Everywhere around us technology has changed the way we communicate information to our clients and customers. The latest buzzwords of the consumer radio industry have been all about "consumer-controlled content."
The drive to directly reach an information consumer with the content they want is fueling technologies such as podcasting, downloadable audio from Web sites, and - some would say - satellite radio. Traditionally, producers are somewhat slower to adapt new technologies than their city cousins. Is this the case with new audio technology as well?
DOWNLOADING AUDIO - FOR A SELECT GROUP
A handful of NAFB members have experimented with making downloadable audio available for their listeners. This practice doesn't seem to have become a profit center as of yet, but can be a vehicle to provide existing audio to a select audience. One member network that provides downloadable audio on their Web site is the Northern Ag Network in Billings, MT.
"We currently provide audio archives of all of our programs for the past week," explains Taylor Brown, Pres of Northern Ag Network. "Listeners can access any of our regular programs on the Web, at whatever time is convenient for them, although many are still limited by the lack of high-speed Internet connections in rural areas. It does not seem to me like stored audio is competitive yet with the mobility of free, over-the-air, live radio broadcasts; at least not as a source for up-to-the-minute news and market information throughout the day. However, when it comes to seeking more in-depth information and opinions, on specific topics or issues, I think we are already seeing the value of this technology."
The cost of repurposing existing audio is not a large investment for most networks and stations. It is merely a matter of placing what they already generate on a daily basis onto their Web site. It is also recognized that this technology will generally attract a younger user.
"We feel that only a very small segment of the audience utilizes our program archives right now, and when they do, it is for specific information that they heard about from a friend, or caught part of when they heard a particular broadcast themselves. The segment that utilizes this the most, are the ones who have high-speed Internet, and probably the younger, more technologically savvy listener," says Taylor.
When you talk about new technologies in delivering audio, the discussion always comes around to satellite radio. This has been marketed as a content-specific, commercial-free option for people in all areas of the country (even the most remote).
The success on the audio end has been lukewarm so far (satellite television has been significantly more accepted). Even heavy hitters who were able to rule the commercial radio airwaves have generated a fraction of the listening audience they had before making the change to satellite. This may change in the future, but will listeners in rural America pay for specific content that is relevant to their operations and lifestyles? Will an entity come along and provide this content?
Back in 1999 a group of NAFB members approached CD Radio (now Sirius). They presented the prospect of programming an agricultural channel. This group of entrepreneurs included Ken Root, Iowa Ag Radio Network.
"The people in their programming department indicated that another entity had also approached them with this format idea. We showed that there would be strong interest from farmers and ranchers because the signal from satellite would be easily accessible by these folks in the open spaces of the country. Then the programming people asked how many subscribers we could bring them and our estimated number was 625,000 nationwide. They said they needed at least a million subscribers who would be interested in a channel or they could not justify it," Root says.
Many NAFB broadcasters are supplementing their radio broadcasts with additional news in the format of an electronic newsletter. A shining example of this is the Red River Farm Network's newsletter titled FarmNetNews that is produced on a weekly basis.
"It's really the best of both worlds," says Don Wick, Red River Farm Network. Our on-air product delivers the breaking news. We provide timely information with the power of the human voice; from our team of broadcasters and newsmakers. FarmNetNews seems to be much more tangible because our audience also likes to have the information on their own terms. The newsletter is available in their e-mail box on a schedule that is convenient to them. And, it's not just fluff; we provide solid information in a concise manner. Photos and interactive segments, like our trivia contest, are also found in the newsletter."
In the Oklahoma market, long-time NAFB member Ron Hays, Radio Oklahoma Network, has been producing his daily Oklahoma's Farm News Update and is enjoying a great listener response.
"I have had more feedback on this project than anything I have ever done in farm broadcasting," Hays says. "It is clearly seen by those who receive it as an extension of who we are and what we do on the radio. We have individual farmers sharing the e-mail with their neighbors, farm organizations discussing what they read in the Update in their morning department head meetings and folks in government devouring it as well," Hays says.
The task of producing content for a newsletter can be a challenge for a broadcaster. Do you use the tool to reiterate what is covered on the air and give further information, or is it a tool for different content that is better communicated through a visual medium?
"The difference between what we offer on our radio reports, Hays says, "and what we offer on the e-mail newsletter is that we can impart more details about stories to our e-mail audience than we have time to do so on the radio. Often, we will direct our listeners to our Web site for more information on a particular story - and it's the same concept for the e-mail. The added element for the e-mail is that we can hyperlink to audio that we did for radio that is on our Web site, or we can link to even more details on a story that is out there in cyberspace on the Internet."
Often adding to the discussion of e-mail efforts in newsletters and updates is the question, "Is this giving additional content to an existing audience or can it be used to expand the audience?"
"We have a lot of loyal listeners that really enjoy the e-mail newsletter," Hays reports, "but even more importantly, we are touching a lot of them that may miss one of our reports when they are in and out of the truck or the farm office. At the same time, I know we pick up a lot of agribusiness people who have a schedule that does not allow them to listen when we are on the radio in their area. It has been so amazing how many people have commented how much they like the Update. They appreciate that it is no nonsense, fairly short, and really boils down the farm news important to Oklahoma for that particular day."
Wick offers his opinion on who his newsletter is reaching. "FarmNetNews has become a valuable part of our news delivery system. It reaches our radio listeners in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, but also reaches newsmakers and marketing contacts worldwide. Hopefully, the newsletter demonstrates our commitment to the farmers and ranchers in our region. I believe that the information presented is important - whether you're a soybean farmer in Lisbon, ND; a politician in Washington, D.C., or an agency buyer in Kansas City."
If a radio spot plays in the woods ... does anyone hear it?
Radio has traditionally been known as the intrusive media. Research shows that 58.9% of producers in the 12 Corn Belt states increase their use of radio during planting season. Of this same group, 55.9% increase their listening during harvest.
What causes this increase? Most NAFB members know it is their relationship with the producers combined with the ability of radio to coincide nicely with the work that is being done at these valuable times in the agricultural production cycle.
Angie Skochdopole, Media Dir, Quarry Integrated Communi-cations, expressed her opinion on the challenge of measuring effectiveness of communications to producers with media such as podcasting. She says, "I haven't seen any research that has accurately measured the effectiveness of the newer downloadable audio media for farmers and ranchers. I do believe the future generation of agribusiness producers will utilize many of these newer options, but currently there aren't enough of them participating for me to recommend placing substantial media resources in this new format. Now, more than ever, we have to justify our budgets with quantifiable measurements. There is currently far more proof that electronic newsletters and other means of reaching producers (like farm radio and print) are the most effective."
REACHING FURTHER INTO RURAL AMERICA?
It is no secret that there has been a considerable consolidation in farm radio in the late 1990s and early 2000. Some of this has reached a plateau for the time being, but many have debated where the farmers and ranchers that were lost in the process are getting their information. Are they turning to alternative technology when farm radio is no longer available in their area? Is the information still reaching them from other sources?
"Technology exists to communicate with producers over high speed internet," Root says. "It requires some technical savvy, and the propensity to sit at a computer to view information or download audio. Most farmers find farm radio much more convenient if it is available, however if the information they want is not on radio, they will turn to other means to find it." AM