Charlie Cook On Air

“Fans Like Free Media”

August is the month of state and county fairs. Headlining: bad food. Iowa has a new dish this year of Fried Butter. Really? Plain butter isn’t enough to drive up health care costs in the state?

State fairs are populated by not only by questionable gastronomic challenges but by scores of thrilling rides. Rickety roller coasters, ferocious Ferris wheels and titillating tilt-a-whirls. This August the real thrilling ride came, not from state fairs but the stock market.

But this is not a financial column. If it were, you might want to quickly turn away.

It is a column about Country radio and records and the listener/consumer. We know what the state and county fairs have in common with radio, records and the listener. Country performers make their careers in Pelham, AL; Pueblo, CO; and Sussex County, NJ. Country radio is broadcasting remotes and giving away tickets to listeners, who flock to the rides, snacks, petting farms and performances. It is often the best money spent, fun for one low price.

How does this tie into Wall Street? The fans are also flocking to free media.

Associated Press did an analysis of cable and satellite companies, after quarterly earnings reports, and found that consumers are abandoning their clickers in increasing numbers. The loss is not yet earth-shattering but it is the first down-tick in the industry. And this was for a reported quarter BEFORE the stock market scared the heck out of every wage earner in America.

It is also important to note that the consumer is not abandoning TV—just paying for it. They are finding their programming online. When the DVR has become one of the most important electronic toys in a household, what does a consumer’s willingness to forgo cable and watch programming online, on his own schedule, tell us about media consumption?

We know that older Americans have already gone away from purchasing recorded music as in the past. The last few weeks’ No. 1 debut country CD sales failed to top 150,000. We have adjusted our expectations so that this is a successful launch.

This is at the same time that Country Radio stations are setting new ratings highs. Listening to (free) radio is up almost everywhere. Atlanta has a combined cume of over 1.5 million. Detroit is just short of a million cume with only one station. Boston set a ratings record. Los Angeles has stabilized at over one million. Dallas, Chicago, Houston and the list goes on and on. Country radio is way up—free Country radio.

Nashville record companies would like to find another path to the listener, one without the gate keepers of program directors and consultants. But both industries can thrive with an even more powerful partnership.

The consumer is choosing free more often and radio and records can help drive this with creative cooperation. I am not asking for either partner to give up anything for free but what about Country radio and record companies thinking how to drive both listenership and purchasing.

In order to keep it free, maybe we need to find a sponsor that also benefits from the association. What is going to be important, however, is for radio and records to find something that we’re willing to share with each other. It is going to take more than giving an act exposure for a concert.

I like the conference room concerts that artists do for stations because we get to meet the act and bond a little, but stations should use these new acts for lunchtime or after work shows at a sponsor and invite listeners. It’s free for the listener and the station. Plus, it takes a committed record company expense and maybe turns it into an opportunity to build a base in the market.

I wrote awhile back about the lack of connection that radio is making with artists because of programmer reluctance to chance the PPM ratings system with additional talk. I said then and this was a recipe for decreased ratings down the pike. Committing your station to a new act, maybe not on air interviews but with a real chance to interact with the listener/consumer is better than a day at the State Fair.

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