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A conversation with Doc Searls on the future of radio

thought leaders logo 02Doc Searls is an author and a fellow of the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His 2012 book The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, postulates a digital marketplace where power is wielded more by buyers than sellers. An earlier book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, was co-authored by Searls, who contributed a central manifesto point: “Markets Are Conversations.”

Searls has a lifelong love of radio, and recently posted a stern but hopeful prescription for the future of broadcasting on his blog: How to rescue radio. His admonitions reflect Searls’ respect for the governing influence of consumer choice, and a belief in relating to users as individuals, not populations. (“Think in terms of relationships, and not just listeners.”)

We Skyped with Doc Searls just before the holidays about radio, programming, and the future.


RAIN: One of your prescriptions for radio is about unique programming. You wrote, “If you’re running what dozens or hundreds of other stations are running, you’re just a relay.” Do you see examples of unique programming?


Yes, I do: PRX. Public radio gets very short shrift compared to commercial radio. When I was in the biz, Arbitron buried public radio — it was like dark matter. Now it is exposed. WTOP in Wash DC is the top-billing station in the country. But [public station] WAMU beats them, without ever getting mentioned in the trades.

Some of the most interesting things are happening in public radio. It takes place in podcasting and small broadcasting around the world. There’s a podcast called The Roadhouse — “All the greatest blues you’ve never heard.” It’s podsafe music, non-RIAA, and not restricted by the copyright regime that makes music podcasting largely impossible.

What PRX has is a huge variety of programming. PRX has a channel on Sirius. One program is Remix, a kind of “best of.” The Moth Radio Hour, which is storytelling, is like a low-tech TED. It’s really compelling. The PRX portfolio is enormous. Public radio isn’t all NPR — NPR is the anchor tenant. Like Sears or Macys in a mall.

The interesting thing about public– it does not have a conflicted biz model. In [commercial] radio, the consumers and customers are different populations. Listeners and advertisers. In public radio, even though only 10 percent [of listeners] pay for it, that’s enough. It’s a business model. The stations are beholden to listeners, not advertisers. The underwriters are listeners, too. They’re not supporting because they want that population buying their stuff. They see an affinity.

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“Public radio gets very short shrift compared to commercial radio.”

“In commercial radio, the consumers and customers are different populations: listeners and advertisers. In public radio, the stations are beholden to listeners, not advertisers.”

“PRX has a huge variety of programming.”

RAIN: You also suggest that radio should think in terms of relationships, not just listeners. A recent study determined that radio stations do this poorly in social media.


It’s a problem radio has always had. They don’t have the same respect for passive listeners as active customers. But being social is 2009 at this point. I think it’s important in a checkbox kind of way to be on Facebook, and to have a Twitter stream — if you have programming that’s interesting in a way that can be tweeted. But for the homogenous stations in a formats that don’t have anything additional to say, it almost doesn’t matter.

In the long run, as radio turns into all programs, rather than all formats, those programs will have listeners that want to hear about them, and have involvement. That’s at odds with the notion of scale, and having high ratings. We’re at the tail end of the mass marketing and mass media era, which is an artifact of the industrial revolution, and is obsolete in the info revolution. Everybody participates; everybody is a producer and consumer. Nobody is a template — that’s the hardest thing for those in mass marketing to get their heads around.

Every one of us is as different as our faces and fingerprints. That needs to be respected in a world where our faces and prints can produce not just consume. Commercial radio has never done that. It has always been a necessary organ of mass marketing. It has to remain a mass marketing medium to some extent, and has to treat its listeners as templates, even while the audience needs to be engaged. How do you do both? Some stations will do nothing except mass marketing, except an occasional shine of listener involvement. Others will be highly involved, for which the mass marketing side of it is one of many expressions they have, rather than the main way they operate. That’s why public radio and PRX are the future. And they know it. They know what they’re doing because their rubber is on the road — the listeners.

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“Being social is 2009 at this point.”

“We’re at the tail end of the mass marketing and mass media era, which is an artifact of the industrial revolution, and is obsolete in the information revolution.”

“Public radio and PRX are the future. And they know it. They know what they’re doing because their rubber is on the road — the listeners.”

RAIN: What does the future of radio programming hold?


A more fractured landscape than we have now. Demographics will drive it. The generation coming up now doesn’t listen to radio. They don’t care. When they do, they listen to programs, not stations. Our grandchild is 17, and is our window to the next generation. The only station he likes is the Emerson College radio station. And he only likes one program on that station.

Everything is an accessory to everything else. With radio — how do you make the seamless connection between analog over the air, the anchor, to other anchors that are forming? Online is one way, podcasting is one way. How do you bridge them so they are all one world?

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“The generation coming up now doesn’t listen to radio. They don’t care. When they do, they listen to programs, not stations.”

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