Google makes so many announcements about so many things that you may have missed that it has joined forces with Clear Channel Entertainment to make radio advertising quicker, easier, and even more ubiquitous than it already is.
In a nutshell, the alliance with Clear Channel is designed to give Google’s advertisers the ability to buy radio ads online with a simple click of the mouse.
“Radio is greatly undermonetized,” explained Google CEO Eric Schmit in a USA Today interview with Jefferson Graham. “Look at the time people spend listening to radio, versus the money currently being spent to advertise on radio — it’s out of whack. Radio can be so much bigger.”
Well, what’s out of whack is the idea that bigger is better in radio. In radio, bigger is never better because the beauty of the medium is in its intimacy. In radio, smaller is better.
As a former local-radio announcer, I learned this first-hand. Being on the air is a strange and wonderful experience. I was alone in a room, for all intents and purposes talking to myself, and yet I was heard by thousands of people at a time.
During a break, I’d pick up the phone. On the line is a listener — a total stranger — who would speak to me as if I were the closest of friends. And why not? That’s the way I had been speaking to the listener. Radio’s true power is in that kind of one-to-one communication.
The commercials sandwiched between the music and my patter did not capitalize on that connection. More often than not, the ads undermined it.
There’s nothing new about this. The fact that the power of radio as an advertising medium is a function of the credibility of its on-air personalities is almost as old as Arthur Godfrey (who would be 103 if he were still alive.)
Curiously, even as Clear Channel is teaming up with Google to clog the airwaves with more and more commercials, one of its stations — KZPS-FM in Dallas, Texas — is heading in the opposite direction.
As reported by Sarah McBride in The Wall Street Journal, KZPS is killing its commercials and replacing them with a sponsorship model. The station’s sales manager, Kelly Kibler, believes that ultimately listeners will prefer a station without the usual commercial clutter and that eventually the payoff will be big.
Kelly says she got the idea while contemplating KZPS’s format change from classic rock to a new approach dubbed Lone Star, which combines rock and country and avoids “hyped chitchat between songs.”
As she explains: “If there’s no hype on the air, and then we break into a commercial for a new car dealer who’s going to be yelling ‘Hey, come on down!’ that’s going to negate the no-hype image… I started thinking about how I could model the advertising my way and not have it be done the traditional cookie-cutter way.”
Having worked while a Boston University student on public radio’s “Car Talk,” Kelly thought it would be cool to do the commercials the way they do them on public radio, but with just a little bit more attitude.
And so sponsors buy an hour, during which they get four mentions lasting just 10-15 seconds each, delivered, patter-style, by the station’s DJs. The cost to sponsor an hour, says Kelly, is “no more than buying four 30-second ‘island’ spots in the same time-frame on its classic-rock predecessor.”
Clear Channel’s J.D. Freeman believes it’s just a matter of time before the KZPS approach proves its worth: “I think what you’re going to see is this moving onto stations around the country,” he says.
Here’s hoping he’s right about that. Here’s also hoping that KZPS is watching what’s going on over at KEXP in Seattle. You may have heard of KEXP, an experimental radio station that has been exploring radio’s true potential for some 35 years.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen provides funding for the station via his Experience Music Project, a museum of music he built in Seattle. Originally, KEXP was a radio station doubling as a technology laboratory, but it may turn out to be a model for the future of radio itself.
Over the years, KEXP has introduced a range of innovations, such as the ability to broadcast CD-quality music and to archive broadcasts online so that listeners can tune to their favorite programs at their convenience.
In the process, KEXP has become something more than a bunch of geeks fiddling around with technology, because they are doing so within the larger context of a mission to bring more music into more people’s lives.
According to an article by Brier Dudley in the Seattle Times, KEXP’s Tom Marra says the station is now contemplating “some type of social network for its listeners, so they can discuss new music and perhaps share photos and videos.”
Something similar is already happening online at music-oriented social-network sites like Mog.com and Last.fm, which not only enable members to meet other people with similar musical tastes, but also view music videos based on the songs in their music libraries.
Of course, such dreams will die a quick death if the record industry persists in its plans to triple the royalties required to play music online.
In the meantime, in another interesting experiment, UltraRadio.com operates an online-only, classic-rock radio station out of a storefront in New Haven, Connecticut. Backed by 16 investors, a former radio ad-sales guy named Randy Borovsky based his station on building a community.
UltraRadio does accept ads — albeit just six minutes of spots per hour versus 12 to 15 on broadcast radio. Even more important, as reported in The New York Times, the station has become “a centerpiece of the local rock scene, playing music from any one of more than 150 Connecticut bands at least once an hour and nothing but local music for eight hours overnight.”
That’s not unlike what radio great ‘Murray the K’ did back in the 1950s and 1960s.
In an essay published by Reveries.com, Peter Altschuler, one of Murray’s sons, said that when his famous father wasn’t on the air, “he was in clubs listening to what his audience was listening to — before they were listening to it on the air, before the groups had recording contracts, before their first record was cut. It was field research of the most basic kind.”
When radio is approached with that kind of intensity, with such extraordinary, personal dedication to the interests of its audience, its ability to sell to that audience is hard to match.
Unfortunately, as Elvis Costello sang, “… radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin’ to anaesthetize the way that you feel.”
And, sadly, if Google succeeds in using the power of the internet to jam radio’s airwaves with more and more irrelevant ads, it will make the medium weaker, not stronger. It will disrupt the very thing that makes radio great. It will drive yet another wedge between radio and its listeners, and make radio even less relevant as a medium for marketing tomorrow than it is today.