Long Tail Silly

In the wake of a horrible year in radio, with losses nearing 20%, and a long decline in the fortunes of public radio, stations of all stripes have been flip-flopping all over the music spectrum trying to come up with the saving sound that will reverse local fortunes. For WUMB in Boston and KUT in Austin, that means Triple A and Americana. For WGBH in Boston and WUFT in Gainesville, it’s talk-talk. Those formats are the two “shining stars” for public radio stations, according to Arbitron, whose numbers the bean counters dance to — however fickle they might be.

To hear the shysters at iBiquity and their henchmen tell it, HD radio is the answer, giving stations the opportunity to air more of the same old dreck that isn’t selling on analog — going after the so-called “long tail” of diversified formats. This despite the fact that there is yet to be proven any revenue stream from the added channels and despite the cost to the individual stations that has ravaged local talent and input. Of the 2,000 stations buying into the IBOC buzz, fully 40% of them are public radio stations, who, at the behest of the CPB and NPR, have fallen for the expensive scam lock, stock, and barrel (albeit funded to a large extent with taxpayer dollars, a free ride part of the way on the public dime).

In this June post on radio-info.com entitled “HD Radio, The Long Tail, and Ubiquity,” Jim Kent notes the following:

“The Long Tail” was coined by Wired Editor-In-Chief Chris Anderson and refers to the fact that, when given an almost endless supply of something, consumer demand is much broader than the old rule that 20 percent of products deliver 80 percent of sales would imply. His practical example is Amazon, where over half of its sales come from books outside of its top 130,000 titles.

In the world of audio media, terrestrial radio is the complete opposite of the Long Tail: There is no limitless supply of choices due to there being a limited number of licenses. This requires radio to embrace the economics of being mass-appeal and hit-driven. In the world of the long tail, radio had no tail. Or at least it didn’t until recently.

With iPods, satellite radio, Internet radio and music services, radio is no longer a mass-appeal player with nothing but no-budget fringe competitors of little impact. Satellite radio alone is close to 20 million subscribers, and their channel selection is like a snapshot of the long tail — a handful of mass-appeal choices, and a large selection of niche offerings. And Internet radio provides an even longer tail of choice….

In short, the consumer already has ready access to the long tail of audio. Radio’s real issue in this environment is that they are not providing anything unique, they are catching up and providing something where choices already exist [emphasis added]….

But this is more than just a marketing issue, it’s a barrier to entry issue, and the barrier to entry is a big one: purchasing a new radio.

Adding this barrier to entry changes the content strategy of radio completely. While a long tail strategy may work to have someone move from one station to another, it is questionable whether it is enough to motivate someone to purchase a new radio. In fact, all evidence so far indicates that it is not.

Yea, verily. After seven years, maybe 3 million HD radios have been sold (if you believe iNiquity’s numbers, which have been nothing but suspect given their bombast), in contrast to the 700 million analog radios out there. So, at that rate, given another 1600 years, HD might pull even with analog in total radios. Yeah, right. As a previous post noted (“Critical Mess,” here), the HD Radio Alliance aired 1.3 million radio spots in the past year alone, and that has yet to create any interest.


2 Responses

  1. “Analog AM/FM cannot address The Long Tail. HD Radio™ technology can help. Few business concepts have gained such quick and widespread acceptance as The Long Tail, put forth by Chris Anderson of Wired… You simply cannot program niche formats on analog stations and make the numbers work… RIFF2 with its edgy Detroit flavor… Clear Channel’s Pride Radio… Bonneville’s iChannel… Our friends at Arbitron say that HD2s are beginning to show up in PPM data… Put HD2s and HD3s on air, keep them on… Bob Struble.”


    “Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, argues that the sudden availability of niche offerings more closely tailored to their tastes will lure consumers away from homogenized hits. The ‘tail’ of the sales distribution curve, he says, will become longer, fatter, and more profitable. Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, set out to investigate whether Anderson’s long-tail theory is actually playing out in today’s markets. She focused on the music and home-video industries — two markets that Anderson and others frequently hold up as examples of the long tail in action — reviewing sales data from Nielsen SoundScan, Nielsen VideoScan, the online music service Rhapsody, and the Australian DVD-by-mail service Quickflix. What she found may surprise you: Blockbusters are capturing even more of the market than they used to, and consumers in the tail don’t really like niche products much.”


    In one of his “monthly” columns, Struble addressed the long-tail theory, but Harvard Business Review debunked the theory. Bonneville shut down iChannel, and Clear Channel’s Format Lab is a shell of what it was originally. Funny, Struble is a Harvard MBA Baker Scholar. I’ve run Google Trends on all of these long-tail formats, and just like HD Radio in general, there is virtually no consumer interest. I’ll bet with HD Radio’s high return rate and fudged numbers, that there are no more than 500,000 to 1,000,000 in circulation.

  2. […] More here: Long Tail Silly « Keeping the Public in Public Radio […]

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