By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
Radio understands the need for “Creating Unforgettable User Experiences.” That has never been the issue. When “experiential” became a buzzword, we were already there. We understood, for instance, our strength in contesting and events that created experiences that users could not give themselves. (The title for WPGC Washington’s marketing director is, correctly, Director of Experiences and Events.)
The user experience has become thornier in recent years. And even if it were only what came out of the transmitter, the average programmer has become charged with overseeing multiple experiences, not just one. It is that challenge that led Megatrax to sponsor the Radio Show 2017 panel, “Creating Unforgettable User Experiences” Sept. 7 in Austin. Moderating the panel with IMGR’s Chris Nichol and a great group of programmers and User Experience experts—Townsquare’s Kurt Johnson, Federated’s James Derby, Entercom Austin’s Nikki Nite, Emmis Austin’s Chase Rupe, and Office of Experience’s Carlos Manalo, helped me get a handle on a number of things.
Radio, once a master of UX, has bogged down in UI. When radio’s user interface was simple—an AM/FM dial that went through only a handful of gradual changes in its first 70 years—there was time to obsess over every detail of a radio station. Some programmers took it too far—those who thought that weather and time-checks ruined the mood of escapism (good luck on avoiding weather this week, by the way). But generally, the industry appreciated how the seven best air-talents in a market could maintain their own personalities while creating one unified sound.
After streaming, the UI changed and proliferated. Whether with the digital dashboard in rental cars or the stations featured in the early days of iTunes streaming, the people designing the interface often did not have our best interests at heart. And sometimes, it was an inside job. Jacobs Media’s Fred Jacobs made the entirely valid point that radio station metadata—at best, a wasted promotional opportunity, at worst an embarrassment—suffered for being developed by a station or company’s engineering people, not its programmers. Jacobs’ presentation was a half-hour on incorrect album art and poorly identified formats, daunting when you consider all the other discussions broadcasters need to have.
But there are still long-running UX fails as well. Spotload is the most obvious one, followed by the quality of the commercials, and the streaming experience in general. I knew when I asked that punctuating even the best listener experience with ads for Super Beta Prostate would be an easy laugh, but it’s still a real problem. Entercom Austin’s Nikki Nite pointed out that listeners do not experience “stopsets,” just what’s playing on the radio now.
Radio’s strengths have included its simplicity, and we’re in danger of losing it. How does the medium that became famous for the shared experience keep its hold on people when the experience of radio is no longer always shared in a world of personalization? The Summer Song (and the tepid reactions it prompted this year) is a reminder of people looking to share through media and music. Now we have to spread the same excitement through a smaller crowd, plus we have to turn our shared experience into individual sidebars. (One thing that radio can also do well is unite smaller communities, especially without the pressure of monetizing them on one large stick.)
Panelist James Derby of Federated came to a group programming job from digital (he had previous programming experience as well). Federated was a leader in developing Amazon Echo skills for the smart speaker (as well as one of the first broadcasters to employ a skip button on its stream). But Nite had an equally valid point that listeners just wanted to play the stream, and a complicated menu of choices was potentially discouraging. Pandora’s attraction was typing one song or artist—even if that wasn’t initially what you could hear. The excitement in smart speakers is in Alexa’s instant response to “play Keith Urban” without a lengthy discussion.
We have come up with an appropriate way to feel about ourselves. It was a point made early on Wednesday morning by Connoisseur’s Jeff Warshaw, but reiterated several times on the “User Experience” panel. “We need to really step up the level at which we challenge (and) attack ourselves,” Warshaw said. There is no contradiction between being awesome (and communicating our awesomeness to advertisers) and doing what it takes to move forward. Because we are awesome, people should want to see what we do next.
Invoking Apple is the radio blogger’s cheapest tactic, but I’ll allow it this week. Some people may feel Amazon is eclipsing Apple’s creativity. Some may bemoan $1,000 phones. But this week, anyway, everybody wanted to know what was coming next, and everybody wanted to discuss it.
One of the most telling moments came from Carlos Manalo, whose Chicago-based Office of Experience works with a wide-range of brands from Harley Davidson to Grainger to High Times. Manalo’s presentation, which helped frame the discussion of how UI/UX principles apply to radio, was a highlight. And it would have been easy for an emissary from the digital and marketing world to bask in his industries’ own relative cool. Instead, Manalo was candid about retailers’ failure to anticipate Amazon’s surge and the need for broadcasters to band together now.
Broadcasters need a code for working together. There have been calls for unity in the past, but they often seem cynical. Radio still needs to find a way to work together on neutral turf, and that has been hard in an atmosphere of slashed rates and FM translators that are meant primarily to disrupt a rival. Some users prefer individual radio apps and will happily look seven different places for content—which is fine if we are the creators. But some require simplicity, simplicity requires continuing to reinvent the dial as simple and compelling, and that needs to be done together.