OAB Town Hall Discusses Radio's Changing Audiences
The following is provided by Janik Media President Liz Janik who a great many will remember from her days on-air at CFNY, and as a consultant at Joint Communications. She is also a Rosalie Award winner, celebrating her longstanding commitment to radio in Canada. You can find out more about her career highlights here.
This year’s town hall was lively and more candid than usual. The conversation was masterfully directed by “radio futurologist” James Cridland and covered a range of the issues facing radio. Panelists were Sherry O'Neil, Director, cairns oneil strategic media inc.; Chris Pearson, President, Acadia Broadcasting Limited; Geoff Poulton, President, Vista Radio; Troy Reeb, SVP, News, Radio & Station Operations, Corus Entertainment; and Susan Wheeler, Vice President, Regulatory Media, Rogers Communications Inc.,
The emphasis throughout the day at the OAB kept circling back to how listeners’ tuning habits are changing, given the wide variety of listening platforms available, including Podcasts, Spotify and talk content on YouTube. How can radio claim its place in the new universe opened up by social media. Exactly what is radio? And what is its role?
Community, Community, Community
The consensus was the secret of successful radio is in its ability to create a sense of community through the use of audio. Historically, radio built its franchise serving a community formed by geography. Chris Pearson and Geoff Poulton represented stations whose success is derived by super-serving local markets.
Chris Pearson: “We are very much locally focused. We see that as a significant advantage in the markets we serve. People are our most important asset. That has what has made radio strong, the talent that we have. We like to have the people who work for us live, work and play, giving back to the communities they are broadcasting to.”
Geoff Poulton: “Small/mid markets for us, we can have immediate impacts in our communities every day. We can decide between 1:00 and put in place by 1:30 because it is the right thing to do. We have not laid off a single person in the company. Even through some tough times, in some certain provinces stating with the letter ‘A’. We have chosen to stay and invest [in people] because it is the right thing to do.”
When it comes to the community in major markets, it can’t be based strictly on geography.
Troy Reeb: “Radio has both its biggest challenge and opportunity going up against social media which does these hyper-targeted ways of creating communities across very diverse geographies.”
Corus recently rebranded most of its news-talk stations under ‘Global News Radio’. Reeb, commented "It was as much of a digital strategy as a radio strategy because when you are only a news and information business, you need to increase the opportunities for interactivity. You need to squeeze more value out of the investments you put into original reporting.”
Regulations for the Future
Susan Wheeler, Vice President, Regulatory Media, Rogers Communications Inc. acknowledged that radio is heavily regulated, with the emphasis on preserving a cultural identity that is uniquely Canadian, as we are neighbours with the USA in a closed market environment. The internet erased that protected environment. “So now we are operating in a more global environment, and regulations are struggling to keep pace with that.” With the new review of the legislation, that will come. The bad news is that it might take five years.”
What about those commercials?
Cridland: “Is the business model changing for radio? Radio is 12- 15 minutes of 30-second commercials with people shouting at you to buy a new car. Do you see radio changing in that regard, or is the 30-second spot the way we make money for a long time to come?”
Sherry O’Neil: “In the near term it will be 30 seconds, maybe 10 or 15. As six-second video spots become more common, it would be wise for the industry to evolve.
Geoff Poulton: “30-second spots will be here for a while. We are introducing some native spots and having success on rate, as well as uptake. You have to have the talent that can carry it off. Digital is growing rapidly in our business, so we see a level of sophistication from our advertisers, they are smarter. When you go to them with a marketing strategy, it should cross multiple platforms.”
Troy Reeb: “Good commercials can make the station sound better. They don’t have to be a tune-out factor. I come from the news world where we know the more local the advertising is in a television newscast, the more likely the ratings are to stay up through the ad breaks because it feels like it is part of your community. On our radio platforms, we have to be thinking the same way. We need advertising to sound like you are reflecting the community back on itself. Locally relevant is still really sticky and still important.”
The strength of radio is what is between the songs.
Geoff Poulton: “We do research in our markets on what our listeners want to listen to when it comes to talk breaks. Not surprisingly, celebrity gossip is dead last. A lot of investment and energy on-air talent and airchecks. I cannot tell you how many times we have been told by talent had never had an aircheck previously. It drives me crazy because at the end of the day that is all we have, our talent. We don’t give them the tools to perform properly.”
Chris Pearson “We have a goal this year to have a personal development plan for every individual in Acadia Broadcasting. We have to do a better job of attracting younger people and putting the cool back in radio. They are the future. I don’t see enough young people in the room at conferences. They have a lot to say. They don’t have all the history that we have; they see things with fresh eyes. Our industry is about the people.”
Troy Reeb: “There was a time when local radio was the place you went to be a star. Now for a lot of younger people that have been replaced by wanting to be a you-tuber or social media star of some kind. Radio needs to be a path to being a star again.”
Where are we going with young audiences?
James Cridland: “Younger audiences are still listening, not as much as they used because there more things out there, but they are listening”
Sherry O’Neil: “From an advertiser perspective, younger tuning is not going over a cliff by any means. The interests of the younger audience need to be well served. We can’t just assume they will stay because there is so much choice and the likelihood of them choosing a digital method for getting their information is a higher risk today.”
Cridland: “When you say ‘digital’ are you referring to ‘on demand’ or is it the device?”
Sherry O’Neil: “Both are issues. Furthermore, capturing the tuning to streaming with all those headphones doesn’t work with PPM. There is a whole measurement issue that has to be addressed as well. There has to be an alternate way of capturing that audience. You guys can’t monetize that audience, and you need to be able to monetize it.”
Geoff Poulton: “We have to completely reinvent how we capture ratings. Not only in a large market, but also in diary markets. The kickback is that it is too expensive. What is the risk of not fixing it? As digital is ever more accountable on the numbers, we are left behind. The fact that we can’t measure listening on headphones without using a stupid ‘dongle’ is just crazy to me. We have to invest energy in this.”
The future of radio lies in its ability to adapt in two ways. It needs to meet the usage needs of today’s younger listeners who were born into a digital world. Their input would be invaluable to forming strategies that will keep radio relevant, regardless of what platform is used to listen to the content. Secondly, the industry needs to develop measuring strategies that can compete in the measurable digital world.