What's your crutch?

When the wind changes, where will your business be left?

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Donald Trump has been good for the news business. A crazy imperial leader, fawning courtiers and a strong resistance has meant a 24 hour-a-day reality show for news channels and publishers to cover. His desperation to lead the news, meant he generated it, all day every day.

In America, it’s meant that the news channels are riding high in ratings and revenue. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have done well by following one story - a soap opera where you can tune to the channel to get your point of view reflected. Indeed, Fox News is doing so well that it’s Primetime line-up of propagandists are getting better ratings than the evening line-up on broadcast entertainment channels ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

A Biden victory may well bring and end to this news-as-soap gravy train. Well, perhaps everyone other than Fox News, who will have a foe to fight for their season two.

The big issue is that the Trump mirage has hidden the changing consumer behaviours for the news business’ product and platform. News channels have faced an ageing audience, whilst core demographics are embracing a non-linear world for entertainment and a digital-driven one for news.

Pulling off the Trump-plaster is likely to see a bigger drop than expected, as the reality of where audiences actually are, is suddenly revealed.

Invisible crutches, like this Trump effect, can affect many businesses. When removed it can be particularly destabilising.

Right now, the Coronavirus and lock downs are also accelerating consumer change as well.

Comprehensive internet shopping and desktop video conferences have been around for a few years, but having been forced to use them all more regularly, do you think our old behaviours are likely to return? If we ever go back to the office, am I going to be happy to traipse across town for a non-essential meeting? I’m definitely going to think about it a bit more.

For radio particularly, I think there’s lots of crutches that we lean on.

Radio stations still confuse popularity/engagement with the monopoly of having a broadcast transmitter. The question I always ask stations is “if there were no barriers to consumption, what is it about your product, that would keep people tuning in?”.

In the late 90s and early 00s, successful radio stations were the ones that were the least worst option. A lot of effort was put into being ‘the station that we can all agree on’, particularly for offices or families. I’m not sure that really works today. Trying to be all things to all people can mean you end up being nothing to everyone.

I remain intrigued by the roll out of Bauer’s Greatest Hits station. The acquisition of UKRD, Celador and the Wireless Group et al has given it access to transmitters and local sales staff and a sizeable (though declining) chunk of FM listening in different areas. The output is pretty different to what went before (significantly more than the One Network to Heart change ten years ago) and it will no doubt prompt quite a bit of churn. I’m sure this will be in both directions - to it, and away from it - but without any RAJAR, the scale of that is going to be hard to see until the middle of next year.

Picking up on the thread of the past few posts and my statement that success today combines content, platforms and marketing - GHR’s expansion has certainly helped with the platforms part and it now has good distribution across the country. Its challenge is in the content and marketing bit.

Rebranding a load of FM stations with an older brand is though, probably the right thing to do. FM’s use is declining across the board, but it’s at the younger end where that’s more obvious. We are probably in the end game of using the FM monopoly to kick start the establishment of something new. I think a change on this scale is unlikely to happen again (or to be able to be as successful).

Post-acquisitions, GHR has doubled its reach and hours from 1.3m to 2.9m listeners and 10.2m to 22.1m for hours. It’s significant, but it’s cost them tens of millions of pounds to do it. It’s hard not to look at the digital-only Heart 80s with 4million hours and probably a budget of less than £600k and think who’s got the best deal?

With us all spending more time at home, with decent broadband, in-front of computers, next to smart speakers and mainly on our own; it’s hard to think that our changes in audio consumption won’t have been accelerated. Just like Zoom calls and the doorbell going for another Amazon Prime delivery.

The challenge for GHR, Heart 80s (and much of radio too), is to work out what it can do so its success is less reliant on that broadcast monopoly crutch. And if it was whisked away, are we happy with what we’ve got left?

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