What If We Were Wrong About Radio

Plus: The two kinds of Clubhouse experiences

This is not solely a Clubhouse post. But we are going to start there. I've dipped in and out of the app a fair amount, and we have been steadily collecting data on Clubhouse users for the last two months in our Social Habit tracking project. News flash--there is a typical user for Clubhouse, and it's not exactly a group that you would say has a problem getting heard in American society. I have said before that Clubhouse rewards those who can push themselves to the front of a room. This wasn't based solely on opinion. We'll publish more on that, soon.

There do seem to be two different Clubhouses, though. Clubhouse #1 is close to the spirit of what I think we mean by "social audio." I've found Clubhouse to be a wonderful place to start or join serendipitous conversations with small groups of people. Essentially it applies a public, social layer to Zoom (or at least the way I mostly use Zoom, with the camera off.) I could see someone like Apple just buying Clubhouse for this reason alone--not so much as a stand-alone app, but as a built-in feature for iOS/iMessage that (thanks to Clubhouse's decision to launch solely as an iPhone app) Android doesn't have an immediate answer for.

Clubhouse #1 is the reinvention of the party line for a social media age. But there is a limit to the the percentage of people who want to express their opinions online to an asymmetric network of people they don't know (see paragraph #1). I see Twitter's current usage percentage as a likely predictor of the hard cap on this, and that's a number that no longer grows very fast. It's also why I am a little more bullish on Twitter Spaces than I am Clubhouse--Twitter already has the right audience for this product aggregated.

It's Clubhouse #2 that I am more interested in, however. It is this version of Clubhouse that we see when Elon Musk or Kevin Hart graces a room. It's this version of Clubhouse I recently participated in, when iHeart's Bob Pittman headlined a room that featured Paris Hilton, Angela Yee, Katie Couric, Bobby Bones, and others in the iHeart stable of talent. This room, which was scheduled in advance and can only be described as a giant flex by iHeart, attracted thousands of people at noon on a Tuesday. It wasn't on-demand, like podcasting, and it wasn't asynchronous, like Facebook or Twitter. You literally had to be there, exactly when it was scheduled. A handful of people got to participate, and they represented thousands more who could not, because at that scale, there's no such thing as "social audio."

Clubhouse #2 is not social audio. I believe we have a term for a scheduled, synchronous, live audio program that has minimal opportunity for listener interaction. I believe that term is “Radio.”

For rooms like these, once the number of avatars you have to juggle exceeds a screen or three, Clubhouse is Radio. If you read that as "Clubhouse is just Radio," you read that, I didn't write it. Saying "Clubhouse is Radio" is not a slam. It is the opposite. It reminds us that radio at its finest is pretty great.

But it is interesting to me that it would be natural to read "Clubhouse is Radio" as denigrating the former. If you think that, this probably says more about what you think of Radio than what you think of Clubhouse. You probably think of Radio as dying on the vine, while streaming, podcasting, and other digital audio sources are taking over the present and the future. Radio is old tech, while Clubhouse offers new possibilities that Radio could never have dreamed of in its heyday. In short, for many of you, your natural gut reaction to this post so far might understandably be "I think you are wrong about Clubhouse." Or something less polite. But let me pose an alternative question:

What if you--what if we all--are wrong about Radio?

For the purposes of this discussion, I'd like to separate Radio, the thing I am comparing with Clubhouse, from the radio industry, the current manifestation of the medium by its primary practitioners. As far as the latter is concerned, it has been shrinking steadily, but not precipitously, for the last decade or more. When we began our Share of Ear® project in 2014, over half of the audio we consumed was AM/FM content. Today, that figure is 39%-still the largest slice of the audio pie (or donut, as we represent it) but it has certainly lost share to both streaming audio (Spotify, Pandora, etc.) and podcasting. Those declines accelerated somewhat during the pandemic as we spent less time in cars, which only reinforces the belief that much of the consumption of radio is passive--a function of convenience, rather than choice.

As such, despite radio's still-considerable reach and prominence in our Share of Ear donut, the radio industry has lost a good deal of its cachet. When I was a teen, I thought about going into radio as a career. Today, I don't think my son feels the same. All of which leads me to ask a question: is "Radio" not cool anymore, or is the radio industry not cool anymore? I submit this is a deeper question than you might think, and one that cuts to the heart of the future of Clubhouse and other so-called social audio ventures.

Increasingly, larger radio groups treat digital as a division--one branch of a multidisciplinary offering. iHeart, for example, recently reorganized into two distinct divisions: the iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group, which has all the fun new digital toys, and the iHeartMedia Multiplatform Group, which has all the radio stations. If you work on the radio side for any of the larger companies, you probably feel like Woody did right after Andy got a Buzz Lightyear. Or how your bathroom feels after you redo the kitchen.

Imagine being in HR and getting two great résumés: a 25-year old web developer/designer, and a 58-year old major market DJ. Assume you can hire both. The conventional, multidisciplinary view of radio companies would assign one to "Digital" and one to "Radio." Guess who goes where. But is that the right answer? Or a structural bias that predicts, not reflects, the future of the radio industry?

So (and all credit to my wife, Tamsen, for framing the question so succinctly, as is her gift), is audio multidisciplinary? Or interdisciplinary? Shouldn't the minds of both of these prospective new employees, even if only for a few hours a week, be applied to the problems of both divisions? What would happen if all of the bright young minds in the "digital" division collaborated with the entertainment pros of the radio division?

Mightn't you get Clubhouse?

Commercial broadcast radio companies were a little late to podcasting. I think it may have surprised some of them to realize that radio was not immediately positioned out of the gate to dominate this new medium. But the overwhelming majority of commercial broadcast radio stations in this country play music (someone else's content) and the small percentage that don't, air syndicated talk programming instead (again, at the station level, someone else's content.) As I have said in this space and others, commercial radio companies simply lacked the muscle memory to produce, at scale, the kind of narrative spoken word content that, say, public media has been honing for decades. Commercial broadcasters had some advantages, but ultimately, the prominence of several radio companies in our Podcast Consumer Tracker ranking of networks is as much a function of their buying podcasts as it is building them.

But Clubhouse is different: the skills needed to attract and maintain a live audience for a shared experience are not new, but ones the radio industry has had for decades. Despite the enhancements of a social graph and metadata, Clubhouse-at-scale is a complete throwback, is it not? With the components of our Share of Ear tilting more every year towards on-demand content, along comes a digital network that tells us we need to be there Thursday at 5:00 PM to hear Mark Zuckerberg get interviewed live. And people show up! Set aside all of the things that make using Clubhouse superior to using the FM radio in your car and focus on the behavior--the behavior tells me this: radio might be in decline, but Radio is just as vital as it has ever been.

Whether we are talking about the global reach of Clubhouse, the national reach of Elvis Duran, or the community reach of WCOM, a low-power FM in Carrboro, NC, we are talking about the same thing: the ability to attract a live audience, entertain them in a single, shared moment, and make them feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. That even though they won't raise their hand to talk (and quite honestly would very likely be ignored if they did), that they could. And that they need to be there, live and on schedule, or they miss it. Which means the content needs to be passively consumable in ways that your favorite podcast might not be, because you are very likely to be doing other things when it airs.

This should all sound familiar, not new. I am not one for forecasting or predicting trends--mainly because I hate to be wrong, like, ever. But I am willing to bet that two of the enhancements to Clubhouse’s future will be tools of radio's past--improved audience screening features, and the digital equivalent of the seven-second delay. While RDS, HD-Radio, and NextRadio all failed to bolt data on to Radio, Clubhouse may yet successfully bolt Radio on to data.

We now have a service, the first of several, that asks us to do something we thought that on-demand media and social networking were moving us away from--to consume media as a live, scheduled, and shared experience. Something we used to do, in droves, and something radio used to give us, before it moved so strongly away from personalities and towards a more homogeneous experience. And so, I return to the title of this post: What if we were wrong about Radio?

What if radio was wrong about Radio?


Newsletter business: Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this and you are not currently subscribed, I’d love it if you did. I am starting to reconsider Substack (you’re soaking in it) as the home for this newsletter, only because I would like to eventually send some newsletters only to email subscribers (and not have it republished on the web) but the only way to engineer that currently in Substack is to charge a monthly subscription for the newsletter, and I don’t have plans for that. If you would like to support the newsletter without a recurring subscription charge, I’ve set up a Buy Me Coffee account. I will literally use it for coffee, believe me. Today’s coffee features an oat creamer which seems to be neither, convincingly. But whether you buy me a coffee or not, I’ll be back here next week with an all new I Hear Things, no strings attached. And look for an audio version over the weekend, if you’d prefer that.

I hope you are OK.

Tom

Photo credit: By Rob Young from United Kingdom - Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32243963