The Power of Radio

Delivered by David Bray

Staying Tuned: Feb. 23, 2004

I know most of you are accustomed to thinking that people involved with radio get ahead by trading on their good looks. I mean God knows how many women have told me I have a face for radio. I thank you for the compliment, but I think that those of us who love radio also have something more to offer……

I am and always will be an unabashed fan of the medium. I have had the good fortune over the past twenty years to travel across the country and sit in just about every major market radio station from St. John's to Victoria. Radio seems to inspire a passion that is very personal. Whether we are speaking of those working in radio or listeners who feel an affinity for their favourite station, radio holds a formidable amount of power. I am continually struck by the passion of those people forging a career in radio. Even those who have experienced the unfortunate ups and downs of corporate politics seem to maintain their love the medium. And for many listeners, it is a subtle but important friend, supplying a connection to the community and to the world.

We have a number of recent crises that have served to remind us of essential a service radio is to the community. Our distinguished panel will be giving you some concrete examples.

In Ontario, the night the lights went out started at 4:12pm, Thursday, Aug.14, 2003:

As we fought our way through another workday, we were dealt a T.K.O…….lights out.

My computer, normally a powerhouse in an increasingly mechanical world, sheepishly shrugged and offered an impotent “no comment”. I turn to my television which offered nothing more than a blank stare. All around us, everything that was supposed to be hot was getting cold and everything frozen was thawing. Elevators, as if stuck in purgatory, refused to go up or down. Stoplights went colour blind and motorists, timidly creeping along, were left wondering which way to turn. How were we to make sense of all of this? The next newspaper was a couple of days away. Then I turned on my car radio and everything started to come into perspective. Radio was delivering some serious energy.

Yes, the blackout, while causing countless problems, somehow reminded me of how special radio can be. How, with its immediacy and local character, the medium plays a unique role in our lives. This doesn't, in any way, denigrate the vital daily contribution of television, print and the internet. It's just that when I turned to those familiar radio stations I felt connected and in touch. Caller after caller offered updates and moment to moment anecdotes. Rather than seeming like some grand synopsis of the situation, it all seemed very personal. I felt like I could call in at any time and join the conversation. It was real drama with no artificiality. This was a group of neighbours setting aside pretensions and speaking openly with one another. The sense of community spirit was palpable.

Station after station turned on a dime and adapted their programming immediately to deal with the crisis. As darkness fell, I was huddled around the radio with my children. This was something a bit different for them, being charter members of the cable TV/Playstation 2 generation. But there we were, hanging off of every word. How many people were stuck in elevators? Was all of this caused by terrorism, lightning, or some sort of a technical glitch? How long will it last? What stores are open? Where can we get gas? Is there chaos on the roads without any traffic lights? Callers answered all of these questions and more in no nonsense terms.

We heard about the frustrated young lady who happened to be in the middle of her first driving lesson when the chaos broke. We heard about good Samaritans taking it upon themselves to direct traffic while others handed out bottled water to passers-by. Another saw something disturbing in the sky, only to realize that, without any neon lights, she could actually see the Milky Way. Cut-ins from the deputy mayor and the police chief. And all the while, hosts directing the conversation with both a sense of drama and of humour.

I am often asked why local content seems to be so critical to radio. For the average listener, the local weather, traffic, news, humour and personalities mixed in their favourite type of music provide company and a connection to the community. Delivered with immediacy, these elements combine to make the medium unique. Something listeners can personally identify with. Many wear their favourite stations as a badge of honour or identification. Moreover, take all of those local elements away and you could make do with your own CD collection.

I can reflect positively on the recent situation because the tragedies were few and far between. Bruce Davis is a living example of coping with terrible circumstances and delivering for the community. People, for the most part, behaved admirably under trying circumstances. I am still surprised by that. But most of all I was reminded that radio has the power to deliver some serious energy.

“The first cut is the deepest ……” Cat Stevens/ Yusuf Islam

I will always be amazed at how profoundly we are affected by the first songs and stories we hear over the airwaves. How our first experiences continue to resonate year after year. Those who have, in some small way, been touched by radio find themselves reaching out to it when the whole world seems out of touch. Whether it's just to hear a news story, a song that somehow moves us, or finding out about a traffic jam up ahead. Maybe it's a joke of the day or light-hearted banter that makes the drive to work a little more bearable. Radio is something we take personally. I'm not talking earth-shaking influence. Its power is more subtle, but equally pervasive.

It is in this light that I look at recent events and upcoming decisions that will undoubtedly change the direction of the industry. As you may have noticed, each passing year leaves me somewhat more sentimental. Somewhat more determined to find consensus and compromise rather than conflict. And for this unabashedly emotional perspective I make no apologies. In-fighting can only damage the credibility of the medium. Stations or groups that attempt to sell themselves by attacking competitors just shoot the industry in the foot.

These days, radio remains healthy with over $700 million in ad revenues nationally, almost a 94.0% reach and close to 20.0 hours tuned weekly per capita (A18+, BBM Fall 2003). Still, radio faces indisputable challenges. Ones that can only be addressed by a combined effort. The Fall 2003 BBM saw a continuation in the dramatic decline in Teen Hours Tuned as evidenced by the following:

A12-17 Average Hours Tuned per Capita (Total Canada)
Fall 2003 Fall 2002 Fall 2001 Fall 2000 Fall 1999
8.5 9.4 10.1 10.5 11.3

That's our future choosing to tune out. We have to find a way to remain relevant as everything around us changes. If we expect listeners to remain loyal, we have to demonstrate that we are listening to them.

In the past year, the collective response to a number of occurrences has underlined the power of radio. The Halifax hurricane, the Ontario blackout and the B.C. forest fires all offered up demonstrations of how important radio can be to a community. Amber Alert is yet another example of how radio's immediacy can make a life and death difference.

Addressing the audience's day to day needs in an ever changing world that will make the ultimate difference. More varied programming options, improved fidelity, display features, and interactivity are just some the features that audiences will demand.

And radio must deliver if it is to remain relevant in an increasingly complex world. Standing still is simply not an option for a medium that prides itself as being the best option for those on the move.

A number of firsts are headed our way this year. The CRTC is convening their overall review of radio in an attempt to map out the road for the future. Look for policy shifts the likes of which we haven't seen for decades. The future of DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) clearly appears to rely on the introduction of DAB exclusive stations. Being a high tech replacement technology is good, but not enough. Soaring DAB receiver sales in the U.K. (over 400,000 since June of last year) has demonstrated the importance of DAB exclusive stations in addition to the greatly improved fidelity and data display features. Radio Canada/CBC has introduced the first such station with its news/weather/traffic station in Montreal. Look for some very progressive thinking and a number of exciting announcements from them in the near future.

The introduction of satellite radio now seems probable. Sirius has found enthusiastic partners in the CBC and Standard while a few of the other private radio groups are rumoured to be joining ranks with XM for the upcoming hearings. Satellite offers a new national dimension and valuable niche programming options which enhance the listeners experience without diminishing the vital day to day contribution of local broadcasters. There has even been some discussion of combined AM/FM/DAB/XM satellite receivers. Again cooperation is essential for the survival of the industry.

I have seen some exciting examples of the new generation of radios boasting enticing bells and whistles. For example, pause and rewind is addictive. Its 10 minute buffer allows you to rewind in 10 second increments to rehear the traffic report you missed and to listen to that favourite song again. Others will record programming and save it as an MP3. Digital sound is mind blowing and data display extremely handy. These are but a few of the technical advancements which will keep radio viable in an increasingly competitive multimedia environment.

From a business perspective, our research tools are better than ever. BBM's single source qualitative diary information along with RTS (which delivers an unparalleled national sample size of over 50,000) offer detailed product usage/psychographic/demographic data which is invaluable in selling radio's targeting capabilities. Unfortunately it is sometimes poorly understood and under utilized. As an industry we have to work together to change this. Moreover, we have to deliver ad creative that touches the pulse of target listeners. Whether we are talking about programming or advertising, there is only one critic who matters…the listener.

In the end, we should never forget that radio doesn't belong to the corporate name on the license. It can't be bought or sold. It will always belong to the child who listens with a sense of wonder to his or her bedside radio late at night. And to those of us in which that spirit will always live on. I can't know whether or not and in what form the medium will survive. But I do know that I will stay tuned for as long as I can. That's the power of radio.