Just when we thought there might be a small stretch of relative stability in the media business, a new wave of change is already in the fast lane.
This past week, I had the privilege of working in media relations at the World Mobility Leadership Forum, a two-day conference that convened experts from around the world near Detroit to talk about the short-to-medium term future of personal transportation. The program featured the Chairman of Ford Motor Company, the CEOs of General Motors and Volvo and executives from Tesla and Lyft, along with government officials from the U.S., Finland and other countries.
The consensus among the participants was that autonomous (self-driving) vehicles are coming, as quickly as within the next 5 years. The technology is beyond most Americans’ wildest expectations. The other trend exploding and showing no signs of reversing is ride sharing. The experts predict that it will continue to grow fast – far beyond Millennials taking Uber to the bars in big cities.
All of this threatens the medium of terrestrial radio. While radio has withstood threat after threat, ever since the proliferation of television after World War II, radio has survived because of its primacy inside the American automobile. But what will happen when cars drive themselves and the driver is free to consume entertainment or information without hands on the wheel and eyes on the road? Or when a ride-sharing driver is increasingly in control of the dashboard while the passenger does work, goes online or even sleeps during the car trip?
The challenge for radio now is to make itself invaluable, especially for information formats that truly could be distinguished from music streaming services. Satellite radio has increased its level of portability, with a place on the phone/earbud combo beyond the car. But local terrestrial radio must create value to go with its audience into the next chapter of transportation. How will that happen? The largest owner of radio stations, IHeartMedia, is carrying more than $20 billion in debt. The largest owner of all-news stations, CBS, is spinning off its radio division into a new company. Could either afford to put new resources into the product to make it indispensable?
Throughout so much change, radio has proven to be powerful, personal and resilient. Now, it’s going to take what the auto and technology companies are making priorities to secure their futures – ingenuity and investment