Radio by any other name would not smell as sweet: opinion from Peter Saxon

To see what all the hoopla was about I signed up to Spotify, one of those cloud based music services that provides access to millions of songs for free, if you’re willing to endure some pop up adverts. Or, if you don’t want the ads, you can pay a reasonable monthly fee. Included in that fee, at the click of a mouse, you can create your own radio station. Fancy that? I always wanted to own a radio station. And there’s Lachlan Murdoch, who paid around $112 mil for half of dmg while I pay just $12 a month for my station. Who’s laughing now?

He is, actually.

Soon after I clicked my mouse, I realised that all I’d done was access the ability to create my own playlist and through a clever algorithm find new music that would likely suit my tastes.

Admittedly, it’s a very neat trick. But I wouldn’t call it radio. Yet that’s what Spotify, Pandora and a burgeoning range of cloud based music servers insist on calling themselves. So what? As history has shown, keep telling a lie often enough, people will eventually believe it to be the truth.

A couple of months ago I argued that cloud based music streaming as delivered by Pandora, Spotify or even iTunes with Genius enabled did not threaten radio because without personalities and local content, having six million song choices at my fingertips – which I couldn’t possibly use – is not going to significantly change my TSL between my favourite radio stations and the personal music player on my smart phone.

Although I made those comments a couple of months ago (an eternity in the tech world) I still stand by them. But here’s the rub. No personal music player before, whether iPod, CD or cassette, has ever provided a platform for advertising to be part of the mix.

In the U.S. the Chicago Tribune reports that these online jukeboxes are aggressively marketing themselves as radio stations. They purposely want to be seen to operate in the same space as traditional AM and FM along with digital and satellite. What’s more, they’re setting up sales teams to sell traditional advertising to traditional radio advertisers.

So much so, that despite having the benefit of instant and accurate online audience measurement, they are adopting radio’s own quarter hour paradigm to offer advertisers apples for apples comparisons.

So what? Whether they call themselves “radio” or “music portal” or anything else, if they have a measured audience and a business model that facilitates the sale of advertising, surely they are entitled to a place in the market and the opportunity to earn a living. It’s a free market economy after all.

Of course they’re entitled to earn a living – but not by passing themselves off as radio stations when they are clearly not.

I draw my argument from the French wine industry. You can make a bubbly white wine anywhere in the world, but you cannot call it Champagne unless it comes from the region know as Champagne. It doesn’t matter if in a blind tasting an Australian Domaine Chandon from Cold Stream, Victoria is mistaken for an NV Taittinger from Rheims. The French will insist there is no direct comparison. One is Champagne, the other is cat’s piss as far as they are concerned.

Even within France where a number of regions outside of Champagne make a decent bubbly, they are forced to call it Crémant.

When the French copyrighted the names of all the famous French wine regions and styles from Burgundy to Bordeaux some 30 years ago, winemakers around the world were forced to change their labels virtually overnight. Australia’s top shelf Grange used to be called Grange Hermitage. Now it’s called Grange Shiraz.

It is easy to dismiss the move as typical French arrogance, but all they were doing was protecting their brands, brands that have been around for hundreds of years. Now we do it ourselves here in Australia. Woe betide any winemaker who falsely claims his wine was made from grapes grown upon Coonawarra’s distinctive limestone ridge. They could spend the rest of their lives in court.

The lesson for radio, is that in this era of media fragmentation, with the lines blurred between television, print and radio, it is more important than ever that radio protects the brand it has built and nurtured over 80 years and maintains its point of difference.

Just like the new world wine makers who were desperate to align themselves with well known classic old world brands, these new music servers, that popped up five minutes ago, are keen to align themselves with old school radio.

Instead of being lumped in with other new media, much of which is still mysterious to advertisers, why not put yourself in the same space as a medium that everyone understands? Go for radio’s dollars directly.

Rather than having to explain what it is you do and how that’s different from dozens of other online startups, by calling yourself radio, you are suddenly an added choice among radio networks. Its just a matter of you being added to the roster and getting your share of radio’s advertising.

If types of wine can be copyrighted, why not media? Why not radio?

Unless you are a radio station, with a licence to prove it, you shouldn’t be allowed to call yourself one.