Sonic Branding is by no means a new idea, although the phrase only seems to have come into common parlance with the new millennium. In the early nineties I contextualized the concept as 'Branding with Audio'. My old bosses, Scott & Jonathan Elias, preferred the phrase 'Sonic Identity' or 'Sonic ID' for short.
But radio stations have long distinguished themselves from one another using a technique the trade alternately calls Audio Imaging or Music Imaging.
Imaging is all the patter, Voice Over, music, interludes, along with every other branded sound asset, etc., that is inter-dispersed between programming. The composite effect serves to differentiate one station from others and provide a unique radio presence or identity.
In most important respects, Audio Imaging is a precursor of, and synonym for, Sonic Branding. I say "In most important respects" because the result of Audio Imaging is not a single brand asset, but a portfolio of assets whose resulting implementation is closer to what I define as 'packaging' than branding. In my brand mythology, a brand represents a singular asset; while packaging indicates a portfolio of assets that includes branded assets, but is not limited to them. That said, many professionals use the terms interchangeably, and for the sake of this article, I will, too.
What I find personally interesting is that unlike common Sonic Branding, which is usually implemented in order to distinguish similarly tangible goods and services from one another, Audio Imaging uses one palette of sounds (the packaging) in order to provide context to another group of sounds (the transmission).
A music supervisor (and his or her client) commissioned to create programming acts on the premise that the net result of a curated playlist will 'brand' a given (retail) environment. It may or may not: results vary. Muzak has developed a long, successful business model based on this premise. But other Sonic Brand professionals believe otherwise. Radio professionals, it seems, have found the practice lacking.
The reason being: radio playlists are in constant flux. Algorithm based programming will certainly distinguish one genre based station from another –tune in and you know immediately if you're listening to Country, Pop, Urban or Rock. But although they play an important role as an indicator of content/programming philosophy, playlists by themselves (in saturated markets) do not provide listeners with enough information to distinguish one station from another (that delivers similar/overlapping programming).
You may already know that the radio industry is in crisis. Many stations, which in the last decade or so adopted a music only platform, now find themselves facing obsolescence in the wake of Apple's iPod launch.
iPods and other hard disc players have almost single handedly eliminated the necessity for radio.
If radio is going to survive, it will need something that iPods and other hard drive players lack. The industry is still grappling for the secret recipe that will pull audiences back to their programming. One ingredient can be found in a re-tooled Audio Imaging approach. Digital music players provide the capacity to create user-generated playlists, but such playlists as programming lack general accessibility. Unlike radio programming, they do not represent communication from one human to another, but rather serve the utilitarian function of providing a frame for a single person's individual experience (excepting playlists created in real time by a dance DJ for a live audience).
If a relayed signal requires at least one source and one receiver (which often alternate roles), can our own thoughts be defined as communication? Maybe. Personally, I think of thoughts as akin to cognitive reflections, which seems to be the antithesis of what we think of as broadcasting (or even narrow casting).
So although the hardware and technology that makes portable hard drive music players possible seems like magic, the experience a single playlist delivers can also prove less than magical once shared with others beyond the creator's own ear buds.
What we require is context, and the kind of disruptive surprise that only human logic choices in real time can provide, and that pre-programmed random play by algorithm simply has yet to demonstrate a capacity to deliver.
In the past, radio did not simply deliver experience; it was quite often central to the experience. Arguably, it was the experience. Before the invention of television friends and family members listened together, and while listening, they often stared at the apparatus. In effect, radio became the hearth, the fire we all sat around. And then enter TV. Now audiences actually had something to look at. Radio responded by scaling smaller and becoming portable, allowing users to multi task.
But in some cases chatter is perceived as an interruption. Naturally, competing stations eliminated chatter in favor of music-only programming.
Either way, portable digital music players have rendered both strategies ineffective.
So how can radio compete?
I would like to say that Audio Imaging can do it all, but neither branding nor packaging alone can prevent obsolescence. The task is how to prove necessity of being in the face of competing information and entertainment sources. Ultimately, unique and engaging 'Destination Content' will be key. But there are other things we can do, too.
Certainly greater brains than mine are already trying to figure this out, but why wait when I want to save radio right now:
One must ask ones self, what makes radio distinct from other forms of media? What is radio anyway? Is it the box or is it what is in the box? Up until the advent of PC distributed digital audio we have considered radio to be the composite of media and platform. In the face of current technologies, radio –like newspapers– must redefine itself as platform neutral.
What is important is not the box, but 'The Feed', or 'The Stream'.
So, it may be that one possible strategy is to dispense with any reliance on these devices we call 'radios', and instead concentrate on programming. But who and what's going to broadcast the programming if not a radio?
How about an iPod?
Saving Radio scenario #1: The primary agenda should be to influence audiences to tune in via PCs and hand held PC devices, and abandon sole-use dedicated devices, such as, ahem, radios. Listeners may then listen in real-time at their PCs, or download to their digital devices any programming as a Podcast. What's a Podcast anyway, but TIVO for sound? –At least that's the way the radio industry should sell it:
Listen to what you want when you want, wherever you want.
Saving Radio scenario #2: Embrace Interactivity. Traditional Radio, like TV, represents one-way communication. In the past, at least listeners could call in and make requests, which would be fulfilled in a reasonable time frame. Today, such communication is all but squelched. Though many, if not all, commercial radio stations have a web presence, their sites merely serve as a virtual wall scrawled over with a station's tag. With some notable exceptions, few radio web sites today boast the tool kit (or interest) to move beyond the monologue experience in order to more fully engage in a conversation with their listeners. In short, in the traditional radio paradigm, the goal is to gain and maintain listeners, which is a limited ambition, at most.
Moreover, expecting loyalty from someone, and hoping the other party will be content to only listen and not wish to contribute in any other way may have worked in centuries past, but that model is disintegrating by the moment.
Talk Radio itself is not immune to this sort of erosion, but over sized personalities may be one reason Talk seems to fare so well, when it does. Because Talk, unlike most iPod playlists, promotes a point of view. Love or hate the man or woman behind the mic, they have the capacity to make brains reel and emotions surge.
As it happens, digital playback devices are increasingly becoming multimedia players, so portability is not exclusive to sound programming. Users can travel with video as well, but viewers can't multi task the way listeners can. It's a simple fact of life: Consumers of sound-only content can multi task in a way that Television and Print audiences cannot.
Unique Selling Position #A: Radio provides content that doesn't require you to stop your life in order to consume it. We turn to Print when our lives are on hold. We turn on the Television when we want to relax. But Radio provides Content (Information and Music) to Go.
Radio is where the action is, and one marketing strategy might be to impress upon media consumers that 'RADIO' and 'ACTION' are SYNONYMS, and where there is Life there is Radio. Indeed:
Saving Radio scenario #3: Given the choice to choose either listen-only content, or viewable content with sound, what will audiences do? If the answer is the latter, then radio may want to create viewable content to accompany heretofore listen-only conceived content. For instance, a slide show, if nothing else, or other visual content that enhances an otherwise heretofore listen-only experience. Representatives of the radio industry may scoff, but as audio books evolve into multimedia experiences, I believe radio itself may well embrace the idea of enhancing audio content audio content with images, the way television uses audio content to enhance video.
After all, who doesn't look at the back of the box while they eat their morning cereal? Even eating is enhanced by imagery, –any imagery.
But if radio starts providing images, what will make it any different from a TV company?
If the New York Times and CNN are both streaming video from their websites (and they are), why is one company considered a newspaper and the other a cable television company? In effect, they space each once inhabited is converging with the others.
Forward thinking radio professionals already intuit this. But what many may not realize is that the media universe, unlike our own, can be thought of as collapsing. By collapsing, I don't mean that it's disappearing. Rather, all media is evolving into multimedia.
Today, we are witnessing the emergence of Multimedia Singularity.
We are moving past the day when there are TV companies and there are Radio companies –or Print companies, for that matter. What was once a constellation of individual communications companies, each inhabiting their own space –Print, Television, Radio– is now better perceived as a single moving object: The Feed or The Stream. Where once we saw a smattering of stars, now we see an interconnected galaxy (of providers). Distribution platforms themselves are increasingly incidental (as primary indicators of experience); whatever the next technological advancement is, it had better be transparent.
Likewise, when we look through a telescope we don't care if we're looking through a Celestron Telescope zoom eyepiece or a Meade Series 4000 Eyepiece & Filter Set. We just want it to work, and if it works, then all we see are the heavens.
Multimedia Singularity is being made manifest in a variety of ways:
The New York Times, like all newspapers and magazines, is reinventing itself as a content aggregator and distributor, using not a single media platform delivered on paper, but a multimedia one, traveling via light through fiber optic cables. The similarities between Print and Television increase by the day.
Radio must follow suit if it is to survive. When Media Singularity is achieved, radio's competitors will not just be other radio stations, but all media sources (providing parallel content choices in a given market). Though perhaps born as traditional twentieth century newspapers, magazines, television channels or radio stations, respectively, all heretofore separate platforms will continue to transform themselves until each has fully evolved into, quite simply, unique points of interest, destinations, hosted by purely electronic media.
Do you remember what a Venn diagram is from your high school mathematics class? A Venn diagram consists of two or more overlapping circles, or sets. The overlapping area indicates shared characteristics or commonalities between the set
Now imagine a 'Content Venn' composed of not two circles, but many, –and possibly in three dimensions. Each circle represents a traditional media platform; to name three: Radio, Television, and Print. Within each circle are numerous other Venn diagrams representing subsets composed of individual companies competing in a given space. It doesn't take a futurist or psychic to see that the circles as they are presently positioned are not static, but that they are in motion and will continue converging upon one another until we are left with not many spaces, but one space. The result is no Venn diagram, that's for sure, but a single globe representing The Feed.
And what of that overlapping common space where all companies in all spaces meet, regardless of distribution platform? That space is what we can now think of as Multimedia Singularity.
So how will we choose who and what to tune into?
Once platforms become universally transparent, content will have to speak for itself. Given that scenario, context will be more important than ever. And context will be achieved via the same tool kits and assets we rely right on now:
• Audio Imaging
• Sonic Branding
–All of which we increasingly recognize as aspects of Design.
The result being that after the technological deluge, humans will actually be more important that ever.
Ironically, there will be so much to look at, that sound will play an exponentially more significant role in hooking in audiences.
One should expect to soon see what might have once been conceived as asymmetrical partnerships now engage in strategic merges. We may have had an inkling of that when Time Warner merged with AOL. That partnership was universally judged to be a fiasco. But ultimately it wasn't because Time Warner didn't need to be a multimedia company with an Internet presence, but rather that Time Warner didn't need AOL to withstand the same digital pressures, and be subject to the same evolutionary processes, eventually sustained by all successful members of the corporate species.
But regardless what partnerships evolve, and what eye candy is produced, sonic assets and Radio's importance as a vehicle for content distribution will also increase at reasonable rate.
When people listen to radio they may request more or less talk, more or less music, more or less advertising; but they never request less sound.
As it happens, Television viewers, rich with color, dimension and ever increasingly denser pixel formations, also share with radio listeners an enjoyment for sound. Likewise, they never request less sound either. Lower volume, yes; less aural data, emphatically no. That's because TV isn't just a vision experience; it also relies on sound. In fact, Television only 'works' so well because it is a multi-sensory experience. You don't think so? Try muting the audio. Subtitles communicate information to a varying degree, but the experience is far from optimal. Except for video art installations, the television experience is compromised without an accompanying soundtrack.
In the nineties comic and radio talk show host Howard Stern famously declared his ambition to become a 'King of all Media'. It sounded funny to hear him say it back then. In retrospect, Stern was ahead of his time. For today, radio strives for Multimedia Singularity, inching closer to TV and Print, and at exactly the same time TV and Print edge closer to Radio. It's that or die. And by die, I mean, fade away into silence. Of course, there's not a single profit or not-for-profit information, or entertainment company, that wants to stop broadcasting. So, silence is not an option.
It may be that one day the word 'radio', generally speaking, will solely come to mean 'broadcast sound', and that no one will actually think of a device called 'radio' when the word is uttered. By radio, we won't mean hardware, what we will mean is simply:
Content (though it may be accompanied and supported by images), requires no visual enhancement in order to communicate information, entertain or deliver a message.
And because storytellers have sustained that model since the dawn of man, it's safe to bet that radio, whatever form it takes, will continue to be a powerful medium for years to come.