Fundamental market changes are pushing radio stations towards an uncertain future and managers and owners need to begin developing strategic responses to developments in their industry.
The challenges are being caused by declining demand for radio offerings due to lifestyle changes, the wide availability of substitutable audio platforms, and the primary content currently being offered. Audience behavior toward radio is changing and many U.S. stations now only make money for 4 to 6 hours each day. Overall, audiences are spending less time with radio and exhibiting less station loyalty than they did in the past, and young audiences are particularly difficult to attract and serve.
A major impetus of change is that audiences for music worldwide are progressively replacing radio listening with personalized playlists they have created on their computers, MP3 players, and mobile phones and by CDs on which they burned those favorites. They select music that suits their individual tastes and many have wider repositories of music in their own libraries than are offered on broadcaster playlists. Satellite and Internet radio are compounding the problem by offering hundreds of choices of highly focused music formats. These developments are increasingly making radio a less relevant platform for music entertainment delivery than it has been.
Concurrently, a wide variety of non-music programming is being offered by Satellite and Internet stations and audiences are increasingly using these services, as well as downloading podcasts on a variety of topics of individual interest from both broadcast and non-radio sources.
These problems are compounded in the U.S. because the rise of radio groups after deregulation in the mid 1990s led to national radio programmers making selections, reducing the range of genres of music and other content on radio stations. Overall, programming has become less local and less relevant as content decisions have been made elsewhere.
Advertisers sense the problem with audiences and the share of advertising expenditures going to radio is declining. Worldwide radio advertising expenditures are about 7 percent of total expenditures, down from a height of 9 percent in 1999. In the U.S. they peaked in 2002 at nearly 13 percent and are now down to about 10 percent. This downward trend is seen among most of the traditional leaders in radio advertising expenditures –Mexico, Japan, France, UK, Spain—and only in rapidly developing countries such as Brazil and China is the share spent on radio on a clear upward trajectory.
Another indicator of the problem is seen in the considerable weakening of sales prices for radio stations in recent years.
Radio station owners and managers need to start spending a good deal of time thinking about what is happening to their industry and how they will need to change their place in the media use mix. They need to seriously consider what business they are in and what unique value they produce so they can reposition their functions for audiences and advertisers.
The structure and offerings of the radio industry have been adjusted several times during its 9-decade history, but the last time the industry needed to recreate itself so dramatically occurred with the arrival of television. The arrival of television resulted in radio shifting from a general entertainment and information medium to a music entertainment platform in many nations. In the U.S., broadcasters on A.M. radio later shifted toward a talk and sports platform after F.M. developed and music migrated to that spectrum, creating new opportunities on both bands.
Repositioning radio again will not be a simple task, but it is one the industry needs to begin undertaking now. If radio managers do not start thinking ahead about the negative trends appearing in their industry, they will soon experience the alarm and fear that is pervasive in the newspaper industry. It is better for companies and industries to act before crises develop fully because they can respond to and help direct the course of change rather than merely experience its negative effects. Whether decisive action will emerge in the radio industry before we reach that point remains to be seen.