A Vision for the Future

In the past several weeks, our world has been rocked by the premature (as it turned out) rumor that automakers were thinking about phasing out over-the-air broadcast radio as mobile Internet becomes more and more practical. (Even the original rumormonger has recanted, but the handwriting is on the wall—or, perhaps we should say that the handwriting-recognition is on the tablet.)

And now this: your friendly future-shocker is telling you that unless you establish a strong beachhead online pretty soon, you could lose the entire ball game.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it, the way people get their information is changing—and from my vantage point, interacting with small-market broadcasters on a regular basis, it’s changing much more rapidly than I thought it would.

As charming and avuncular as your venerable morning host might be—or as hilarious as your bad-boy team beamed in from goodness knows where—there is simply no need for your listeners to wait any length of time whatever to get their news, sports, weather and other community events. If you’re not serving that information online, the chances are somebody else is—or soon will be.

At the very least, there is a dichotomy, a growing chasm, between what your listener gets from listening and what your listener gets from surfing. Sure, people still want that charm and hilarity, but radio is losing ground as the instant disseminator of information. Radio is and always has been linear—you have to listen to things sequentially—whereas the Internet is not, and the Internet is much instanter at delivering information on demand.

So the first thing we have to establish is, your online presence is important. Can you make money at it? Of course you can—if you make it a priority.

The second thing we have to establish, as the foregoing articles point out, is that we live in a visual world, and thank goodness we have a medium at our disposal that allows us to dive in to that visual world. Not to take full advantage of that means that you are going to cede your position in the community—maybe not now, maybe not this year, but there’s a good chance it’ll sneak up on you so fast you won’t know what hit you.

Fortunately, most of our old-medium compadres are even slower on the uptake than we are. Larger newspapers get it, but they are having trouble making money with it. Smaller newspapers don’t get it for the most part, and their online efforts reflect it.

The people who do get it are those who are starting from scratch, generally younger people who are asking, “What’s the best way of disseminating information and entertainment to our community today?” A quick Franklin list will reveal that the answer is not investing in a printing press and paper, or in an FCC license and transmitting facilities, but rather in a well-designed website and a small band of energetic stringers.

So why not you? What if you were to set up a separate operating unit, separately or jointly staffed, for your online enterprises? What if you were to treat that unit the way you would one of your radio stations? In other words, you might use that unit strategically, in combination with others to generate revenues—or, at times, that unit might generate revenue on its own.

We in radio have arguably the best tool set for succeeding on the web. What holds us back is a combination of a lack of faith and a lack of commitment. It occurs to me that these are the same failings that kept some of us from embracing FM radio when it was in its infancy and nobody was making any money at it. (Some would argue that it is also analogous to HD.)

If you approach it correctly, you can change your culture, establish that online beachhead, preempt potential competitors, make a little money now, and make a lot of money later. Sounds good to me.