According to reportbacks from the just-concluded NAB Show in Las Vegas, it was a lopsided affair in favor of the future of television. And why not: broadcasters stand to make billions over the next year selling off their spectrum, and those who stay on the air will be rolling out a new digital television standard with new content and datacasting potential.
Meanwhile, the radio industry’s been rocked back on its heels by a slew of bad fiscal news. iHeartMedia, for now, has managed to stave off several billion dollars’ worth of its debt being called in early by angry bond-holders, but the company’s effectively now engaged in increasingly nasty legal maneuvering to decide its debt end-game sooner rather than later. #2 conglomerate Cumulus Media’s still squeezing its broadcast properties also in hopes of keeping bankruptcy at bay. Emmis faces delisting by NASDAQ in early June. Even the relatively fiscally-sound CBS has announced its intent to spin off its entire radio division into a separate company, selling it also seems to be an open option.
This has sparked a flurry of commentary about whether we stand on the verge of a sea-change in how the radio industry does business. Some are calling for the wholesale breakup of the radio conglomerates (good luck with that). Others hope that the “natural” collapse of the conglomerates will reinvigorate radio’s most innovative elements. As audio consumption patterns and platforms change over generations, radio as we’ve known it has no choice but to evolve — which just might involve a significant amount of dying.
Such was the context as radio broadcasters convened in Vegas. The news was grim: according to Tom Taylor, HD Radio system owner DTS reported that it has yet to crack 2,000 stations using the technology in its home market, the U.S. — an adoption rate of less than 12%. He also reports that one presentation declared that “Radio is on a path to extinction in the vehicle,” if autonomous vehicle technology matures as expected over the next decade. Perry Michael Simon described radio’s footprint on the convention floor as confined to “a corner of the North Hall evoking Chip Diller at the end of the parade in ‘Animal House,’ insisting that everyone remain calm and that all is well, while the cool kids are in the Central and South Halls playing with flying stuff and 360 cameras.”
There are two tensions at play here: the first is the potentially imminent industrial reorganization of the radio industry as we’ve known it for the last few decades, while the second involves the inherent limitations of the analog (and digital) broadcast platform. If the future is all about multiplatform interactvity, where on-demand rules the roost, then radio can’t simply continue to keep up the charade that eventually it’ll become part of that; the inherent design of the AM and FM trasnmission network simply doesn’t allow for it. Mimicking such functionality only goes so far.
This is not a beat ’em or join ’em sort of conundrum — it’s more about broadcasters re-embracing the realities of the medium. Personally, I am holding out hope for reinvigoration.