2024 Could (Should?) Be A Good Year For Radio

The credits are rolling on another NAB Show.  But this one feels different.  The old metrics and typical questions (Were there a lot of people there?  Which CEOs spoke and what did they say?  What kind of deals were being rumored?) either weren’t being bandied about this year or have simply been forgotten in the swirl of events and technology – past, present, and future.  

In that light, Paul Jacobs picks up the JacoBLOG keyboard to offer his view of the proceedings.  Like me, he’s been to too many of these gatherings to count. 

But the lack of a “Radio  Show” makes it more difficult to get a sense for the mood, the vibe, and the outlook.  For the past several years, Jacobs Media has co-sponsored a cocktail party for radio people, in collaboration with Beasley, Radio Ink, vCreative, Quu, Skyview Networks, and Benztown.  Every year is better attended than the last, with radio people enthusiastically hanging out with each other.  It was an energetic gathering, but questions remain about what’s ahead in 2024.

As we all contemplate an uncertain future in radio, many broadcasters might settle for a better showing in 2024, especially after a (mostly) sluggish first quarter.  So give Paul your undivided attention as he attempts to make the point that we just might be headed for a good year.  Maybe.  – FJ

2024 Could  (Should?) Be A Great Year For Radio

By Paul Jacobs

I’m sure many of you are looking at this headline and think that I’ve lost my mind.  The headlines for radio are pretty negative – bankruptcies, layoffs, AI replacing live DJs, declining revenue and listening levels (especially among young adults), and more.  These aren’t the best of times for our industry.

The entire country isn’t in much better shape.  In January, Gallup released a poll that found for only just the third time in two decades, less than half of Americans are “very satisfied” with the way their life is going.  Every demographic (with the exception of Democrats) has fallen from 2023, indicating how widespread the malaise is.  This shouldn’t surprise any of us, given the way the news, economy, international crisis (I’m writing this as Iran is shooting missiles into Israel), government dysfunction, and more continue to batter us daily.

So, for the sake of argument, I agree that all of these are problems, and if you’ve been directly affected, I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything.  Of course, as the “sales guy” in the company, Fred (the programming guy) always contrasts our personalities as his as “half empty” and mine as “half full.”  I think I’m going to prove that in this post.

I’ve always been a proponent of dealing with the hand you’re dealt, so as the industry gathers in Las Vegas this week (at least those who work from companies that still have a T&E budget), I’m looking at the industry differently.  Not with rose colored glasses, but from the perspective of “what’s good about the radio industry in 2024?”

One more piece.  Fred is cramming to put together two Techsurvey 2024 webinars – one for stakeholders tomorrow and the other for the rest of the radio industry set for next Thursday, April 25 at 2pm ET.  (You can sign up for it here.)  I’ve been looking over Fred’s shoulder, and I can tell you that while the findings are a bit of a mixed bag, there’s a pretty fair amount of good news in this year’s data charts.  So, I’ll be making some references to these “green shoots” in this post.

As I created my list, I decided to look through the lens of the times in which we live, and while 2024 is like any other election year, the intensity is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – and there are still 7 months to go before election day.  So the drumbeat of vitriol, obfuscation, felony trials, ageism, and polarization are sure to continue.

With that happy introduction, here are the elements in which radio can build upon to actually have a successful 2024:

Radio is a great escape agent, something we desperately need now.  In his pre-Christmas holiday blog post in 2020, Fred wrote a short blog post with his holiday message to the industry:  “Two Words: Find Joy.”  If you think things are challenging now, he wrote that post when we were nine months into a pandemic that upended everything in our lives in ways we couldn’t imagine, and concluded the post with these words:  “My wish for you – and all of us – is to find the joy this season, in whatever form or fashion it takes.”

Fast forward to today, and the need to find a brighter side, a happier story, a reason to believe in each other is something great radio stations should aspire to this year as well.  People are growing tired of the news cycle, and are aggressively looking for escape.  If they want to hear about the election, Ukraine, or inflation, they know where to go.  But there are growing indications many Americans are looking to escape, and radio is best-positioned to fill this need.

Why?  Because the medium is always present and available through multiple devices, platforms, and locations.  And personalities have the ability to pivot and take listeners “somewhere else,” which is unparalleled compared to our competitors.  Adjusting the focus of topics, interviews, contests and more can be a valued diversion.  Stations bring joy via radiothons for children’s hospitals and other worthy causes, fundraising for veterans and other groups in need, while marshalling the energy of their community to do good work for those who are in the direst of straits.

Music is an escape with the messages it provides and through its art.  Contests can provide an element of escape as well, as prizes can be aspirational or actually provide escape by taking you to a vacation spot or even backstage to meet an artist.

Positioning your station as an escape valve can have true value this year.

Radio is free, at a time of inflation.  We write about this often in this blog, but as the cost of everything rises, radio remains free.  This isn’t a small thing.  In fact, it’s becoming a much bigger pain point with each passing year, especially since the pandemic.  Every day, the industry provides hours of free entertainment, while our listeners are paying more for everything from eggs to toilet paper.  This is reinforced in our new Techsurvey findings:

And the concept of “free” isn’t just an on-air position – salespeople should highlight this benefit to their clients as well.  It’s one of the main reasons why radio’s reach remains so robust.  For the haters who are gonna hate, radio is going to have a nice long ride thanks in no small part to its value proposition.

And we know from the many focus groups we conduct, people are looking for free things to do, especially parents with young children.  They want to hang out with “like-minded” people, and that can include fans of a station or morning show.  Take that concept of “free” and turn it into a daily, tangible benefit for the audience.

Radio is local, while its competition only aspires to be.  I remember the days when radio stations were in pitched battles with the local newspaper, whose salespeople used to simply wait by the phone for re-orders and their biggest challenge was getting the ad copy on time.  Today, newspapers are shells of their former selves, and local television isn’t much better, leaving the door open for radio to be the dominant provider of solutions to local advertisers.

Concurrently, while radio has competitive listening challenges in the car, not for local advertising, who can’t buy ads on SiriusXM or Spotify.

And then there’s the obvious benefit radio stations provide by being live and local, with personalities who know and reflect the hometown turf.  Find noteworthy stories and people in the market and highlight them on air and on digital platforms.  Humanizing our business by getting our personalities out at events and in front of advertisers reinforces this benefit.  Spring is here – let’s get out there.

Here’s an example.  While living in Detroit for decades has always come with a lot of negative news, the past several years have been filled with joy, and local media (including radio stations) often reflect this.  The city itself has made a tremendous comeback, the Lions are the talk of the NFL, the auto industry is roaring, and we even have 350,000 people coming downtown in ten days for the NFL Draft.  And yes, people think Detroit is worth visiting (trust me, when I’m out of town people ask me about it – something that hasn’t happened in decades).

So be a champion for your local market.  Find the wonderful reasons why people call it home, and highlight all of the ways audiences can escape.  Develop an “Escape Events Guide” – all the places folks can go, from farmers markets to art fairs – and include them on your web page, mobile app, or even in a newsletter.

Innovation in radio is a lot cheaper than in other industries.  Radio’s ability to make adjustments and pivots is unparalleled – and inexpensive compared with other industries.  When a tech company like Facebook or Spotify wants to change their design or algorithm, dozens of designers, software engineers, UX testers, and more have to come together in a process that can take months.

In radio?  We can adjust to the mood, the story, and local events in relative seconds at no cost. We’re naturally resilient.  And if you’re working in radio today and you’ve been around since COVID, you fit that description well.

When it’s time to innovate by developing a new feature on a mobile app, launching a newsletter, or a special theme weekend, the process can take a couple of thousand dollars – or nothing at all – and require just days to pull off.  Do something new and fresh, and promote it with enthusiasm.

Look at how radio stations are innovating with AI (and I don’t mean by replacing live DJs).  New uses, from creating spec spots, writing copy, producing jingles, generating prep, developing video and more are being done today at thousands of stations for literally no cost.

So with all of this, creating escape-oriented content on new or existing platforms should be a focus for all departments at local stations.  Content can include the joy of food, parenting, vacations, hobbies, music exploration, and more, providing the existing (and hopefully non-listening) audience with a great entertaining and informing escape from the outside noise.

And while we focus on making things better for our audience, radio can STILL profit from political ad revenue.  But here’s the big bonus – even though there’s a massive opportunity for radio stations to benefit from promoting escape, the industry is still going to take in a ton of money from . . . . political advertising.

Commercial stations are well-positioned to reap the benefits, making it the best of both worlds.

Find the joy.  And share it.

Originally published by Jacobs Media