It only takes a few minutes of fooling around with an iPod to figure out why radio station managers are so nervous about the future of their business. To select tunes you actually like rather than ones you're saddled with on a CD, to be rid of clownish DJs and silly sound effects, to sidestep endless blocks of commercials here is the ultimate declaration of independence for anyone with a pair of headphones (and no, I'm not getting paid by Apple).
OK, not everyone has a digital music player. My own unscientific survey at Topanga Plaza last weekend found no one listening to an iPod-type device, while most everybody seemed to have a cell phone stuck to their ear. It's also true that the demise of radio has been inaccurately predicted before most recently with the introduction of the Walkman so some stalwarts are gamely pooh-poohing the downloading phenomenon as fad rather than revolution.
But iPods are not 8-tracks. By easily connecting to a computer and updating as often as you like, a dynamic media delivery system has been created far more expansive than most anything on radio or at the record store. And it's not just iPods; several cell phone models with built-in digital music players are about to be introduced, leading The New York Times to conclude in a headline, "Maybe You Don't Have to Carry Around Two Devices After All."
The most recent rage has not involved music but the ability to download news and talk programs into an iPod or MP3 player every time a new show becomes available. It comes with an inelegant name podcasting and it's essentially TiVo for radio. Thanks to Apple Computer updating its iTunes Web site to accommodate podcasts, public radio's KCRW-FM (89.9) reported that the number of downloads jumped from 3,500 a day to 100,000.
Good news for public radio, but for stations reliant on advertising dollars (and that's most of the industry), it's not an easy leap into the future. Of course, they're not alone members of the old-fart media continue to guess wildly at ways to attract younger readers, listeners and viewers.
In the newspaper business, editors and publishers are encouraging participatory journalism, in which readers are invited to edit published pieces to suit their own taste and opinions. Talk about dumb ideas how would you feel about friends and family second-guessing your MRI results or adjusting your medication levels? Journalists are not doctors, but they are professionals and should not be subject to editing by amateurs.
Content-wise, television is having a somewhat easier time with its reality programming, although there is a certain hit-and-miss quality to what works and what doesn't. And even if it works now, it probably won't by next season. Once a sniff of viewer fatigue pops up on chat rooms or Web sites, the show is toast and network programmers are stuck coming up with a new trick.
But unlike broadcasters and publishers, the music industry is not changing content, only taking advantage of an overhauled distribution channel that lets everyone have it their way. Add to that Apple's sensible business model, which allows users to purchase only the tracks they want at a cleverly priced 99 cents each.
This transactional element is the tipping point. For several years, many of our sons and daughters felt quite comfortable illegally downloading files, courtesy of Napster and similar services, and collecting bootlegged music by the thousands. People like me were so appalled that we ignored the technology behind the thievery. Now there's a mechanism to do it legally and effortlessly.
Yes, I'm hooked. And maybe in a few months the novelty will have worn off, and I'll be back at Borders browsing through the CDs. But I doubt it. When technology reaches the point where gee-whiz gadgetry turns into must-have reliance, it's time for the old-timers to pack it in. It happened when cell phones all but made pay phones obsolete. It's quickly happening with the Internet overtaking printed newspapers. And now it's the commercial radio business that's in jeopardy. With ad revenue projected to drop this year, many stations are facing a buggy whip future.
How can they keep their audience? I suspect they haven't a clue.
*Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal. He can be heard every Tuesday morning at 6:55 and 9:55 on KPCC-FM (89.3).
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