Is Commercial Radio Fading Into Oblivion?

How many times has this happened to you: You're driving home from work. A song comes on. Drums. Guitar strums. A wimpy voice: "Say, oh, got this feeling that you can't fight..." You've heard this same song three times in 30 minutes, and it bores you to tears.

Unlike the imaginary audience the station's program director has been instructed to reach, you're not a robot; you're a member of the Homo sapiens species and you naturally crave variety. You don't have satellite radio, so you immediately reach for your CD case.

You're not alone.

According to a July 2011 Arbitron survey, 68 percent of people now rely on CD players as their main in-car entertainment, up from 58 percent in 2003. In-car satellite radio usage also ticked up to 8 percent from 1 percent in 2003. Equally disconcerting for radio stations: The rate of people listening to AM/FM radio in their cars fell to 84 percent from 96 percent just six years ago.

The slump has serious financial implications for the radio industry. If the trend continues, we could see ad revenues plummet and commercial radio render itself irrelevant.

Unlike the music industry's sales struggles, though, this is one nosedive you can't blame on the recession. The radio industry slump started long before the recession cast its evil spell on us in 2008. Besides, the shitty economy hasn't stopped people from shelling out for pricey satellite subscriptions, as the Arbitron survey confirms.

The stark reality is that radio listeners are increasingly bored by the mind-numbingly homogeneous, humdrum programming being cranked out round the clock. People are tuning out and seeking out exciting alternatives. That's nothing new.

Pages of ink have been spilled to wax concern on the redundant nature of radio. The latest survey only adds another framework to those arguments. And though the study is titled "The Road Ahead," it doesn't spell out a map for the future.

Maybe it's because the way forward isn't as clear as the issues plaguing commercial radio. It's not like all program directors can suddenly decide to start playing whatever they like.

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People like to think of companies in anthropomorphic terms - as one big, lifelike entity. It's inherent in our nature as humans to point fingers at some invisible monster when things go wrong.

We imagine radio as a funnel-eared ogre in a swampy igloo constantly pushing "play" on the same bland tune every six minutes. As it turns out, it's taken a million tiny steps to bring the radio industry to its knees.

It'll definitely take several calculated moves to jolt it back to life. Better salaries, innovative programming, and a vested interest in digital outlets are all part of the way forward.

Radio is doubtless in for a long-term decline, even if it's in decent shape right now. Driven by political season, radio industry revenues rose 5% to $14 billion in 2010. Still, that's scary for an industry that was raking in $20 billion just 10 years ago. The golden age of radio is long gone.

The industry dilemma comes down to this: Digital forms of radio will continue to proliferate, thus giving listeners a larger menu of music programming. Sadly, digital radio still lacks a viable economic model. And without that, it won't make enough revenue to replace traditional outlets.

So radio still has time to rebound, considering that the alternatives are still evolving. Podcasting is far from being a feasible option. Sirius/XM is seriously expensive - what was the FCC thinking when it allowed the two companies to merge? And sure, you can stream music and talk shows on your smartphone apps, but that's not practical on a coast-to-coast trip.

If alternative outlets somehow figure out a way to pluck listeners from terrestrial rivals, then we'll see traditional radio revenues wither. Even well-established radio conglomerates could see ad revenues dip as newer, sexier rivals snatch their clientele.

Commercial radio is akin to the Titanic -an unprecedented machine built with what was once considered cutting-edge technology. Titanic was designed by the finest engineers, using exhaustive safety features; radio blossomed from the amplification of high-tech telegraphic codes. Both made their debut at the turn of the 20th century.

Both had a hell of a ride. And if the latest projections are any indication, radio, like the Titanic, is destined for a perilous end.

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