I grew up listening and loving local radio -- Howard Stern on WNBC and -Rock, WLIR on Long Island and DJ Red Alert's show on Kiss FM NYC. Those were the stations that introduced me to The Clash, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Kenneth Keith Kallenbach and other legends. The DJs knew everything about the artists they introduced, and the stations took risks and were at the center of what was going on culturally. Local radio introduced us to the music we came to love and the brands we came to desire, and personalities like Howard Stern single-handedly built brands (i.e. Snapple) with a command of their audiences.
I am listening to Pandora as I write this; it's learned what I like, and I can skip what I don't. Musically, it's close to my perfect radio station. There are other amazing, similar sites (Lala, Last FM, Spotify, etc.) and, while you listen, you can browse the internet and learn more than ever before about the bands you are hearing. IPhone apps have even made the entire experience portable, but something is still missing: I still do not feel like I am really listening to the radio. As a listener, there is no soul behind the music I am hearing, and, as a consumer, the static ads or pre-rolls for the Brita water filter do not engage me. Local radio had a personality that has not been captured and duplicated online ... yet.
There is no substitute for the element of surprise, hearing that great new track within the context of other songs on the radio. There's a certain credibility in hearing someone knowledgeable talk up and introduce you to a new band, but, as Elvis Costello so eloquently forecasted in his song "Radio, Radio," the commercialization of radio has nearly destroyed all that was great about the medium. Many of today's stations are programmed centrally, voice-tracked remotely, and, from an advertising standpoint, sold from a central office by people with little first-hand knowledge of the market the client is trying to reach. Listenership is down, and advertising dollars continue to shift from radio to online efforts. The listener/consumer is no longer engaged in radio as a mass medium.
That said, when it's done right, radio can still mean a lot to the engaged listener, and it can have a powerful impact for a marketer. Radio can round out a campaign and provide a local call-to-action that digital cannot. The evolution of radio continues to be exciting despite the fact that it has been overshadowed by the growth of the iPod and the mobile internet experience. New iPhone apps are creating great opportunities for radio stations to be heard in the context of today's new media landscape (check out Public Radio Tuner, AOL Radio, etc.). I listen to Sirius XM (Left of Center Blog Radio rules), stream KCRW, The Current in Minneapolis and BBC Radio 1 from the UK.
Great radio is still out there, it is just overshadowed by the perception that all commercial radio is "the same" and dying. Podcasts, Sirius Radio and streaming radio offer a great future, and there continue to be powerful local stations that Cornerstone will continue to make an important part of our marketing mix, like Hot 97/NYC, Live 105/San Francisco, KROQ/Los Angeles, KPWR/Los Angeles, etc. But for media to succeed in today's world, it needs to provide convenience and a function based on today's technology, and most importantly be entertaining, have a credible voice and unparalleled quality. Most major local radio stations continue to lag behind on technology and continue to eliminate the programming and personalities that at one time made their medium powerful.
Radio must keep up and determine the right way to deliver smart, engaging content, or it will be faced with a younger generation that is growing up without ever experiencing its brilliance.
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Jon Cohen is co-CEO of Cornerstone, a full-service lifestyle-marketing firm based in New York. For more than 12 years, Mr. Cohen has executed customized brand campaigns for a roster of A-list clients targeting the key demographic of 15- to 34-year-olds.