Late last year, I was asked by my editor at Cartt.ca to write a feature story about branding in commercial radio, to be tied to the CRTC’s review of its commercial radio policy. That story ended up turning into a 10-part series for the website called The Future of Radio, in which I talk to some radio industry executives about how and where things are going.
Here are links to the individual stories (for Cartt.ca subscribers), and below are some point-form comments about the things I learned through this project:
- Part 1: The good, and the bad, of the generic brand trend
- Part 2: Searching for success while walking fine line between local and syndicated
- Part 3: Pandemic ad famine accelerated structural shifts
- Part 4: How the pandemic changed listening habits
- Part 5: The online transformation
- Part 6: Managing the decline of AM
- Part 7: Why it’s time to drop station ownership limits
- Part 8: No new news quotas needed
- Part 9: Opening bids in the battle over music quotas
- Part 10: Easing the paperwork nightmare
I spoke to several radio executives for about an hour each for this series, and each conversation was quite insightful. Thanks to them for agreeing to take part:
- Troy Reeb, Executive Vice President Broadcast Networks, Corus Entertainment
- Steve Jones, Senior Vice-President Radio, Stingray
- Rod Schween, President, Jim Pattison Broadcast Group (since renamed Pattison Media)
- Jon Pole, President, My Broadcasting Corp.
- Julie Adam, Senior Vice-President of TV & Broadcast, Rogers Sports & Media
- Kevin Desjardins, President, Canadian Association of Broadcasters
(I tried to get an executive at Bell Media to participate, but things have been a bit chaotic there lately.)
By design, I’ve spoken to people high up at larger national and regional broadcasters, and these stories reflect their views, but those are far from the only voices that deserve to be heard about radio. As the CRTC process continues (replies are due this week), we’ll hear more from groups that are critical of the big players.
Some of the things I heard from several radio executives during our talks:
- Radio brands are boring for a reason. They often include the frequency and the format, or some generic branding like Kiss or Move or The Beat. You need listeners to be able to remember your brand when they fill out radio surveys by Numeris (which is how it’s done in all but the five largest markets).
- Creating common brands allows for synergy. But it’s not always about common programming. It’s also about saving money on things like imaging — those station ID jingles and promos. When you only have to design a logo or website once for multiple markets, you can save money but also invest more to get better quality and share those costs across multiple stations.
- Expect more blending of syndication and local. For small-market stations, it just doesn’t make financial sense to have local announcers 24/7. In some, it doesn’t even make much sense to have a local morning show. So big broadcasters are taking a well-produced syndicated or national show and blending it with local news, traffic and weather. We’re also seeing popular morning shows from some markets being edited and repackaged to be used in other markets in the evenings.
- Moving toward a Canadian radio star system. Both Bell and Corus have created national overnight talk shows for their talk stations, replacing syndicated U.S. programming like Coast to Coast, and other broadcasters are looking at doing their own thing instead of bringing in foreign shows. If they’re going to spend money anyway, they reason, why not spend it on some of their own talent, and give them a larger national audience?
- The peak hour is getting later. It’s hard to say how much of this will be reversed when we fully emerge from the pandemic, but the peak hour for radio has shifted from about 7am to 8am as people who aren’t commuting don’t have to get up as early. We’re also seeing more listening throughout the day, instead of people abruptly dropping off once their car is in the office parking lot.
- Radio will follow the platforms. Most broadcasters have kind of given up on trying to create their own digital ecosystems. Instead, they’ll adapt their content to whatever platform people are using. They’ve started up podcast networks, combined forces on the RadioPlayer app (with Bell as the notable exception), and signed up to work on smart speakers. They’re posting to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and whatever else will come next.
- AM is not the future. It’s not dead yet, and AM stations still rate well in some markets, but the broadcasters aren’t betting on its future. There are no more AM stations in Quebec outside Montreal. Where bandwidth and regulations permit, stations have switched from AM to FM across the country. CBC is replacing low-power AM transmitters with FM ones. And the big players want to be able to move their AM stations to FM as well without having to give up their FM music stations. As a transition measure, HD Radio transmitters in large markets have allowed the big guys to simulcast AM on FM HD, but that’s not a long-term solution, because…
- Neither is HD Radio. After the disaster that was Digital Audio Broadcasting in the 1990s and early 2000s, broadcasters are hesitant to adopt HD Radio, the technology principally used in the U.S. After a few years of experimentation, there isn’t much hope for its future, for the same reason as DAB failed: A lack of receivers. HD Radio still isn’t as common in cars as it should be, and receivers outside of cars are just about nonexistent. There’s potential for the technology for niche ethnic stations (and some ethnic broadcasters are using digital-only channels for single-language programming) but it’s nowhere close to mainstream. The fact that it’s confusing as well — to tune to CJAD 800 you have to go to 107.3 FM HD Channel 2? — doesn’t help. By the time this might get fixed up, or a new digital technology emerges, it will be easier to deliver audio programming over the internet. (Shout-out to radio broadcast manufacturer Nautel, though, which proposed a very unworkable national network of HD-only stations that would have channels in multiple languages.)
- But maybe smart speakers. There was a noticeable uptick in smart speaker listening as people stayed home during the pandemic (and realized they don’t have other radio receivers at home). There was a big worry that as people went toward internet-based devices for their audio needs, they might choose things like Spotify over local radio. So there’s a big effort to ensure smart speakers tune to radio first.
- Don’t expect a Canadian Spotify. I asked several of the executives, if they’re getting all this unfair competition from Spotify and Apple Music and the rest, why don’t they just launch competing platforms? The answer is they lack the scale to make it profitable. The technology wouldn’t be difficult to implement, but even with tariffs that the music industry has mocked as laughably low, Spotify and its peers struggle to make money, and there isn’t much hope a Bell or Rogers version would be more successful. Quebecor is trying with its QUB Musique app, and Stingray has several streaming music channels, but otherwise everyone is sticking with radio, even digital-only radio channels (which, because the user does not control the playlist, has a different tariff scheme).
- The industry wants more consolidation. One issue brought up in filings to the commission is its limits on local ownership — currently 3-4 stations depending on market size, and no more than two on any one band in any language. The CAB has proposed a new formula that would allow some broadcasters to own up to half the stations in a market. Bell wants to eliminate ownership limits completely. Allowing AM stations to move to FM is an excuse given, but others say radio needs to have fewer owners to be more competitive. (The change isn’t just supported by the big guys, but several smaller owners also agree with consolidation because it means more potential buyers for their stations, which increases their value.)
- Paperwork is a big problem. Both large and small broadcasters spend a lot of human resources just meeting the CRTC’s reporting requirements. In some cases, they’re necessary, like providing annual financial statements or lists of songs they have broadcast. In other cases, they’re redundant or of limited use. Some broadcasters proposed ways of cutting the paperwork burden, but many told me they just wish the CRTC was itself more efficient, processed applications more quickly, and wasn’t such a bottleneck in plans to launch, acquire or change stations.
There were also plenty of things that weren’t surprising. Broadcasters want lower quotas (dropping CanCon to 25% of songs from 35%), interest groups want quotas maintained. Big broadcasters want fewer regulations for themselves and more for their foreign digital-only competitors.
And, despite everything, everyone believes that radio has a future. Because otherwise they wouldn’t be in the game.