Sunday, February 11, 2007

Can Your iPod Do That?

I've been commuting to Silicon Valley from New York for the last six months, and, to preserve my sanity, finally gave in and bought an iPod Shuffle. It changed my commuting experience completely. It let me reconnect with music I just hadn't had time to hear, which was like getting together with a bunch of old friends. The shuffle feature had the added advantage of presenting familiar music in new combinations - I've discovered lots of seques and sets that I hadn't thought of before.

From a Radio Refugee perspective, that's the good news. But the bad news is I'm now one of many millions to own a device that competes directly with radio for my listening attention. And, the automakers are piling on by making it easy to plug this device into car audio systems, encroaching on one of the last safe havens for radio (satellite or terrestrial).

The extreme pessimistic view that iPods and their ilk with destroy radio has already been surfaced, and a flurry of responses has been issued citing the unique ability of radio to provide time- and locality-sensitive information, like traffic, news and weather, or event calendars. But what's to prevent Apple of some other company from equipping an iPod with wireless communications capability, and allowing easy access to these information services over a cell network, WiMax or WiFi? Answer: nothing. See the iPhone announcement for a peek into that future.

Sounds like the bad news just got worse. But I'm not writing off radio just yet. Why? Because I don't have a personal relationship with my iPod's software. The iPod doesn't tell me it's feeling blue if it's a rainy day, or that it's excited because a great band is coming to town. The iPod can't make me laugh at a good joke that relates to some politician's recent gaffe. The iPod can't put music together that reflects what's happening where I am right now. Get it? The iPod can program at me, but it can't speak to me.

In short, the iPod can be a tool, but not a person. A person can know something about me. A person can care about me. I can have romantic fantasies about a person. A person can become a friend. My iPod can't be my friend.

But that voice on the radio is a person. That person can become my friend. I care about my friends - and I will choose to be with them over using my tools. Building and maintaining this relationship with listeners is the challenge for radio in the world of iPods.

Radio can be a listener's trusted friend. Can your iPod do that?

Random Notes

Follow up on Jack et al: According to the Arbitron ratings, WCBS-FM is at the head of the middle of the pack in NYC, about where predicted a (ahem) year ago. I note with interest that both Jack in NYC and Max in Silicon Valley have added a unique new wrinkle to the format: people! What a concept...

If one wants a definition of "professional" in the music business, look no further than Prince's performance during the Super Bowl. Not only did he construct a set list that acknowledged the vastly heterogeneous audience, he delivered it in the pouring rain with nary a glitch nor complaint on his part.

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