Big Tech Always Fails at Doing Radio

News last week of a new launch by Amazon – Amp. As they describe it:

A new app that will give you a way to DJ your own live radio shows.

The short version is that anyone (well, provided you’re in the US and on iOS) can make a live radio show that combines the large music catalogue from Amazon Music with presenter links and the ability for listeners to call in.

It seems they’ve done a pretty good job with the app and the interface for producing, but, and it’s still very early days, the discovery of shows and things is a bit shonky. Potentially all fixable of course.

It’s not dissimilar, but perhaps better executed, than Spotify’s Music+Talk. That was their similar product that allowed users to create on-demand radio-style shows using Spotify’s catalogue. It’s been around 18 months but has yet to set the world alight.

Over the past twenty years there’s been many attempts at “improving radio” by start-ups and larger firms alike. They have pretty much all been unsuccessful.

Why? Arrogance mainly. Radio looks simple. “It’s been around 100 years, how difficult can it be” says another tech head who’s merely a listener, not an expert.

Every time they launch these types of services they fail to hire one of the many bright people from the radio sector who could actually explain the appeal of radio – and even perhaps suggest how it could help make these services work. Instead they try and reinvent the wheel and failure ensues.

In Amazon’s press release, the head of the service, John Ciancutti says:

Radio has always been about music and culture. But imagine if you were inventing the medium for the first time today. You’d combine what people love about radio—spontaneous talk, new music discovery, diverse personalities, and broad programming—with all that’s made possible by today’s technology. You’d make it so anybody with a phone, a voice, and a love for music could make their own show.

Anyone who’s actually worked in radio, or talked to listeners will tell you that what people love about radio is not “spontaneous talk, new music discovery, diverse personalities, and broad programming”. Some of these things are absolutely properties that work at individual stations, but radio as a whole is not like that. Radio is about familiarity. It’s about trust. It’s about company. A very large proportion of it is about background entertainment and another chunk is very much about news. The most popular radio stations in most markets in the world are low-talk, repetitive adult-contemporary music stations.

The percentage that’s “spontaneous talk, new music discovery, diverse personalities, and broad programming’ is a very small proportion. It’s also the format that’s hardest to execute and deliver and it requires very talented people to do this very difficult type of programming.

I’ve always been a supporter of empowering anyone who wants to get into radio presenting – but it’s a skill, that requires practice and understanding. Radio is not about the producer. It’s about the listener. Great radio is focused on them. It’s easy to be distracted by a motormouth DJ when it seems it’s all about him (and it’s usually him), but the best ego-driven hosts are the ones who are performing not for themselves, but for the listeners the other end.

If I was building radio from the ground up I would not be concentrating on “anybody with a phone, a voice, and a love for music”.

Looking at his LinkedIn profile, Mr Ciancutti is indeed a very talented chap. VP of Product Engineering at Netflix, Director of Engineering at Facebook, then Director of Product Management at Google, before joining Amazon. He seems exactly the right person with the skills to build a digital product. Great radio though, is not just a digital product.

The other problem for Amazon, or Spotify, is that radio works well when it’s unencumbered by platform. People are used to being able to get radio content any way they wish. Just has Apple has found that seemingly locking away Beats 1, now Apple Music 1 in a single app means that one of radio’s core successes – sharing and common consumption – is almost impossible to achieve.

Radio’s long-running success partly comes from a broadcast mentality. Stations are after listeners everywhere. In the UK radio has rushed to be on FM, DAB, though a Digital Television, online, on mobile, in smart speakers – anywhere that will have it. Station operators get annoyed when they can’t get their stations into more places. It is the polar opposite of an app-driven culture. Why? Because it’s essential to go where listeners are. You go to their party, you don’t demand they come to yours.

A service being both only available to a subset of people and then with so much choice in it means dilemmas around discovery and the opportunity for these digital shows to get any salience with listeners almost impossible. Globally there are few linear internet-radio stations with an audience – being niched and with limited distribution means its hard to connect with a large number of people. This will always be the killer for talent too. Why put that effort in to something that can’t generate a meaningful audience?

The lure of user-generated content is strong for all digital companies. It’s cheap content creation and the hope is to let a million flowers bloom, with the good stuff rising to the top. Everyone wants to be a YouTube for… whatever. It is almost impossible for this to happen.

YouTube got to mass market video first. Mainly by ignoring any rules around rights! It was free to use, accessible by everyone, and it was built on the open, desktop web, pre-smart phones. Now it’s cross-platform which has certainly helped it maintain its lead, but it’s basically broadcast. Open to all.

Attempts like Clubhouse burned brightly before most people realised the content was a bit crap. It was hard to find things to listen to that didn’t end up being a 90 minute panel session at a conference. There were no mass market hits because it was hard to integrate Clubhouse into your audio ear time, and the participants were in it for themselves rather than you listening at home.

All digital radio products are challenged by strictly held music rights deals. Logged in users, content restrictions, country by country rules. And expensive to license. The music battle between Amazon, Apple, Spotify and Google has also balkanised user access. For god’s sake even playlists aren’t transferrable between services. Building platforms on top of platforms is not consumer friendly.

Radio is ‘one button’ entertainment, it’s a background listen. Searching out an ever-changing list of shows is a different user experience. Even in the streaming world the average number of artists a user streams is 40. That’s the average! That means there’s as many people listening to less than that as there are more. The vast majority of people do not have the time to spend auditioning variable quality content to replace the radio they consume at the moment. It is almost impossible to get people to switch from one professional radio station to another – and that’s with talent, marketing and universal distribution!

Knowing all of this, perhaps it’s not a surprise that the only thing that’s made a dent in radio – in audience scale or content style – are podcasts. I think so much of it is down to being a product that’s built on broad distribution. No lock in, lots of choices of how to get it. They appear in lots of places – apps, the web, smart speakers, in-flight entertainment. Big shows grow from being easily accessible (hey, they might be acquired and become an exclusive afterwards). There aren’t many examples of successful shows that start as platform exclusives for a reason.

I’m not a luddite. I think there’s lots of positives in having UGC services that allow people to play around with music and be a DJ for their mates. A modern version of sharing a mixtape with your friends. However its rare that any of those mixtapes would have been popular enough to be sold in HMV.

If digital companies truly want to create the radio of the future they need to understand the medium, how listeners interact with it and why it’s successful. What won’t work is assuming how you and your colleagues consume radio, and the fact you’ve heard a load of radio shows over your lifetime sets you up to be able to re-invent the medium.

There’s a further quote from John later in the article:

When I was a kid, radio was really different from how it is today. DJs were local to their markets. I used to move back and forth from San Francisco to Miami between parents, and radio sounded completely different in each city. Not the music, but the sound, everything. DJs would play local music and emerging artists, they were kingmakers, and they drove local music culture. I felt a connection to those DJs…. I’m excited for Amp to bring that opportunity to listeners.

It seems John is saying that moving away from this local/DJ-centric world is where radio went wrong and that’s what Amp is trying to bring back. Firstly, it’s a rose-tinted view of the past. Local radio’s existence was often a quirk of licensing and distribution more than anything else. It also existed in a world where there wasn’t the internet, hundreds of television channels and services like Spotify and Amazon Music. Anything can do well when there’s little competition. That’s not today’s world.

Successful radio groups understand consumers and the material that responds well to their need states. These are billion dollar operations, all around the world who understand their listeners. The arrogance to say that you’re in a position to re-invent radio without having learned the basics makes me, as you may have worked out, a little cross.

What I think is so surprising is that it’s Amazon that have ended up creating a product so similar to other unsuccessful ones in this space. I think they’re such a great company with an amazing history of innovation. And so often their success comes from understanding consumer behaviour. Whether it’s the initial Amazon store, AWS, their logistics business or the idea of Prime – when they’re focused on fixing something and innovating they do incredibly well and are pretty unbeatable.

The danger, of course, is that in writing this I’m seen as the man from Kodak explaining why digital cameras aren’t go work. Or Nokia laughing at the iPhone. But my anger isn’t that I think ‘radio’ is doing a perfect job – I don’t think that. It’s not even that I’m against digital audio evolution. I’m a huge fan of podcasts and I would love there to be a sister product that was music-driven, there is absolutely a gap in the market for it.

It’s just that every time a digital company wades into this area they say the same thing – that they’ll be reinventing radio. Every company that has a go then does basically the same thing. And they all. All. Fail. It’s because they’re always focused on re-inventing the transmitter, but forget that it’s just a tool that brings the actual product to listeners.

Either that, or the product managers are all just frustrated DJs who couldn’t get on the radio and now want to wreak revenge. If so, why you didn’t get on, is the same reason that you’re unlikely to be successful now. No listener focus!

Why Amp is the latest attempt that misunderstands listeners.

1 Comment
  1. I really can’t disagree with any of this–history is certainly on your side, Matt, and AMP has a ways to go. I would say two things, though: first, (and this is a minor point), I am having a lot of fun on the platform as a creator, and creators are users/customers, too. There aren’t as many of us as there are listeners, surely, but there is a user base there, and thus something to build upon.

    But more importantly, in the UK you are surrounded by great radio, and a much healthier broadcast industry than we have here in the States. I think you need to spend a day listening to a mid-market, large company soft AC here in the States. You’ll want to disrupt THAT, right quick. All of our data shows commercial radio eroding pretty steadily over the last decade, with a big decrease in radio’s Share of Ear, which (especially on the young end) is migrating to YouTube for music, streaming services, and yes–podcasting, as you note.