programing to win

Pat WelshFor his first Programming to Win column of 2016, Pat Welsh takes a look around the tech world to give us all an update on the latest innovations. But most importantly – how can they be applied to the radio industry and what do they mean for its future?

By: Pat Welsh

Every few months or so, I like to take stock of new technologies – both inside and outside our industry – to see what’s going to affect radio in the short and long run. The start of a new year is as good a time as any to evaluate things, so here’s an overview of some of the new technologies that are or will be affecting us.

Connected Cars – The last time I wrote about connected cars, I made the point that proprietary in-car technology systems from car manufacturers often didn’t play nice with the ever-changing smartphone operating systems that drivers are attached to. That’s changed substantially as Apple and Google have gotten into the dashboard with their in-car OS’s.

Manufacturers are showcasing myriad new systems at the North American Auto Show in Detroit, which is going on as I write this: new hybrid vehicles to new materials to the electronic interface between car and driver (if there is one).

Most buyers with smartphones now expect their next car to integrate seamlessly with their phones. As the interfaces improve, this allows Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and various other digital audio competitors to further encroach on terrestrial radio’s turf. That, in turn, should increase the urgency for us to improve our performance in areas such as podcasting.

All Things App – Americans spend more time accessing the Internet from mobile apps than they do from desktop browsers. That’s not news; it’s been true for about two years. What about your situation? Do you know the breakdown of in-app vs. desktop access to your station? Several programmers that I’ve spoken with over the last few months were shocked at the results when I asked them to check the numbers.

Most radio apps now offer critical features such as streaming upon opening, alarm clocks, access to recently played music, etc., but what’s the navigation like? Can users find what they need quickly? Has anybody even bothered to survey the users to find out what they want, need and value?

It’s difficult topic since these things were long ago taken out of the hands of local personnel. But too often, digital assets look as if they’re afterthoughts or playgrounds for developers to show off “cool design,” instead of being user friendly.

Podcasting – Podcasting reached the tipping point in 2015. Listeners and advertisers are enthusiastic about it, and we should be too. The success of “Serial” showed even many cynics that podcasts could attract huge audiences, water cooler talk and big brand advertisers. Add in technical advances like dynamic ad insertion and consumer brands are all ears.

Podcasting has even overcome its lousy name (in the early days, the “pod” portion confused people, making many think you had to have an “iPod” to “podcast,” but now that iPods are becoming a relic of the past, that confusion has dissipated).

Now that podcasting has become mainstream, it’s important that we embrace it. One of traditional radio’s key benefits is personality and human connections, things that streaming music services typically don’t offer. Non-terrestrial-radio-based podcasts are all about developing personalities and compelling stories. But that’s exactly what we’ve been doing this for as long as radio has been around; terrestrial radio must seize the moment with podcasting.

Mobile Messaging – Now we’re moving into platforms that are not specifically radio related. Mobile messaging is a great place to start because it’s hugely popular (especially with younger demos) all over the world. Mobile messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Line and WeChat provide free voice calls and messaging to their users.

WeChat, and its Chinese parent company Tencent, are only vaguely familiar to many in the U.S. WeChat has 500 million subscribers in China (1 ½ times the population of the U.S.) and 150 million more around the world. WhatsApp, which cost Facebook $19 billion a couple of years ago, is the more familiar app in this part of the world, but WeChat is the more profitable service.

Both companies have added a lot of other things on top of messaging and phone calls, but WeChat is now doing various types of ecommerce, including video calling and social networking, and the service is making money for Tencent. In fact, one observer recently said that it’s a mistake to lump WeChat together with WhatsApp, since WeChat is offering a lot more.

The important thing about these services is that they take lots of their users’ time. And time spent on other services will eventually be a problem for radio. It’s important for us to learn about these services and find ways that we can co-opt them.

Mobile Video Streaming – I assume that almost every station is doing something with Snapchat and Instagram, but what about the next level of engagement, live video? There are two major players: Periscope (owned by Twitter) and Meerkat. These apps allow users to easily stream live video from their mobile phone cameras. This can extend a station’s content by taking listeners/users behind-the-scenes in real time.

Some stations and personalities are starting to experiment with it. They’ll show behind-the—scenes prep for a show or event, backstage banter with on-air guests and pull-back-the-curtains coverage of station special events.

These are technologies worth investing in. They help us tell the stories that make our radio stations into something stronger. Besides providing a visual element, these platforms provide us with a way to expose the human side and the local side of our brands.

VR (Virtual Reality) – This is the big buzz in tech right now. The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was loaded with it, but it’s not that practical yet. A number of VR systems will go on sale this year: Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, HTC & Valve’s Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR.

These devices will be cool, but expensive. And what will early adopters be able to do with them? As usual, the content lags behind the hardware. 21st Century Fox made a splash with the simultaneous release of the DVD of its hit movie The Martian and a VR package that “is a combination of video game functionality and story-telling narrative and allows the viewer to experience the film from the perspective of the beleaguered NASA astronaut.”

It’s expected that VR will hit fastest in video games, an environment based on immersive experiences. But there will be ways for all media to use VR as it matures and comes down in price. Iheartmedia has already inked a deal with Universal Music for VR concerts. Can games with morning show personalities and backstage at station festivals be far behind?

Other technology stories that matter in 2016 are the growth of Next Radio, the development of Nielsen’s Total Audience Measurement system and the epic PPM/Voltair battle. It’ll be fascinating to see how the landscape changes over the next year.

Pat Welsh, Senior Vice President/Digital Content, Pollack Media Group, can be reached at 310 459-8556, fax: 310-454-5046, or at Email Pat.