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Is terrestrial AM radio going to survive?
On Bluetooth receivers, network radio from the Bob Hope era, and why inertia alone just isn't good enough
Consultant Fred Jacobs notes: "Even among [...] core radio listeners, Bluetooth edges out FM radio (for the second year in a row), while AM is back in the pack. Fewer than one-third say AM radio is a 'very important' feature in their next vehicle."
■ The reason this is potentially catastrophic? More than 40% of radio listening happens in the car. If you lose access to 40% of your current market, that's a catastrophe.
■ The only real obstacle to a bigger presence for digital streaming to the car is that it's still clunky and obstacle-ridden. That's a user-interface problem, and it's one that the streamers have all kinds of incentive to fix. Listeners overwhelmingly want Bluetooth in the car already; they just want it to be easier to use.
■ Radio's problem is different: As Jacobs also notes, "[I]n too many markets, AM stations are doing blessedly little to invest in serious content." That's a prospective death knell. If your particular content is only able to compete because it saves the listener a couple of button presses (perhaps two or three at most), then that advantage is on borrowed time at best.
■ Radio's core advantage has always been its dual promise of immediacy and locality: Its ability to be right here, right now. But a lot of stations no longer bother to try to be "live and local", or all too often, even to be just one of those things. Meanwhile, the electrification of everything (including cars) is infecting AM broadcasts with more static than ever.
■ Syndicated programming held some attraction for a while, when it was of higher quality than what could be produced locally, and when it served to create a sense of place across a continental nation. 85 years ago, AM radio networks were delivering live sports, scripted dramas, premiere news coverage, and educational programming. National quality was hard to match with local resources.
■ But those advantages have been mostly surrendered (voluntarily), while the leading disadvantages (heavy commercial spot loads) remain -- in an hour of clock time, a widely-listened-to host like Dave Ramsey is only producing 39 minutes of content. Podcasts don't waste that much time -- and they can be started and stopped at will, rewound, or sped up. It takes a lot of programming quality to compete with those listener conveniences.
■ We can get sentimental about what radio used to be ("WKRP" and "NewsRadio" were closer to documentaries than you might think), but the plain fact is that consumer expectations have risen. If the product quality doesn't rise to meet those expectations, then all the incumbent producers are really selling is inertia.
It’s only as bad now as it will ever be. This will be better soon.