best medium through which to reach our audiences.
So does Mr. Garfield have any more specific suggestions other than saving electricity? Not surprisingly, he wants radio to be more local. He wants all stations to become, “the news, entertainment, and cultural hubs for their communities.”
I’m talking about all formats of music. I’m talking about real time news, weather, sports, headlines and traffic. I’m talking about cultural events in the community, concerts and what have you, maybe broken down genre by genre. I’m talking about all of it and more.
Apparently Mr. Garfield doesn’t get out of New York very often. He is describing what small and medium market radio has always been. It is what radio sounds like today where stations are operated by owners who live in their markets and care about their communities.
So despite the dismissive tone of Mr. Garfield’s rant, it turns out that he believes radio can survive by essentially continuing to do what knowledgeable broadcasters already understand and do. Be local, relevant, and live.
This quaint little business that Mr. Garfield believes is ignorant of its true value is alive and well. Yes, consolidation coupled with excess leverage has hurt a lot of stations. Yes, we are in a deep advertising recession, but our listeners continue to value radio and tune to it everyday.
Long after Mr. Garfield’s books have contributed to landfills around the country, radio will be strong and vibrant. Radio will survive long after all the new-media pundits have run out of words.