Il suicidio della radio

La radio tradizionale si sta suicidando perché non capisce che nella concorrenza con Internet e gli altri mezzi deve avere il coraggio di crescere

Radio Passioni

In un lungo commento sul blog della Consumer Electronics of America, il direttore dell’associazione Dave Wilson arriva a una conclusione abbastanza condivisibile, ma non nelle premesse e nelle possibili contromisure. La radio tradizionale, è la tesi di Wilson, si sta suicidando perché non capisce che nella concorrenza con Internet e gli altri mezzi deve avere il coraggio di crescere. Deve attaccare, non difendersi contro nemici così agguerriti. Wilson scrive di aver capito che la radio sta rischiando grosso quando la sua associazione ha “scoperto” che per Natale gli americani chiedono in regalo lettori MP3, ricevitori satellitari e smartphone. E come ricetta per un rilancio suggerisce ai broadcaster di chiedere nuove frequenze e moltiplicare quelle esistenti con le tecniche digitali stile IBOC (Wilson sa il fatto suo, visto che è proprietario di due stazioni FM).
Il discorso mi sembra un po’ pretestuoso. La radio si sta spegnendo perché i nuovi media le fanno una concorrenza spietata su fronti che la radio si ostina ottusamente a presidiare, come le hit parade di grandi successi (invece di fare dello scouting di nuovi talenti) e i notiziari generici. I commenti che già si leggono sul blog della CEA puntano piuttosto sulla qualità dei programmi e il localismo come fattori di rilancio e un lettore fa notare a Wilson che le radio non si vendono a Natale perché nelle case ce ne sono abbastanza. E che sarebbe ora che qualcuno cominciasse a trasmettere qualcosa che valga la pena di ascoltare.

Video Was Framed, Radio Committed Suicide

By Dave Wilson

Investigators looking into the death of radio have concluded that the Buggles were wrong.Video was not the culprit.Neither was satellite radio, nor the music industry,as radio’s 911 call led many to believe. It now appears that radio’s wounds were self inflicted, and the obvious question many are asking is, “why?”

Of course radio is still alive and strong today, but the preceding paragraph could easily be the beginning of free local radio’s final chapter, written sometime in the future. Let’s consider how radio could be the cause of its own demise.
USA Today recently reported that consumer adoption of HD Radio® has been slower than some expected. HD Radio is the technology that free local radio broadcasters are counting on to bring them into the digital age. It allows each local radio station to broadcast a digital signal along with its analog one. This is somewhat similar to the way cable companies are now providing phone and internet service over the same cables that bring TV service into your living room. Digital signals are squeezed into a “pipe” that used to carry nothing but analog.
The USA Today article may be slightly misleading, for CEA’s own research suggests that consumers are not passionate about AM/FM receivers in general. That is, perhaps the “HD” has nothing to do with it. In late 2007 CEA conducted a study to help it predict what products would be most in demand during the important holiday shopping season. People were asked what consumer electronics product they would most like to receive as a gift. They were not prompted with a list of pre-selected choices. The number one response? Portable MP3/digital audio player. Among the other audio-related responses were in-dash satellite radio and satellite radio generally in no specific form. Smart phone, cell phone and iPhone were also mentioned. What percentage of people said they wanted an AM/FM tuner? Zero. An AM/FM receiver? Zero. An AM/FM radio for their car? Zero. A clock or table radio? Zero. A portable AM/FM radio? Zero. Perhaps consumers’ interest in free local radio, in general, is waning.
And who can blame consumers? Let’s consider the things drawing them away from free local radio. Satellite radio offers hundreds more channels than free local radio. Internet radio offers thousands more channels than free local radio. GPS devices let consumers get traffic and weather information instantly, without having to wait for the next report on free local radio. And the list goes on. Competition from new services and radio’s own lack of expansion are the main reasons consumers are looking elsewhere.
As an industry radio has traditionally been afraid of expansion and terrified of new competitors. Of course fear of new competition is natural, but new competition is a fact of life that everyone must deal with. Unfortunately, it seems to me that radio sometimes deals with it by running to the government and requesting regulatory roadblocks that will keep new competitors at bay. While that may seem wrong to some, at least we can understand radio’s fear of new competition, and it’s not like it’s the only industry that seeks government interference in the free market for the purpose of blocking competition.
What’s hard to understand is radio’s fear of expansion. Eighteen years ago its trade association hatched a plan to have new spectrum allocated for radio so that radio could expand and grow into the digital age. But the industry revolted, largely because such a plan would have narrowed the difference in signal quality between the highest powered FM stations and the lowest powered AMs. That’s right, radio tends to oppose improvements in its own service that would enable stations with poorer coverage to gain too much competitive ground on stations with great coverage, or that would allow new local programming to come on the air. [Pohlmann, Ken C.; Principles of Digital Audio; McGraw-Hill Professional; 2005; p. 647]
It seems to me that radio’s desire to block new competition at all costs, including lack of expansion of its own service, may have an unfortunate side effect – a loss of focus on radio’s own customers. My concern is best illustrated in this quote from Bob Botik, a broadcaster, in the early years of digital radio development. “What is under debate here is not what is logical or simple or in the best interest of all, but what is best for America’s current owners and operators, screw the rest of the world.” [Huff, W. A. Kelly; Regulating the Future: Broadcasting Technology and Governmental Control; Greenwood Publishing Group; 2001; p.77] When you separate people into two groups, America’s current radio station owners and everyone else, I’m afraid that consumers fall into the category of everyone else. Taking care of customers is the key to any business’ success.
What’s amazing to me is that even after all this time, with all of the new competition that radio faces, the industry seems to be taking additional steps to prevent its own service from expanding. The wireless industry is out there buying up as much spectrum as it can to provide wireless internet service everywhere, most recently buying up UHF TV spectrum that will be vacated next year when analog television is turned off. Soon wireless spectrum will be used even more effectively as direct competition for radio’s drive time listeners. There are thousands of internet radio stations out there, and hundreds of satellite radio stations. Yet radio actively opposes any efforts to obtain new spectrum that would enable it to provide better service to consumers. Just this summer the NAB Radio Board adopted a resolution opposing the use of television channels 5 and/or 6 for radio broadcasting after analog TV signals are turned off. Think of the great new services radio could provide if it were to unleash the full potential of HD Radio with 100 percent digital service in channels 5 and 6, or in some other spectrum.
Radio’s like a ball team whose players are all focused on their individual stats, out there competing with one another. I fear we don’t care enough about the team winning, and I know we should be focusing on the fans because the other teams keep scoring and we have to wonder how much longer the fans will keep showing up.
Radio needs to focus more on serving today’s modern consumers — no one wants to read its obituary any time soon.

Editor’s Note: In addition to being Sr. Director, Technology & Standards at CEA, Dave Wilson is also the owner/operator of two FM radio stations on the North Carolina coast.

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