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The runway isn't infinite
On a provocative question: Is it shooting yourself in the foot to take money from your competitors?
Broadcasting consultant Fred Jacobs poses the provocative question, "Did radio shoot itself in the foot by allowing satellite broadcaster SiriusXM to become a top-10 advertiser?" The question seems reasonably easy to answer if taken directly: It usually isn't a great business model to not only accept advertising from one of your fiercest competitors, but to allow that competitor to become a significant source of revenue.
■ There are mitigating factors to consider, too, not least of which is the painful state of radio advertising revenues in general. When you're in a market that has suffered double-digit percentage declines over the last two decades, it's not a particularly opportune time to go about picking and choosing your customers.
■ But the more interesting question isn't "Did radio shoot itself in the foot?", but rather "How would a thriving medium relate to its rivals?"
■ It's not a question exclusive to radio, either. The entire media economy in the United States is under strain; a newspaper reporter just posted a picture of her $396.12 weekly take-home pay, which would suggest a net income of $9.90 per hour -- for an occupation almost exclusively reserved for those with college degrees. Many newspapers are spiraling, taking extraordinary steps like eliminating print editions (as the Des Moines Register is doing on Saturdays), and while local television revenues appear to be holding to a more modest decline, they're not bathing in champagne, either.
■ So, how would thriving media relate with one another? Surely one step would be for each to specialize in its own strengths. Local radio broadcasting has an inherent advantage over other media in its immediacy and locality -- since it can be produced with nothing more than a voice and a microphone, it will forever have the upper hand when it comes to being right here, right now -- wherever that may be. Local television has the advantage when it comes to appealing to the human urge to look at beautiful things, especially when those things are familiar. It's no accident that Frank Magid found the sweet spot in serving up punchy, fast-paced news programs delivered by teams of good-looking anchors. Local newspapers have the inherent advantage that they serve (often literally) as the records of a community. People still save front pages, clip out profiles and sightings of "names in the paper", and expect that they can catch up on a week's worth of news by scanning a week's worth of headlines. The very periodicity of the printed edition of a newspaper remains one of its chief advantages.
■ But all of these media are in competition with national and even international outlets, many of them able to use economies of scale to their advantage. SiriusXM, the satellite broadcaster, bought the Pandora streaming service, and the New York Times is shelling out half a billion dollars to buy the online sports outlet The Athletic. These kinds of combinations tend to accrue talent, and that makes it increasingly difficult for smaller outlets to compete on a head-to-head basis. If a person wants to know about major-league sports news in general, it's hard for a local sports editor or anchor to deliver something better than competitors with the resources of ESPN or the New York Times.
■ For those smaller outlets to thrive requires that they abandon hopes of competing head-to-head with the homogenized national outlets -- the 300 million smartphones in service in the United States don't leave a lot of people without access -- and instead plunge their resources into doing what national-scale outlets cannot. With tools like local advertising insertions into streaming media already long-established, it's not long before some of those outlets will learn how to insert locally focused content, too.
■ But that's where the incumbent local outlets still have a head start: They have residual brand recognition from decades of established presence in their communities, and a limited window in which to ensure that those brands are durable into the future. It takes the investment not just of money but also of energy -- that hard-to-define characteristic of driving hard into a job, for the good of doing it well.
■ For a brief remaining window (perhaps a few years, perhaps a decade or a little longer, but probably not two decades), those incumbents still have the capacity to define what it means to be from a place. That takes more than just ranking the "Top Ten Local Stories of 2021" or soliciting readers' feedback about the "40 Under 40". It requires taking a chance on defining habits, norms, behaviors, tastes, and other idiosyncrasies -- and accepting the risk that local audiences won't unthinkingly go along with those choices.
■ Those are things that satellite radio can't do from Manhattan and Gannett can't do from DC. And if they're done well, creatively, and boldly, they should leave those local outlets with enough reach -- and perhaps enough courage -- to willingly exist alongside big rivals. Maybe even enough to let the rivals with deep pockets come along and drop some revenues in local coffers. Local media outlets have some time left on the clock, but the longer they wait to try original, place-defining things, the harder the ultimate climb. The real way for them to shoot themselves in the foot is to fail to strive.