Is Radio Headed For Extinction?

The radio industry is in shock. An absolute coma.

Radio sees the enemy bearing down and closing in, but it doesn't know how to respond. It's frozen in place, unable to move. No defense is being offered, no counter attack.

I'd like to share the story of my industry's panic, because I think there are lessons for everyone about how to respond, and not to respond, to change.

The foe that has radio folks terrified is the Internet. New technologies are encroaching on radio's traditional domain with the same speed that the auto and airline industries once pounded the railroads into near extinction. And radio is mimicking the railroad industry's response to its death knell -- whether from arrogance, fear, or institutional inertia, radio is failing to see that it must embrace the future rather than resist it or run from it.

The story my father always told me about the railroads was that they didn't realize what business they were in. If only they'd known they were in transportation rather than the railroad business, they would have understood that they should be investing in new methods of transportation -- embracing, not ignoring them.

Radio is like that. We're obsessed with our transmitters and towers. They make us think we're in the broadcasting business. To be a broadcaster means having a transmitter, and it means having a license to use it. Since there are a limited number of licenses granted by the FCC, owning one has generally made broadcasters feel pretty good about themselves.

But audio distribution over the Internet is something anyone can do. With 50% of American homes now estimated to have broadband, listening to Internet audio is becoming a common activity. A recent survey indicated that 10% of radio listeners had tuned into a stream in the prior 30 days. No transmitter, no tower, no license required -- which leaves radio facing the same confusion that the railroad guys suffered back in the 1940's.

The radio industry needs to learn that it's in the audio distribution business. In talk radio, my part of the medium, we need to understand that we're in the spoken word programming business. We're not inexplicably linked to transmitters. We can create our programming for whatever distribution tools come along. Really, what do we care how it gets to your ears?

The new options for distributing our material should be viewed as good news by the owners. After all, they're the ones who know the business of creating and distributing programming, and who have contracts employing those of us who are good at creating content.

And the new technologies should also make programmers and their talent happy. More audio distribution methods should mean more demand for our entertainment in the long run.

But the fear that radio feels over the encroachment, and the revenues lost to the Internet, are causing radio to pull back rather than to be aggressive. In the short term, this means tighter budgets and fewer jobs. This is exactly the wrong response, of course.

Over recent years, radio has lost audience among those who listen at work or at home. The one place its audience hasn't dropped is in the car. That's radio's domain. Sure, you can listen to an iPod or a CD while in the car, but most people still choose radio, because in the car you want that live connection, especially on the way into work in the morning.

This final frontier is being pierced by other distribution methods that will challenge radio's control. GPS devices are starting to offer traffic reports. Weather, traffic, sports scores and news are available on cell phones. iPhones and other cell phones can already play audio feeds.

How much longer will it be before WiFi, cell technology or some other method of distributing sound will make it possible to listen to an Internet radio in the car, just as I now do at home? Two years? Three? Maybe five? It's hard to know how long it will be, but that day is clearly on the way.

Online radio options, such as Live365 and Pandora are already abundant. And new tools will change the landscape of who can have a radio station, just as the blogosphere has altered our notion of news distribution.

Visit Blog Talk Radio or Web Talk Radio if you want to know how far things have come. This remarkable destinations let's one become a talk host in a matter of minutes, with the needed infrastructure provided for at no charge.

The struggles of the radio industry aren't your concern, of course. It will continue to survive in one form or another, just as the railroads still chug along in a supporting role.

But the exciting part of all this radio industry news is that it isn't about the radio business at all. It's Internet news. All of the tools to have your own radio station, or your own radio show, now exist online. This will lead to the transformation of how we conceive of websites.

The old fashioned concept of a website went something like this -- "a web site is a set of documents (called 'web pages') that you can view via a computer network called the Internet."

While factually accurate, this description hardly tells the story.

I think of websites as community centers. Like a Starbucks on the Internet. You drop into an environment where you can sit and feel comfortable. Stay as long as you wish, enjoy music that you like in an environment that's designed to match your tastes. It's your home away from home. Social networking is the hot thing because people are looking for community.

Whatever sort of business you are running, I believe your approach to your website will soon have audio as a vital element.

Consider a garden shop.

The website now might contain the normal directions, phone number and branding information, an online store and maybe some literature on how to plant. Imagine how much more interesting and compelling the site becomes when it adds an audio blogging component from Convocast that allows visitors to listen to a prerecorded tip on planting from the garden shop owner, then record questions in their own voice with the click of the mouse.

The owner of my hypothetical garden shop can do a weekly podcast in which he discusses with members of his staff techniques for planting or other seasonally appropriate topics. These podcasts will sit online as a permanent resource for shoppers.

Imagine the power that a Realtor will gain by distributing short audio messages on new listings to customers who sign up online using the tool offered by Foneshow.

Talk radio will become nearly as common as blogs, making websites more powerful and enticing.

Perhaps I should have seen all this coming. But for me, newly cognizant of the power of the web for distributing audio programming, this is a profound discovery that is shaping my sense of where my industry, and my career, are headed.

While I understand the fear of many in my industry, the model for how not to respond is right there for us to look at in the history of the railroads. The fact that our world is growing bigger, and spilling out into a much larger, more accessible domain, isn't grounds for concern, its motivation to get moving.

Can you say "All Aboard!"

Todd Feinberg is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host. He blogs at Barackswhitelies.com.