Thursday, April 9, 2009

Conflict of Opportunity

Small market radio has always lived hand to mouth, and our current economic “opportunities” have not improved the situation. Even when a small-market broadcaster achieves some scale, with some to many stations in his or her group, the practical, manage-by-checkbook mentality never quite goes away.

But small market radio is inhabited nowadays by a different breed as well—actually, two different breeds. One is the large- or medium-market operators who invested their investor money in a bunch of small stations, thinking they were just smaller versions of their kind of radio. Some have adapted; some have not. The other breed is the small-market-at-heart operators who rapidly got to be big group operators—often losing heart in the process.

I don’t believe any of the breeds so described are more or less capable of success in the small-market sand-box, but each breed responds differently—whether due to mindset or circumstance—to the challenges and opportunities before us.

But wait—there’s a fourth breed afoot as well. Take, for example, our friend Peter Smythe. Peter is a big-market guy with big-market stations in his group, but he’s a small-market guy at heart. (In other words, we small market folks would say he’s a real broadcaster; his words and actions are those of someone who knows what local radio is all about.)

But where the Peter Smythes and his well-funded brethren differ from most of us today is, well, that well-funded part. And nowhere is that more evident than in his essay about the importance of webcasting to radio.

The wonderful, magnanimous streaming-fees concession made recently—over which not a few in our industry are back-slapping and congratulating themselves—changes absolutely nothing. It’s a joke. No, it’s an insult—that some people in our industry are so out of touch with small market radio to think this is a victory. (To be fair, many of our small-market leaders are still on the case, viewing the latest episode as progress but by no means a win.)

I think the rest of the industry has gotten the small-market memo about HD: pass. As important as it might be from an industry public-relations perspective, it is the last thing small market operators want to spend money on—even when they have it.

But webcasting is a different story. I applaud those who are paying the proverbial two dollars to stream their broadcasts on the Internet, even if selectively. (Interestingly, as we note in this issue’s lead story, a small station on Long Island has been streaming 24/7 for years; such was the passion and commitment of its late owner.)

Fifteen years ago, as XM was launching “Rock” and “Roll” to fearsome fanfare, some of us were saying that satellite radio was at best a transitional technology; today, even the hobbled merged remnants of that business realize their future is on the web. (But really, why pay them when you can get anything you want online for free?)

In the early days of what is now known as HD—a decade or more before the first receiver was sold (in Cedar Rapids, IA, I note with some perverse home-boy pride)—I asked my buddy, the director of engineering at Gannett, who was part of the ad-hoc consortium that eventually birthed the technology, “Is this anything, really?” (That was not the first time I was reminded that you never ask an engineer if his/her latest bright, shiny object has real-world relevance.)

So, the scoreboard reads thus:

Feeble attempts to supplant the hegemony of the Internet: 0
The Internet: 2

Paul Harvey Wannabe?

All of which is my wordy way of saying. . .

  • The Internet is vitally important to us.
  • We should do everything we can to put lots of our audio online.
  • We should plan to put all our audio online as soon as we can—and then some.
  • We should raise our disproportionately-loud small-market voice to ensure that the industry powers that be understand the streaming-fee battle is far from over.

Or, in the slightly less-wordy words of Chancellor Churchill, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.”

Come to think of it, Sir Winston would have made a heckuva small-market broadcaster.