To us Europeans, the flexibility of broadcast radio formats in the US is quite different to our very regulated environment. Here, on FM it’s very difficult to change your station’s format between rock and urban, whilst in America the ‘format flip’ is something that’s always been an option.
Is your Country station under-performing? Don’t worry! Tomorrow it could be Smooth Jazz!
Of course in the digital world - both online, but also DAB (our broadcast digital radio) - it is a little easier to pivot and change direction. And in 2020 all media, regulated or not, needs to be more fleet of foot to better represent the changing world and new business opportunities.
In the US, last week, the largest radio operator - iHeartMedia (previously ClearChannel) blew up 15 broadcast radio station formats (in Atlanta, Augusta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Columbus, GA, Detroit, Greenville, Macon, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Riverside, San Francisco and Seattle) to launch a new mostly-national speech service - BIN - the Black Information Network. iHeart describe it as:
…the first and only 24/7 national and local all news audio service dedicated to providing an objective, accurate and trusted source of continual news coverage with a Black voice and perspective. BIN is focused on service to the Black community and providing an information window for those outside the community to help foster communication, accountability and a deeper understanding.
What’s interesting, and actually pretty unusual for US radio, is that they’re seemingly trying to create a multi-platform brand. Online, on the radio and on mobile as well as on FM/AM. The service is available on the iHeart app, but as well as providing a linear stream on a number of analogue transmitters it’s also going to provide the news service for some of iHeart’s Hip Hop and Gospel formats including stations Power 105.1 in New York and Real 92.3 in Los Angeles.
It’s been set up as a separate business unit, which whilst it’s hard to understand exactly what that means in corporate terms, is generally a good thing. Projects like this have the best chance of succeeding if a group of people are allowed to do what’s right, rather than do it the way their parent company’s always done it. At BIN they’ve appointed both an insider, iHeart lifer Tony Coles and an outsider, Westwood One/Reach’s Tanita Myers to run it.
It’s incredibly difficult for big companies to be able to incubate new ideas. In an other lifetime, when I worked in strategy for GCap (now Global), I remember after another failed programming shift, suggesting we exile XFM out of our Leicester Square HQ, giving it some young management and letting them get on with it. Sadly the only response I got was raised eyebrows.
XFM was cool. This was its curse and its saving grace. Curse because the company was built on generating broad success, it didn’t know what to do with this child. But also a massive benefit, the coolness of XFM could be leveraged for young planners in the national advertising community to excite them about the broader range of stations the group owned.
Also, all the management in the company wanted to be involved with XFM. Because it was cool. Much cooler than the other things they ran. This means that the network was faffed around with constantly. There was no vision allowed from the people who actually understood the audience and could have driven it forward. It later became the less cool, more mainstream modern rock station Radio X. A fine format to be in, but sad that the old one was sacrificed.
XFM could have prospered as a cross-platform brand with attitude, with radio at its heart, rather than being seen internally as an underperforming radio station.
Still today, UK radio groups have real problems conceiving of truly multi-platform brands. Capital is probably as close as you get with decent output across radio, social, video and web - but it’s still more about supporting Capital the radio station, than Capital the brand.
African Americans make up 13% of the country, and as such, there’s always been radio stations for the group. But the investment into speech and content has been poor, with lacklustre opportunities afforded to the group by the predominantly white men in charge. According to iHeart, the BIN format’s been in the planning since last year. The launch, though, has been brought forward due to the long-overdue sea change in the US population’s attitudes, as they begin to understand the mistreatment of Black citizens, in all walks of life.
I hope that by growing a team with resources and expertise, they’ll create content and knowledge that the rest of iHeartMedia can plug into. Resources come from netting a decent roster of advertisers. For the launch, iHeart have done deals with big name core partners to be station sponsors - Sony Pictures Entertainment, Bank of America, CVS Health, Geico, Lowe’s, McDonald’s USA, 23andMe and Verizon. They describe that these partners:
…will be able to deliver important messages to BIN’s audiences and serve as a platform for philanthropic and community outreach to build brand connection and support the Black community, as well as use it for advertising messages as needed.
Hopefully white corporate America’s recent engagement with the challenges its Black consumers face, can be channeled into funding this new network and help it grow to be a successful, much needed voice.
Picking up on this topic, but with a TV perspective, the NYT has a good piece on How Netflix Beat Hollywood to a Generation of Black Content.
At the other end of the spectrum, Vulture chronicles how not being in touch with audiences could be affecting the establishment of short-form TV content platform Quibi.
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