Pandora’s Box

18 01 2012

Before the tech-tectonic plates drifted to form the internet as we know it, people used to listen to the radio. You know…over-the-air. Static. Mono. AM.

OK, I am waxing nostalgic here. I am thinking roughly 1972, my peak musical memory year. I was a mere 13 and seeing the world through the lens of puberty. All I had was a cheap transistor radio, and I listened to WLS and WCFL in my cozy suburban Chicago home. I was finding my music, the music that would shape my life.

And while I quickly transitioned to FM (thanks to a new radio), I, like everyone else at that time, was limited to just a few stations playing records, disc jockeys spinning tunes as their general manager’s playlist dictated.

You could only hope your favorite song was next in the queue.

But today, 40 years later, our radio listening habits have changed dramatically. In fact, a full 40-percent of USAmericans now listen to Pandora, the internet-only site at which users can build their own dang radio station.

And broadcasters had better be scared.

No, this doesn’s mean that over-the-air radio will go away any time soon (no more than the continue surge of e-commerce spells doom for brick-and-mortar retailers). but pity the fool who ignores the sound of advancing warriors intent on pillaging the village.

Sure, Clear Channel, with their hundreds of broadcast stations and distant second-place iHeartRadio web app, sneers at the prospects of web-only apps killing the radio stars. But the reality is this: Pandora is working its way into our cars, now that it has forged alliances with 16 automakers. With the ubiquity of cellular internet, it is no big deal to pull in Pandora in a moving car.

Pandora sits in the driver’s seat in that it was an early player in this business, and is certainly the biggest. But with Pandora finding its way into dashboards and car stereos, it can only be a few #1 songs until competing web services like MOG, Rdio, Spotify and Rhapsody likewise hop in for a ride.

And then it’s going to get increasingly difficult for broadcast radio to survive.

Critics will scoff, of course, because we had a similar threat posed with satellite radio a decade ago, and radio survived quite nicely. But this is different. The new services are very customizable, ranging from build-your-own stations to specific artists, albums and songs on demand. Who needs to put up with cheesy hometown ads (“P-E-T-E, that spells Pete” comes to mind) when you can have a class act?

The folks in the radio biz need to awaken to a new reality. We have been spinning our own tunes ever since the Sony Walkman came out. We like being in control. We do not want to wait next to a radio, hoping “our song” will be next. At the buffet of music, we don’t want someone else dishing out portions.

Broadcasters may argue that Pandora has opened a box of poison for the radio industry, but if anything, it is a nourishing nectar for listeners. After all, as Sony implicitly sold us 30 years ago, it really is all about me.

I just wish I could find that old transistor radio. Because a big part of me was defined by what came out of its lone speaker.

Dr “I Got The Music In Me” Gerlich

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