Part Two: The Role of The Curator, Or Why Disk Jockeys Could Be More Relevant Than Ever
Continuing analysis of the SXSW panel called “The Future of Radio”. Panelists included moderator Kevin Smokler, Celia Hirschman of Downtown Marketing and KCRW, Roman Mars of WBEZ, Elise Nordling from SomaFM, and Tim Westergren of Pandora, bringing together lifelong radio listeners, public radio professionals, Internet radio stars, and purveyors of social networking applications. Part One is here.
New services (like, oh, Medialoper) are designed to help consumers sift through the mass of media being thrown their way. In the past, disk jockeys served as curators of music. In today’s world, the increased level of programming makes the curator process even more important. This means aligning consumers with trusted sources of information. A trust relationship develops between the two parties — without that trust — in taste, quality, integrity — the consumer goes away.
Nordling noted that people like to listen to a variety of music — a mix of new and old, just as they like to access a variety of resources to learn more about music. Soma and Pandora aren’t competitors; consumers have different relationships with the two entities. By offering new opportunities to hear exciting music in a safe environment, people can rediscover the joy of finding new music — this is a pleasure that traditional radio has all but killed with its consultant-driven music models.
Medialoper’s Jim Connelly comments that radio hasn’t done its job for a long time. The art of back-announcing is dying, and lack of options across the dial have driven talented people away. He says:
You could argue that the homogenization of formats and corporate monopolization that began in the late 1970s perhaps discouraged a whole generation of talented and creative young people from entering the medium, which directly led to the stagnation and marginalization that music-oriented-radio experiences today. The (relative) success of, say WFMU and Nic Harcourt pretty much only proves that: — music fans narrowcasting to the other music fans savvy enough to find them. But the mass audience has given up on radio as anything but drive-time diversions, which is why only major stars that come from radio today come from talk radio, and even that is pretty rare: it wasn’t like Air America, for example, is breaking new talent.
Witness the proliferation of personal music devices and CD burning. People are doing what radio could and should but doesn’t. A member of the audience wondered why there isn’t a hybrid of services like Pandora and Soma. A way to use the genome-like nature of Pandora to browse playlists while having the option to listen to songs in a curated (disk jockey-like) setting. While the panelists were enthusiastic about the idea, the law isn’t so flexible, neither are the copyright holders who license music. It’s almost like they don’t want people to hear songs.
A key aspect limiting online music services is cost. Sound Exchange, which collects fees for the RIAA takes approximately 12% of every dollar earned by stations like Soma; the fees are 14% for music delivered via satellite. Sound Exchange is lobbying Congress to increase this amount to 37% of receipts. Just for the privilege of playing a song on the newfangled version of the radio. While presumably this benefits artists in some way, it also kills innovation.
It should be noted that these fees are not imposed on traditional radio — in fact, to quote Station Manager Ken Friedman of WFMU,
Broadcast stations have never been asked to pay this performance royalty. (On the contrary, record labels have traditionally lobbied, bribed and paid radio stations to play their records. Believe it or not, many stations will now be charged for webcasting the same songs they are paid to play over the airwaves.)
These fees are in addition to existing publishing fees paid to societies such as ASCAP and BMI. Nordling noted that Sound Exchange is looking to apply their proposed increase retroactively.
This increased cost frustrates both commercial and public radio. Public radio, especially, is limited by how it makes money. Richer stations like KCRW can afford higher fees, but smaller stations need to rely on non-music forms of content when it comes to streaming or podcasting. NPR fees also come into play. The costs of running a public radio station are high, and the there is some difficulty in determining the best financial models to employ. This comes into play when content is produced by one station, listened to on a station hundreds of miles away, or downloaded to an iPod. How do you allocate your pledging dollars?
One station, not noted by the panel, has already seen the future and created a stable model for listener-supported radio. When WFMU in New Jersey lost their college (there’s a story), it continued to broadcast without the affiliation. Through advanced use of streaming broadcasts, dedicated technology fundraising, strong community-building, and podcasts, the station has a worldwide pledging audience and has purchased its own building (allowing them to rent space to other parties). This, by the way, is a station with no NPR affiliation or sponsorships.
A key aspect of the WFMU story is the community. It is not unusual for DJs to get calls from California during shows. The station also maintains financial health by sticking to a playlist that is not subject to the increased royalties. This leads to more administrative work, but also keeps costs reasonable.
Another example of radio bucking the trend and building community is Chicago’s WVON. By bucking the trend and staying small (though looking at growing), the station has managed to survive and find an audience. This despite a limited broadcast schedule (due to shared frequencies), aging equipment, and an audience deemed undesirable by advertisers (who will someday wake up and realize that people over forty buy stuff, too).
In this big-money era of consolidated station ownership and homogenized program formats, smaller, independent stations like WVON-with its tiny audience of mostly older listeners, weak broadcast signal and modest revenues-face oblivion. Yet the station perseveres, in large part because it fills a niche no general-market station would: providing a venue for its mostly African-American listeners to express their anger, hurt and pride and to share information about which politicians to believe in-a short list-or when to show up to protest a school closing or how to break off a little piece of the American Dream. WVON is more than a radio station; it’s a family business that has become a community trust.
We are becoming our own curators and database administrators. Consumers are creating their own radio stations to fill in the holes in the current system — the listener is bypassing the traditional model because the traditional model has grown complacent. Consumers are seeking different music, different slants on news (be it more local coverage or longer stories), and more portability in their media. Since this isn’t being provided by the current system — and in some cases because law restricts the ability to address consumer needs — the consumer has moved away from the old guard.
Bringing this back to radio, disk jockeys can either become curators or dinosaurs. A key aspect to the former is going where the listeners are — and they’re everywhere these days — and building a relationship with them. Listeners want guidance; there’s a lot of media out there. They also want to consume their media on their own terms. Top-down media rules no longer work.
So what is the future of radio if consumers have a wide range of options for discovering relevant news and music? Well, right now, radio’s future is as much in its own hands as those of the music industry. People like the role radio plays in their world but if radio can’t meet consumer needs, they’re going to find someone who does.
- Kevin Smokler
- Celia Hirschman/Downtown Marketing
- WBEZ (Roman Mars)
- SomaFM (Elise Nordling)
- Pandora (Tim Westergren)
- The Future of Radio (Video coverage)
- Wikipedia: Digital Millennium Copyright Act
- Radio group calls for ‘smarter, more effective’ CRTC policy
- Radio Volta
- Rates and Terms for Statutory License for Eligible Nonsubscription Services to Perform Sound Recordings Publicly by Means of Digital Audio Transmissions (“Webcasting”) and to Make Ephemeral Recordings of Sound Recordings
- Raising the voice: WVON’s small but passionate African-American audience is wary of any changes at the station they call their family. But president Melody Spann-Cooper says it’s time to go to the next level.