NAB European Radio Conference 2006

There’s been a definite theme in this year’s NAB European Radio Conference in Rome.

NAB is broken up into tracks: ‘Executive Management’, ‘Programming and Promotions’, and ‘Sales and Marketing’. The management track has three sessions on new platforms (including one I was speaking at), the programming track contained a new-media themed talk, and the sales track included “The essential new media sales clinic”, “Why New Media Is Hot And How Radio Makes It Profitable”, and even a session called “Google rules - traditional marketers drool”. Yes, the internet is the big thing this year: from programming to sales. Welcome to the year 2000.

The two days started with Chrysalis’s Phil Riley, and Yahoo Music’s David Goldberg. Riley was arguing that radio is in good health: today’s youth spend much longer with radio than sites like MySpace, but ad agencies are seduced with the bright shiny lights of, as it appears to be called here, the ‘innernet’. It was a spirited defence of our medium, with solid research to back it up. David Goldberg was, on the other hand, arguing that music radio’s had its day - but hadn’t bothered to look at the European market at all. A dismal US-centric start - resulting in Goldberg looking unprepared and foolish against an erudite and intelligent argument from Riley. Two interesting pieces of news: first, that there are no current rock stations any more in most major markets in the USA, and there’s not even a country music station in Los Angeles, the US’s largest market for country music: chasing the advertising money seems incompatible with offering true choice. (A colleague tells me that when US radio stopped playing as much country music, suicide levels reduced in the US, which is a nice if probably coincidental story).

The session I spoke in turned into a selling piece for DAB - not entirely unfairly, given its success: then a trip into the mobile TV world, where radio has much to gain from mobile television receivers in things like phones and MP3 players. Some basic examples from BT Movio and the USA, where they have two competing systems already, naturally.

Then, a session called “Getting today’s youth interested in radio again”. For the record: in the UK, 15-24s are listening to 9% less radio in two years: over a slightly longer time period, that same demographic is down 24% in the USA and 33% in Switzerland. The panel universally agreed that…

  • there was no problem with young people deserting radio
  • the answer was to use the innernet more
  • not quite sure what to use the innernet, but it ought to be used for something
  • yes, use the innernet, it’s the answer to our problems
  • er
  • that’s it

It does appear that the UK is better at retaining young listeners than other countries - I’d like to dig into the figures more to discover exactly why this is, though I suspect multi-platforms and the BBC’s influence.

I then went into the sales track for the ‘Google rules, marketers drool’. Interesting how many people came in just because the G word was mentioned - while Google were sponsoring an event here, hard information on Google’s involvement with radio sales is hard to find - but this wasn’t anything to do with Google at all, other than apparently the stunningly new idea that you might want to Google the company and find out who to talk to. Gosh. Having said that, there were a number of quite interesting slides thrown up in all of this. The presenter, Sheila F Kirby from Interep, made me talk a bit about Visual Radio. I said nice things and backed her up.

The next day included - hey! - more stuff about digital radio. Someone in Switzerland has been experimenting with HD Radio. It was asked what the customer reaction was. “It’s been great. We’ve done it for a good few months, and nobody’s complained,” said the Swiss bloke. Unequivocal support, then. Frankly, the bunfight between DVH-B, DAB, DRM, DMB, MP2, AAC+ and HD Radio isn’t really helping anyone. WorldDAB (or WorldDMB or whoever they are these days) seem to see DRM as a competitor and someone to be fought; Ofcom appear to believe (as do I) that DRM is a great complementary technology to DAB. Clearly, I’m always right on these things… ;)

Finally for me, after skipping a few sessions to do some work (!), a quite enthralling if slightly pointless demonstration of surround-sound. I’m dubious about surround; I am blessed with two ears not four, and while a demonstration of flicking between stereo and surround was impressive, I’m not convinced the effect wasn’t just the fact that more speakers were being used, rather than anything cleverer. An experienced American radio chap sitting a few seats away from me answered the speaker’s enquiry of “could you hear the difference?” with the answer “Yes, it was louder”, which I don’t think was the correct answer. After a rather well-produced montage of songs, I asked whether there was any evidence of consumer demand, given that our experience with DAB in the UK is that nobody gives a tinker’s cuss about the audio quality. The answer? Nobody cared about the quality jump between AM and FM in the states either; much less the difference between FM and HD Radio; but this was somehow different. I don’t see it, myself.

Well-produced conferences can energise, excite, and reinvigorate. But here, speakers over-ran, panel sessions turned into “five Powerpoints in a row” without any time for questions, and technical problems and the insane switching of laptops drove me mad. But most importantly, there was such a dearth of ideas, it’s left me rather pessimistic about what the future holds for radio. It appears we’re trying to solve 2007’s problems with programming and marketing ideas we learnt in the 1990s. TV, the internet, and even newspapers appear to have radically reinvented their business to cope with the changing landscape. I see little evidence of that from most radio groups (excepting, actually, a few unsung GCap experiments).

The NAB European Conference 2007 is in Barcelona: I’ve never visited Barcelona, and I doubt I will be.