It’s been years since thousands of radio employees were gathered under the same roof and words like “optimism” and “upbeat” characterized the tenor of conversation. But that’s what happened last week as broadcasters gathered in Nashville for the Radio Show. There appears to be no single reason for the shift. Instead, there are a number of explanations for how the static of uncertainty is clearing up for the medium.
“There is a difference in the industry,” observed Tony Coles, iHeartMedia’s executive VP of programming—Central Division. “As broadcasters, we went through a fairly dark time where Pandora was going to take over and the mindset about the industry was down. Over the last two years, we’ve become more passionate again as an industry. We see the power of what we do. This is a pivot point, where when we talk to clients and other industries we feel that sense of pride again.”
Measuring an improved mood is inherently an inexact endeavor, but the Radio Show organizers come close. They report there were 2,272 people at this year’s conference. That’s up 5% compared to a year ago. Even more noteworthy is the Nashville event attracted the largest number of attendees since the Radio Advertising Bureau merged its annual convention into the National Association of Broadcasters’ Radio Show in 2010. “The energy at this conference is so incredible,” remarked Borrell Associates chief Gordon Borrell.
Just two years ago, attendance sagged to a low point and the disjointed layout of the Indianapolis Radio Show became a metaphor for the industry itself when digital’s post-recession rise had many shaking their head and unsure what radio should do next. This year in Nashville, the success stories of how broadcasters are embracing the new technology, and making money while doing so, were inescapable. Political ad revenue is weaker than expected? No problem, when an “old-fashioned” spot sale now includes everything from a mobile text ad to a paid tweet, not to mention live events.
A lot of talk during this year’s conference veered away from streaming as the industry’s attention has turned to getting a bite out of the podcasting apple. “If they’re going to listen to other audio, I’d rather have them listen to my audio than someone else’s,” said Steve Goldstein, the longtime Saga Communications programming chief who last year launched the podcast-centric Amplifi Media.
Regardless of how radio is reaching audio consumers online, it’s clear digital isn’t the collective freak-out that it once was and for good reason according to Borrell. “Radio still seems pretty protected,” he said. “Radio is unbelievable in terms of how the advertisers perceive it in part because you’re connected, you have affinity and you drive digital traffic.”
Research is playing a big part in convincing the industry that maybe things are actually pretty good for radio even with the upending of American’s traditional media habits. So much data has come out in recent months that an entire panel was dedicated to catch broadcasters up on what the numbers are showing. It seems it’s now time for the industry to take its Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” attitude down a notch. “We seem to have this perception of ourselves that is working against us and that is people don’t believe how great we are and we have to keep reminding them,” Katz Media Group executive VP of strategy, Stacey Lynn Schulman, urged, adding, “It’s a little bit defeatist as well.”
Perhaps the best news is that the pro-radio research is doing more than just rallying the industry. The message is getting through to advertisers and agency buyers too. “It’s an exciting time for radio,” Lauren Russo, Horizon Media senior VP, said at the Radio Show. “We’re looking at the landscape holistically and seeing growth across all the platforms.”
Bankers and Wall Street investors may not be bullish on radio quite yet, but there’s been a sizable shift in attitude during the past 12 months there as well. “After the recession all we had to say was look on the bright side—now we have something to be more upbeat about,” attorney Scott Flick said as he opened his firm’s Pillsbury Broadcast Finance Forecast at the start of the show.
Wells Fargo Securities research analyst J. Davis Hebert said there’s been a change in “investor psyche” during the past year about the economy—and radio. That’s helped radio stocks post the largest gains in 2016 compared to every other traditional media sector. Even radio’s rough spots have been smoothed a bit in the eyes of investors. Pointing to the ongoing turnaround at Cumulus Media, the largest purely radio company, Hebert said its shadow over the industry isn’t quite so long. “A year ago, I was getting calls from investors saying what is wrong with radio because of Cumulus; now people are looking at Cumulus as an exception rather than the rule,” he said. At the same time he pointed out that companies such as Entercom and iHeartMedia have demonstrated to investors that radio can still grow revenue. “They have showed what local radio can do when you have local content that resonates well with listeners,” Hebert said. “It’s more good than bad and I think investors are starting to realize that.”
Bottom line revenue may be the biggest factor in investor thinking, but Hebert said Nielsen research showed that even as Americans spend more time with mobile devices, AM/FM radio still captures a typical person for 1 hour and 52 minutes per day. “Radio has been very consistent,” he noted. “So the clear takeaway is that people are consuming more media; they’re listening to more audio and they’re watching more video.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. Offering a bullish defense of radio when it comes to the task of keeping listeners engaged while behind the wheel, Commonwealth Broadcasting president Steve Newberry sees no path forward where technology doesn’t play a larger role for AM/FM radio. “We can’t just keep delivering what we’ve been delivering for years in the exact same way and expect everybody to be really impressed with that. The rest of the world has changed and we have to be open to new technologies,” Newberry urged a Thursday panel. “We have to be working both fronts—technology and content—and if we don’t do that it’s going to be very easy for us to be passed in the game.”
The larger mission for the coming years will be spreading the industry’s renewed sense of optimism to the broader media world, a job that won’t be easy. “There’s a misconception that people aren’t listening to radio,” Beasley Broadcast Group interim-CEO/CFO Caroline Beasley acknowledged. But she said the NAB and RAB are taking several steps to educate buyers and automakers of the facts.
In the meantime, Cox Media Group executive VP of radio, Bill Hendrich, said the industry need to do a better job of using its teams of local radio prophets inside every station. “The greatest asset we have is our ability to broadcast, but we take for granted the other assets, which is the sales team,” he said. “There is no other industry that has the sacred relationship in local markets with local advertisers and we need to take advantage of that.”
The NAB and RAB have previously announced the next Radio Show will be held Sept. 6-8, 2017 as the industry returns to Austin, the site of the 2008 conference.