Rob Farina Talks 1M Apps, Radio & iHeartRadio

FYI caught up with Rob Farina in the over-sized lobby at the Sheraton downtown in Toronto during CMW. As ever, the radio executive is pumped. And why not, he's surrounded by broadcasters, musicians and music biz brass and it seems as if they all want to talk to him.

Farina's twin passions are broadcasting and renovating mid-century houses. In that order.

His ascendancy in his chosen profession has the trajectory of a hot stock, give or take a couple of missteps along the way.

He knows it but isn't saying so because it hasn't been announced when we talk, but his hiring at Bell Media, first as a consultant for the club house-sized iHeartRadio project, has been formalized and he's now heading a file titled Content, Strategy and iHeartRadio and that includes overseeing the company's successful Orbyt Media syndication-arm that covers the gamut of entertainment and news interests.

Over the years he's worked for CHUM, Rogers, Astral, CTV and found the time to have his own (now mothballed) side-bar consultancy firm, Black Box Entertainment.

Farina's focus today is all about iHeartRadio Canada and all of its tentacles.

The first thing he tells me he wants to be made absolutely clear is that the iHeartRadio platform is open to the competition.

Initially launched a little over a year ago with Bell Media's top radio brands, plus a hundred or so music streaming channels, Farina proudly reports that the app has now been downloaded by a million listeners in its first seven months of availability. It's a significant number, and he's not afraid to crow about it.

But to the competition: "I think there has been this notion in the industry that the choices were either (competitor) Radioplayer Canada or iHeartRadio and I want to make it abundantly clear that we have no problem with radio stations being on both.

"As a radio station owner, I would think you would want to be available to be heard wherever possible. If anything, iHeartRadio is a different proposition."

Key amongst the differences is that Bell Media's iHeartRadio has been quick to broaden its scope so it can now run across a staggeringly large 120 platforms embracing mobile, home, automotive and wearables.

It means one can stream using Chromecast, DirecTV, Echo, Nexus, Xbox, Apple CarPlay, most of the proprietary big car company in-dash systems, Bose, Pebble, Android Wear, Samsung Gear 2 and Apple Watch.

Make no mistake, the tech development needed to connect across these very different proprietary delivery systems is no milk run and cost a bundle in developer man-hour dollars.

Farina says "we're excited about 2.0," which is how he refers to the first release of the iHeartRadio app, "and we're excited about the fact that other broadcasters are coming on board."

Farina is excited about much of what is on his plate now. He's made a career playing the nice guy who's connected, loves to mentor talent, talks radio with almost evangelical fervour and in a word, he's a doer not a follower.

Strategies and challenges for him are like energy drinks for marathon runners.

"So we're excited about 2.O, but we're just getting started. Shortly we can announce another 300 radio stations coming on board, including some of the marquee American terrestrial brands and formats that don't really exist in Canada. We aim to deliver a diverse offering in the market."

Some of the 300 stations are now on Radioplayer Canada, meaning he has already started to over-ride the false assumption that it's one or the other.

He adds the fact that the current 100 digital channels are to be doubled, "which will allow consumers to pick their music to mirror their mood or activity. If you are having a dinner party you can call up a number of options to fit the event and create the vibe you want to soundtrack your room with."

And then, of course, there are the events.

"Our first this year is FirstWest in Calgary on July 8 so, yes, we are an event promoter now."

The first iHeartRadio FirstWest fest is taking place at Shaw Millennium Park in Stampede City. Scheduled performers include Fifth Harmony, Hedley, Iggy Azalea, Massari, Midland, Noah Cyrus, Ruth B, Scott Helman, and Virginia to Vegas.

iHeart has also presented festival-like concerts in Toronto and Montreal, and re-branded the massively successful MuchMusic Video Awards, now billed as the iHeartRadio MMVAs.

And then there's Bat Out Of Hell, a co-venture between Bell Media and Michael Cohl's Iconic Entertainment Studios.

The theatrical adaptation had its soft opening in Manchester UK, immediately earning rave reviews that extended the run from two to five weeks before its official launch at the 2400-seat London Coliseum on June 5.

The advance hype all but guarantees a sell-out for the 56 performances, with London papers including The Daily Mail extolling almost hyperbolic enthusiasm in singular fashion for the three-hour show.

The musical has its North American opening at Ed Mirvish Theatre on October 14 and runs through December 3.

Farina says that with the Bat deal "the show now becomes part of the asset chest at Bell Media and offers a great example of our go-forward as content creators. Our mandate is to create events that are truly special for the fans and we're billboarding them as 'money can't buy' opportunities. Our music events provide an opportunity for the fans to see a great number of their favourite acts in a festival atmosphere."

He adds that these spectacle events are the prelude "building momentum as we prepare to launch our subscription services."

These services will, presumably, become the 2.1 and 2.2 versions of the iHeartRadio app experience, and Farina likes to talk about events as 'experiences', perhaps borrowing his parlance from the concert promoter vernacular.

The subscription editions of the iHeartRadio experience are expected to have their introduction at the end of the year "and at the latest at the top of 2018," he advises.

The services are dubbed iHeartRadio Plus and the iHeartRadio All Access.

The Plus edition will cost $5 monthly that enables one to download any 50 songs you want, swap them in and out to a limit of 50, with interactivity offered in allowing listeners to rewind a song on the radio at any given point in its broadcast. Wanna repeat Ed Sheeran's "Shape Of You" for an entire day? This plan's for you!

The All Access model will be competitively priced with competitors and offers unlimited streaming, similar to offerings from Google Play and Spotify.

Both are ad-free models. He explains: "We feel that when you operate a streaming platform you have this one dimension. It's a fantastic dimension, but it's one dimension. Understand that music is such a personal experience and we feel that we have an ability to curate, to drive a conversation with our audience and offer much more by having events that are unique and add value to subscribers."

Put another way, capture an audience and provide a menu of enticements to keep them coming back for more. In the vernacular of the tech world it's called a 'walled garden' that has been brilliantly employed by Apple and to a lesser extent Samsung, and is a big part of the thinking behind subscription packages on offer from Bell and Rogers to capture audiences with cable, on-demand, mobile and data demands.

But what about radio today? I ask. Isn't it guilty of failing to be adventurous, a bit stale with too many duplicated formats and all a bit top-down?

Farina takes a deep breath, pausing before responding to such a loaded question.

"I will tell you that our survival is going to be closely linked to our ability (as broadcasters) to meet the audience's needs.

"I will tell you that the rise of streaming, the rise of podcasting, all of these other elements that are nipping at the number of minutes that the audience engages with radio is really pushing radio to reinvent what it does, and take tips on how we can be better from the growth of these (competing) services.

Implied but not said is the fact that today's audience and tomorrow's adherents live online. The real estate and the terrestrial broadcast towers that for over a half-century built branded radio call letters into huge money generators are slowly but surely becoming the 2.0 editions of radio. Like broadsheets and network television, audiences are migrating online and leaving old world media in some future graveyard and for archivists to curate in libraries and museums.

But Farina isn't taking my question lying down.

"I believe that radio has done a lot right over the past 10 years as digital media has unfolded. I believe we've actually been doing a great deal to change and especially so on the talent side.

"The way our (radio) talent works now is vastly different than it was 10 years back. They used to have to be good on the air. Now they have to be good everywhere, all the time: social media, live appearances. Getting out there in front of an audience is now probably more important than it ever has been."

I respond back: But it seems to me that DJs are now less visible on the street than ever before.

"Well, that's a challenge," he responds, "and it's one we can address as we are doing all these events because we have a reason to have our personalities in a place where they can be viewed really well.

"These events are party atmospheres that are attracting fans. We are able to create these communal environments."

Then there are the socials: "Social media isn't one thing today, it's many things and we need to have our talent communicate on these onlins portals better than well.

"I remember when I was at Astral hiring (social media marketing company) Jumpwire Media. I hired them to do social media training across four markets and I can tell you that it completely changed the way personalities thought of their business.

"And it also taught them the tools to communicate on these platforms and connect with the audience. It was tough for some of them with 20, 30 years in and at the end it transformed them as personalities. It was about connecting the dots and reaching out beyond the microphone.

I interject again: There are huge landmines where the wrong comment can boomerang into a catastrophe...

"Absolutely! That always exists, and it is a bigger challenge now because the weight of the words can linger. It used to be the message would evaporate shortly after being put out there. Now they persist and maybe in an earlier time people were more inclined to shrug off comments. Maybe in an earlier time people had a better sense of humour.

"Now we must be sensitive to race and gender. We've seen how politicians have come to be haunted by things that they said decades ago based on the world we knew then and now found those same words coming back to bite them in the arse."

He pauses, before adding further thought to the discussion.

"All that said, I think there are changes being made at radio. There's an evolution, some subtle and some overt, and I don't want to paint my radio brethren as a team sitting on its hands because we all have our challenges.

"We have revenue challenges, we have challenges keeping resources intact and when you are at a large company you have to manage (fiscal) quarter by quarter.

"We talk a lot about technology as broadcasters but what about the creative people needed to fuel the technology? Without them, well it's like having a cupboard full of pots and pans and an empty fridge.

"What will drive the tech shift is having the creative who can engage with audiences, drive content.

"It's a conversation that we've been having for a long time but it's really about a core issue—what made us successful?

"What's our service to a community—and how do we get back to serving the community in a new way?

"Youth is a big factor too in how radio is adapting today. The climate, the challenges are actually helpful to change. To use an old adage, necessity is the mother of invention. That said, I believe these are exciting times to be in radio."

Farina is fortunate that he is in the driver's seat with a company that has not only mandated core changes to its structure but has taken leadership in bringing its core assets as a media company and having a well-defined vision of how to transfers our strengths and assets and build on them in a digital universe.


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