What’s The Future of Talk Radio? Michael Harrison Interview, Part 2

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An Exclusive Interview with Michael Harrison, Talk Radio Pioneer, and Founder of Talkers Magazine. (Referred to as “The Bible of Talk Radio” by Business Week Magazine)

A maverick in the world of radio broadcasting, in addition to being a weathered trade journalist, Harrison has been at the center of many of the most exciting radio revolutions of the past 30+ years.  As you know, Talkers, is the leading talk radio publication and was one of the first radio trade journals to expand into the cutting edge technology of the “New Talk Media” which includes talk on the Internet and satellite radio as well as cable television.

Recently, Marsha Friedman, News & Experts Founder and CEO of Event Management Services, sat down with Michael and interviewed him about the changing landscape of talk radio and how these changes will revolutionize the industry as a whole. Please click here to read Part 1 of this interview.

Marsha Friedman: First off, what effect do you think the new Arbitron Personal People Meters will have on talk radio?

Michael Harrison: I think that Arbitron is having a difficult time rating radio accurately.  It is not their fault, it’s just down to the fact that radio is almost impossible to rate accurately.  It’s so large, mysterious, idiosyncratic, fractionalized, unstable and spread out in so many different directions.  There are so many things going on at any given moment that there are numerous ways of slicing and dicing the ratings for specific target audiences.  Thus, there are lots of ways of being number one in something. Also, it’s so unwired, meaning there’s no way of really attaching a meter to the reality of the act of listening to the radio without interfering with how a person listens to the radio.  All of that combined makes it almost impossible to accurately rate radio.

The diary method worked for a long time, although it was extremely inaccurate.  There was a huge “guesstimate” element involved in terms of a margin-of-error and it was very chancy depending on many factors: who got the diary, how it was distributed, and even if the person could recall what they listened to.  Everybody in the business knew that it wasn’t a very good method, but the diary method was geared to dealing with the mom-and-pop culture of radio that existed before corporate consolidation and everybody had a stake in it.

You heard broadcasters say things like, “Well, it’s not a good system, but it’s the only system we have, so we have to live with it.”  But in corporatized radio that doesn’t cut it anymore, especially since we’re in a highly technical era where people want exact numbers.  They want specifics and they want them now. The whole diary method being old and last quarter just doesn’t cut it anymore.  The problem with the People Meter goes back to what I said before about radio.  It’s so difficult to track that in order for Arbitron to do it truly accurately from a standpoint of mathematical science, they have to have so many units out there and painstakingly monitor the distribution of these units – which would make it nearly impossible for them to make any money in doing it.  So, that’s why they keep having these fits and starts and different factions complaining that it’s not accurate, that it’s not fair.  Of course, Arbitron won’t admit this… and I can’t really blame them.  They are doing the best they can.So to answer your question, they have a lot of work ahead of them and there are a lot of problems that are deeper than Arbitron can really be responsible for.  What are the big problems facing terrestrial radio as we enter into the 21st Century?  A big one is the fact it’s almost impossible to rate accurately.

Marsha Friedman:  You say it is nearly impossible to rate accurately Michael, but do you see a better solution in sight?

Michael Harrison: Well, I don’t really see much of a better way to do it because you can’t attach a wire to everybody’s radio in their car and at home to really be able to monitor accurately.  We have to come to grips with the situation and deal with it honestly.  We have to have better salesman in radio, better account executives that go out and educate their clients as to how to really buy radio.  We have to educate the agencies because you can’t just sell PPM and radio by the numbers.  It’s not good for radio or the clients, only the agencies because it makes their lives simple. Cost per point should just be one element of the marketing equation based on the premise that it is a guess at best.

There has to be a massive education as to the qualitative nature of radio beyond just a quantitative nature of radio, and that burden falls on the shoulders of the marketing departments of radio stations.  Clients out there also need to be educated and demand more of their ad agencies.  Putting money out there based upon cost per point is not going to give them the effectiveness for their dollar that they seek.

Even deeper, as we enter the age of the Internet, you cannot talk about the future of radio without talking about the future of the Internet. We’re going to reach a point where, because people will be able to find whatever they’re looking for using search engines, the nature of the programming will define the nature of the audience.  If you’re doing something either on the radio or the Internet that people want to hear, see or consume, common sense will indicate that you’ve got an audience.  And the key is for us in the marketing world to understand the nature of the programming will be defining the audience.  If you build it, they will come.  But if you build it and they don’t come, it’s because they didn’t want it or need it.  I guess, simply put, radio sales people have got to sell the idea of common sense.

Marsha Friedman: In this electronic age, what do you think that terrestrial radio needs to do to survive?

Michael Harrison: For terrestrial radio to survive it needs to have the best programming available anywhere, and that programming has to be exclusive to AM and FM radio.  If they stream on the Internet based upon the current conventional wisdom that people will hear it on the Internet and thus go back to listen to the radio…they’re not going to.  Once they’re listening on the Internet, they have no reason to go back to the AM or the FM dials.

They should create different programming for the Internet and leave their best programming, or their real meat and potatoes, on the AM and the FM dials.  On their Internet site, the people will hear clips, excerpts, cutting room floor stuff, special programs which will compel them to go back to their AM or FM radio to hear the station itself.

That’s the only answer.  The current model of streaming your programming, although in the short term it gives your advertisers and your brand more exposure (which is a good thing), but in the long run it’s quickening the demise of the AM and the FM channel having any value whatsoever.  But because corporate radio lives in a world of quarterly reports, there is the irresistible urge and pressure to sell the future out for immediate gain.

Marsha Friedman: Do you propose this to save their lives or just prolong the lives of the AM and FM stations?

Michael Harrison: I want to point out that this is only a measure that will prolong the life of AM and FM.  It will not extend it indefinitely. The only thing that AM and FM can do today that makes sound business sense is to prolong their life an extra few years because I think the handwriting is on the wall.  I don’t believe that AM and FM can survive for very long one way or the other in the wake of the Internet. The Internet is going to continue to change everything. These websites that we now consider to be adjuncts to the radio station, or promotional vehicles for the radio, will actually replace the radio station.  And, they’re going to do so a lot quicker than we realize.

Marsha Friedman: Wow. So Michael, what happens to the whole terrestrial radio industry?

Michael Harrison: It moves to the Internet and becomes bigger and better than ever before. It becomes more diverse. It becomes multi-channeled. It becomes infinite in terms of its real estate, inventory and creative ability. It becomes unfettered and unrestrained by FCC regulations. It will be superior. Today’s AM and FM radio station will evolve into tomorrow’s “media station” – a broadband superstation, if you will. The only parties that have anything to lose by this transition are the people who have serious money invested in the licenses.

Marsha Friedman: So what you are saying is that in the future you won’t need licensing?

Michael Harrison: No, you don’t need a license to be a broadcaster in this new era that’s unfolding.  What you need is to have a product that people want to hear, and not only will they hear it; they will also look at it and read it.  Again, I predict that we’re going to see the rise of what I call a media station which will be oriented to audio, video or to text.  It’s going to replace the radio and television stations, magazines and newspapers.

For example, the media station of The New York Times will be oriented to text because its history is that it has writers.  The heir to WABC-AM will be a media station oriented to audio because it is the heir to great speakers, talkers.  The media stations of the big television stations will be video oriented, again because their roots are in video.

The only difference is that they will all have elements of each other.  They’ll be no such thing as what I call “monomedia” – media that exist independently of each other with special appliances necessary to receive them such as “radios” and “television sets” or “CD players” and “DVD players.”  Audio-only in this new environment will seem archaic because the appliance that you’re listening to it on now has a screen.  And will the screen be blank?  Of course not, you’ve gotta put something on this screen, and it doesn’t mean that you have to have a television show.  It just means that there will be a video accompaniment to whatever it is that you’re presenting in an audio way.

For example, say you are interviewing an author of a new book.   While the author is being interviewed on the radio, people who are consuming this on the media station will also have a chance to see a picture of the author, a picture of the book cover, maybe a coupon that they could print out, maybe extensive information about the subject in text form that they could download and print out and on and on.  We are adding to the dimensions that we’re playing with and this requires intelligence and abstract reasoning.  It’s a completely new paradigm and it’s unfolding before our very eyes.  My educated guess is that within 10 years it’s going to be a completely different landscape.

And the only thing standing between websites being an accompaniment or an extension of 20th Century media (radio and television stations) is a couple more clicks of the technological evolution towards cars having Internet radio in them and video monitors being standard equipment.  In other words, cars being completely Wi-Fi’d and people being able to click on any of an infinite number of media stations with the same ease they can now turn on a radio or television station.

Marsha Friedman: I had another question about the quality of weekend programming for radio stations.  We’re seeing far less radio infomercials being produced and time being bought which certainly affects the revenues of the radio stations.  But also you have the issue of the quality of weekend programming being so inferior.  How do you see all of that playing out?

Michael Harrison: Well, I think that it’s self-defeating for radio stations to have to broker time to inferior programming on their precious airwaves in order to make money which goes back to what I said before about selling out the future for immediate survival.  Unfortunately, the reason they are forced to do this is because of the problems they are having selling spots and advertising.  So sadly they have to resort to a method of generating revenue that at one time was considered embarrassing. It would behoove the stations to be as selective as possible in their choice of brokered shows and help their clients produce as decent a product as possible. Not likely to happen, though.

Marsha Friedman: I remember back in the early 90’s when I first got into business, there were a few stations that brokered time.  Boy has that changed!

Michael Harrison: Correct, correct.  This is an unfortunate thing, but I understand why they’re doing it because we’re in a period of time when we’re seeing the decline of the radio spot as a workable unit of measurement.  It’s getting harder and harder to sell these things and as a result, they have to do whatever they have to do to survive.  But again, it’s killing the viability of radio and its future unless, of course, they put good shows on.

I have to say out of fairness, there are a percentage of brokered shows out there that are actually very good.  It is not a majority percentage, but they do exist. So let’s not paint all brokered shows as being bad.  That’s one.  Two, there are a lot of shows out there that are not brokered but are still paying to get on and that’s called compensation where the syndicators are paying the stations, not the stations paying the syndicators, but the syndicators paying the stations to get on. They’re calling it by the more positive term “compensation” because it’s more mainstream well-known talent than your local chiropractor promoting his practice. But it’s still a form of brokered show.

So, again, it comes down to the fact that terrestrial radio is having a terribly difficult time generating revenue via traditional advertising sales and this ties back into the discussion we had earlier about the difficulty in getting accurate ratings and selling this product quantitatively in a marketplace that understands radio has serious, serious problems.

Without quality content there can be no future for AM and FM radio.  It can’t be because you can get better stuff on the Internet.  And then as soon as the Internet is a few notches more accessible and ultimately ubiquitous – it’s over.  Ah, but out of the ashes of good ol’ 20th century terrestrial radio will rise the phoenix of exciting, unlimited media station broadcasting – and what a wondrous scene that will be!

Please click here to read Part 1 of this interview.

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