This was the first year that I’ve actually attended the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual radio convention. Though I have been to two as a protester: the first in San Francisco in 2000 to let the industry know people were unhappy with their evisceration of LPFM, and again in Seattle in 2002 to culture-jam the airwaves and emphasize the continued vibrancy of electronic civil disobedience.
This time around, I figured things might be different, because I’ve grown a lot in the intervening years, left the radio industry for academia, and just wrote a book about one of the industry’s most pressing problems. Instead, I came away with the uncomfortable realization that the industry remains the purview of a bunch of old white guys wholly detached from reality and happy to keep things that way.
It started on the first day I arrived in Indianapolis. The second panel I attended provided an update about ongoing tests with all-digital AM-HD broadcasting. Convention badges at the NAB Radio Show have barcodes, and they scan you at the door of every session. It’s a clever way to track session attendance and I’m sure works wonders for conference logistics. I got to the session ~15 minutes early, not many people were there, so I sat smack dab in the middle of the room.
Five minutes before the session was to begin, a gaggle of guys from the HD Radio display in the convention’s exhibition hall came into the room, dressed in identical HD Radio t-shirts. They proceeded to sit down all around me—didn’t say anything, just made sure that I was properly sequestered. Message received.
After the session (which was all puppies and unicorns, and there was hardly any time for questions to the panel), I went up to the panelists to pick their brains. They took one look at my badge and their faces crinkled in disgusted surprise: "Oh, so YOU’RE the guy who wrote THE BOOK." Conversations devolved from there:
"Your first chapter was so politically imbalanced that it sullied the rest of your work." Sorry to hear that, but my research focuses on the political economy of communications, an inherently critical research discipline, and I’m using the story of radio’s digital transition to tell a larger story about the brokenness of your industry and the policymaking process.
"By only sampling Radio World and Current you didn’t get a full idea of the range of debate that existed on HD Radio." Oh, you mean there was a better semblance of industry consensus in other trade publications? "That’s not what I said." So what did I miss? "Your analysis was just skewed, that’s all."
What about my conceptualization of the policy discourse itself at the FCC? "Oh, that was fine." So, the meat of the book, including the abject corruption of the policymaking process, was okay? "Yeah, but the rest of your book dirtied what you tried to do." All told, I think I might have made a dozen book sales, and if so that was worth the cost of going.
The rest of the conference was similarly strange. Notable observations:
1. I listened to a general manager of a station cluster bitch in a session about station promotions about how annoying it was that his promo people spent so much time on social media. Several of us in the audience shared glances: this is 2014, after all.
2. I sat in on a "super session" called "From the Control Room to the Board Room," featuring CBS Radio CEO Dan Mason and
Clear Channel iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman. They reminisced about how they got their starts in radio as DJs, and treated the audience to early airchecks of their golden throats from the 1970s. Pittman—who helped found MTV, got in on the AOL gravy train back when it was extremely lucrative, and is now working to reinvent Clear Channel iHeartMedia (while keeping its $20 billion in corporate debt at bay)—spoke wistfully about how he and Mason got their starts at "itty bitty" stations where people were allowed to spread their wings on the air. "Yeah," I thought. "Until you and your kind killed those stations off."
3. I heard some advertising "professional" deliver a conference keynote full of straight-up misconceptions about how advertising actually works. His point was to assure the assembled radio managers and execs that their business models were unassailable, and that the influx of new advertising competition from the online media explosion was just a flash in the pan. Mark Ramsey and Perry Michael Simon have already flailed this doofus to an adequate degree, but the speech was indicative of the fat-and-happy self-delusion that permeated the entire event.
4. Members of the NAB lobbying corps and FCC staffers were nearly in each others’ laps at a session about political advertising. "Show me the money!" was a popular refrain, and the NAB and FCC folks actually had nicknames for each other. Despite the deleterious effects that a massive influx of money in politics has had on our democracy in recent election cycles, in Indianapolis this was a bright spot for an industry whose year-over-year revenue is expected to be flat for the foreseeable future, and whose primary lament is not burdensome regulation but a "lack of access to capital."
If there was one "star" of the Radio Show, it was NextRadio—the Emmis-developed app that allows you to listen to actual FM signals on your smartphone (provided your smartphone has the capability to actually receive FM signals). Not because NextRadio is going gangbusters, though: a Sprint representative at the Radio Show reported that users of the app skew male and younger than 44, and the average time they spend listening is just 15 minutes.
That did not dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm for the latest shiny thing that they are sure will break radio into the 21st century and put it on par with other technologies and systems which are co-opting the identity of "radio" itself.
I had a chance to ask Paul Brenner, Emmis’ Chief Technology Officer, about NextRadio’s future. One obvious improvement to the app would be allowing listeners to switch seamlessly between a station’s FM signal and their online stream, especially as listeners travel outside of their local stations’ coverage areas. "Never going to happen," Brenner told me.
Why not? A plethora of reasons: other broadcasters would see this as unfair competition and pull their support from the NextRadio effort (for example,
Clear Channel iHeartMedia would see such a move as a threat to its iHeartRadio streaming aggregator), and wireless carriers would also be unhappy as it would cut into their own bottom lines to some unarticulated degree.
"But as a listener, it makes sense," I replied. Then again, the listener is not at the center of the decision-cycle…and this is a common problem within the industry more broadly. That said, NextRadio has meetings scheduled with other wireless carriers about adopting the app as a default install on their phones—but "no negotiations yet." The good news is, those carriers aren’t asking for millions in tribute like Sprint got, and Brenner doesn’t think that deal will set a precedent.
On balance, the NAB Radio Show is definitely more fun to be at as a protester than attendee. And if this is actually the prevailing mentality of the modern radio industry, then I still worry about the future of a medium that’s served us so well for nearly 100 years.