How Radio Can Defend the Dashboard

hugh-carDash — “the connected car audiotainment™ conference” — is happening next week in Detroit. It’s a big deal, because cars are morphing into digital things as well as automotive ones. This means lots of new stuff is crowding onto dashboard spaces where radios alone used to live.

This is a big deal for radio, since most listening happens in cars.

In The Battle of My Life, Eric Rhoads challenges attendees to join him in a cause: keeping radio in cars. It’s an uphill battle. Radio is already gone from this BMW, and it’s looking woefully retro against an onslaught of audiotainment™ alternatives for “connected cars” — ones with Internet access over the cellular system.

Eric wants to “build a dialogue between radio and the world of automotive,” recruiting “foot soldiers in every market who understand what is happening and who work collectively to make change, market by market.”

I want to help. I’ll start with this post, which will do three things. First is unpack what’s right and wrong about the Internet and advertising on it. Second is give some advice that radio needs desperately and nobody else seems to be offering. Third is giving specific responses to some of the Dash conference agenda items.

First, the Net:

  1. Radio is moving to the Net, which is eating every other medium as well. TV, magazines, newspapers… they’re all going online, and re-basing themselves there rather than in their original media forms. For radio, the transmitters with the most reach are servers, not antennas.
  2. Proprietary radio-like services, e.g. Apple’s iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, and SiriusXM, are also on the Net, and easy to add to cars. Some have been there for years. New ones, like iHeartRadio, are trying to grab a slice of this new already-slided pie for the old radio business. (Note how Clear Channel abandoned its radio legacy by changing its name to iHeartMedia. NPR did the same thing by ceasing to be National Public Radio.)
  3. The direct response side of the advertising business (born as junk mail) has been body-snatching advertising as a whole. It thrives as a parasite off data generated by individual human beings, mostly without their knowledge or express consent. It “personalizes” user “experiences” with messages targeted by surveillance. It’s powerful, well-funded, and wants to do this in cars now too.

Radio needs to fight on the side of the history by siding with the Net. It can do this because, like the Net, radio is an open system. You don’t need permission to use it, just like you don’t need permission to use old-fashioned radio. Or to make one. This aspect of the Internet is a huge advantage for radio, because stations and networks can now transmit on-Net as well as on-air, and expand coverage through time (e.g. with podcasts) and space (throughout the world).

The problems come with numbers 2 and 3.

While the things listed in #2 are on the Net (and in SiriusXM’s case, also via radio from satellites and terrestrial translators), they are not open. They are closed. Nothing wrong with being able to get them in cars, of course. Just recognize that they are captive and closed forms of what we now, in the internet marketing fashion, call “content delivery.” They are different in kind from radio itself. They are closed, while radio is open.

The temptation with #3 is to corrupt cars with the same pernicious privacy-invading advertising system that has turned browsers (our cars on the Web) into shopping carts infected with tracking beacons — and turned the Web into a giant strip mall beside streets lined with billboards pumping “personalized” messages alongside “content” that’s just click-bait.

Radio needs to take up the fight for individual privacy and independence by standing with the people who own and drive cars. In a word, customers. Not with the car makers and third parties who want to sell people’s souls to the surveillance-based advertising business.

There is already one car company on the customer’s side in this fight: Volkswagen. This past March, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winkerhorn gave a keynote at the Cebit show that drew this headline: “Das Auto darf nicht zur Datenkrake warden.” Translation: The car should not be a data octopus. For drivers (and Dash) that means Keep your tentacles and data suction cups out of my car.

In is essential to recognize the radical difference between brand advertising and direct response (usually surveillance-based) advertising:

  • Brand advertising is what we’ve been running on radio from the beginning. It can be annoying at times, but it isn’t personal and isn’t based on surveillance. It delivers messages to whole populations. It builds advertiser reputations and delivers what economists call a signal of substance. (Read Don Marti on this. He produces the wisest, deepest and best writing in the world on this subject.)
  • Direct response advertising wants to get personal, and is based increasingly on privacy-violating surveillance of individuals.

The blowback against unwelcome surveillance of individuals is getting stronger every day. Ad and tracking blocking have been going up steadily. In some countries one quarter of all ads are blocked. For 18-29 year olds, the figure is 41%. Yet, according to the same source (PageFair), “a majority of adblockers expressed some willingness to receive less intrusive ad formats.” Like we’ve had from radio for almost a century.

It would be wise for radio’s foot soldiers to surf this wave of sentiment, by taking the individual’s side in the fight.

Now to the rest of my general advice, before we get down to specifics for the Dash conference:

  1. Get real about fully integrating with the Net. For example, stations need URLs that are as fixed as their channels on the air. And those URL need to be as easy to find on the Net as they are on the dial. Nobody has fixed this yet, but it does need to be fixed. Maybe Detroit can take the lead here. (Datum: I just spent hours updating the data streams stations in my home Sonos system. A huge percentage of them had changed their URLs: their “channels” on the Net.)
  2. Get personal. Meaning side with listeners. This has always been hard for commercial radio, because listeners’ ears are the products sold to advertisers. But with radio moving to the Net, and integrating with the Net, there is an infinitude of opportunity to interact directly with listeners, and get the benefit of their positive input and involvement.
  3. Fight for better radios. On the whole these have become worse over the years, especially on AM. One reason is that antennas have moved from whips (which work best) outside the car to little stubby things on the outside or wires embedded in windows.
  4. Lean on the equipment-making industry to harmonize American RDBS with the RDS being used by the rest of the world. RDS and RDBS are what put station names and song titles on a radio’s display. With RDS (but not RDBS), the radio listens to the best signal from a programming service, such as ESPN, that uses multiple stations and transmitters. It can also set clocks and interrupt one program source for traffic notifications from another. (Radio was self-defeating when it forked RDBS off RDS two decades ago. And I’ll admit that may be way too late for this one)

Now to my suggestions in response to Dash agenda topics:

It’s All About The Experience
How do we need to partner to build tomorrow’s user experiences? How will consumers interact with content and services as they drive?

Put customers in charge. Let them do the driving. For example, give them ways to collect their own data and put it to use. Fuse is one example.

Turning Data Into Dollars
We’ve got access to vehicle data, driving data, listener data and traveler data. What can we do with it all? How do we make it actionable? What is now possible with cross-platform marketing and services?

Don’t spy on people. Give drivers that data first. Give them ways to say what they want done with the data. Make those ways open, rather than trapped inside some company’s closed and proprietary system. Listen to pull in the marketplace, rather than looking for more ways to push crap at people.

The Class Of 2015 — Millennials, Cars & Radio
First look at Nielsen’s long-term study looking at how college students have woven digital into their lives, with a special emphasis on the role of cars, the “connected car,” and what personal transportation means in their lives today and their plans for the future.

Consider the source (a company that lives off the advertising business) — and the fact that nobody wants to be marketed to all the time.

And side with personal independence, which has been a primary selling point for cars since the beginning. Don’t compromise it by making cars less personal.

The Future Of Mobility
The ways consumers are transporting themselves in major metropolitan areas is dramatically changing. Car and bike sharing, mass transportation options, and other approaches are enabling consumers to transport themselves. How will this affect the way we interact with consumers?

Cars are now one option among many, but that doesn’t make them less personal. Companies of all kinds are going to have to get truly personal with their users and customers, and that means being fully respectful of them.

The Game Changers? Apple & Google &….
Everyone from Apple and Google to Intel and Amazon is suddenly paying attention to the connected car. DASH will provide an update on their efforts and the implications of these major players on this competitive space.

Fight for drivers and passengers against companies that want to capture and control them. Drivers are the people who move the industry, not these Johnny-come-latelys, all of which want to hold customers captive. This means insisting that personal data belongs to persons first, and that competing services need to be compatible and interoperable. One can’t freeze out another. Being fully Net-native will take care of this problem.

Free customers are more valuable than captive ones. The car business has always known this, which is why they’ve run ads for decades promoting personal independence. For all the good they do (and it’s plenty) Apple and Amazon believe captive customers are more valuable than free ones. Meanwhile Google and Facebook are busy snarfing up personal data and using that to sell personalized advertising. This is done more with acquiescence than consent (an important difference).

The game that needs to change here is called Who’s In Charge? Is it the customer or companies that want to capture and milk the customer? While car companies have played the customer-capture game all along (example: “chip keys” that can only be replaced at dealerships and cost $hundreds), at least they’ve also reveled in how much independence cars give to their owners and drivers. This is a unique and durable advantage. Radio needs to get on board with it.

Collaboration:  Dealers, Radio, And The Connected Car
It’s time to take a look at the entire car-buying and ownership life cycle from the connected consumer perspective. How will drivers buy and service their vehicles going forward? What new services could we be offering to them? How will their connected car experience interact with their connected lives?

Take a look at this graphic, from Esteban Kolsky:



Now think about where you spend your life. It’s mostly owning, not buying. So the loop on the right is much bigger than the one on the left. This fact is going to dawn on marketing in the next several years. It has already dawned on winning car companies, and on exactly one computer company: Apple. While I have problems with Apple’s employee-silencing control-freakishness, they have done an amazing job off making the experience of owning a computer or a phone one of pleasure rather than of pain.

In a huge way, radio is part of the car-owning and -driving experience, not the buying one. The only place the reverse shows up is at dealerships, which radio advertising supports and where (I’ll bet) there are also incentives to up-sell alternatives to radio, such as SiriusXM. Can regular old radio create similar incentives? Hope so.

The Future Of Traffic Information
Will real-time, customized traffic reports delivered through online connectivity and apps usurp radio’s role?

It already has. The victors in this space are Google Maps and Waze, which Google now owns. Since Waze depends on user input, I suggest that radio folks figure out a way to help Waze and Google improve what they already do. Traffic reports also need to adapt. Report on what’s turned red on Google Maps, for example. “Sepulveda Pass northbound from Mulholland to the 101 has turned red. Same goes for the Harbor Freeway both ways trough downtown.” Better to hear what Google Maps or Waze says than to look down at a phone and risk an accident.

And why stop at traffic. Take on all of journalism. Make every smart and engaged listener a first source of news. See JayRosen‘s Designs for a Networked Beat. He doesn’t mention radio, but it totally applies.

Wish I could make it to Dash. Sounds like fun. But I’ll be in London, working for a paying client and listening to U.S. (as well as U.K.) radio on the Net. I’m curious to see how it goes, and if anybody going going to the show takes the above to heart.

This might help: The greatest authorities on connected cars are not the people speaking on stage. They’re the ones who buy and drive cars: you and me. At Dash, think and speak for yourself. Don’t listen to, or put up with, anything that threatens your independence — which is the same thing as having radio hold its place as the alpha medium on the dashboard.

Bonus links: everything Phil Windley says about the InternetIoT (the Internet of Things) Fuse, picos, decentralization and connected cars, and Hugh McLeod, who drew the picture at the top.


  1. Meg’s avatar

    “It [The direct response side of the advertising business] thrives as a parasite off data generated by individual human being..”
    Parasites take from the host & give nothing in return.

    Advertising pays. And it is this revenue stream that allows publishers to continue to publish. The same way magazines and television programs were financed in decades past, so too does advertising fuel news and entertainment.

    While it is undeniably annoying, it is absolutely not parasitic.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    It is essential to distinguish between two forms of advertising here. Both are annoying. Both pay publishers.

    Traditional brand advertising, which is still the largest slice of the advertising pie, is not based on surveillance of individuals, and not parasitic.

    Direct response advertising based on surveillance of individuals is parasitic, in the sense that it lives off of personal data. That it pays does not excuse its offenses. Crime pays too.

    I believe publishers can live without the creepy one. Don Marti agrees. See here, here and here.

    It is also clear that the market is getting fed up with the abuse. That’s why ad and tracking blocking are going up. At some point things break. We’re already seeing evidence of breakage in tougher privacy laws in Europe and Australia. We’ll see more.

    Meanwhile it does the online advertising and publishing businesses no good to turn blind eyes toward the clearly negative externalities of surveillance practices.

    Same goes for the automobile industry, which is why I wrote this piece.

  3. Paul Jacobs’s avatar

    I wish you could be there also (although based on your observations about the panel, it’s like you were already there!). As the organizer of DASH I truly appreciate your insight – it’s excellent. I will share this article with all of our moderators.

    As you can tell by the scale of our agenda, this is a very broad issue facing radio and automotive. I wish we had more than two days.

    But watch our Twitter feed #dashaudio and feel free to chime in from London.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Paul. I hoped somebody from DASH, or close to it, would read the post. Getting a response from the top is especially gratifying. Glad to help any way I can, and will do my best to tune in from six time zones away. 🙂

  5. Eric Rhoads’s avatar

    Excellent insights. The consumers drive this bus and the giant question relates to what consumers want. At last year’s DASH we had consumers on video who were die-hard-never-abandon-radio fans, who did when the connected cars they were in made am and fm darned near impossible to find and navigate, yet when something like Pandora was the top button the dash they started using it to eliminate the problem with finding radio. Part of this sucking data issue is not just for advertising, its for the auto companies who feel they can monitor useage data to make decisions on things like ad placement in the future; ie: they are using station x and not station y, or online service x and not radio. Of course the sample is small because connected cars, at the moment are a small part of the total fleet on the road. Our estimates are that you won’t get to a 100% connected car fleet for roughly 15 years, to the point where every used car purchase has the connected car DASH. BUT, one does not really need a dash unit for their car to be connected. They are carrying that unit in their pocket, throwing the smart phone in the cup holder to amplify the sound of whatever they are playing. So its a much bigger and faster issue as a result.

    As a former radio guy, station owner, and a publisher of a couple different radio trades, I consider it important to help radio see the opportunity and the threat. Yes, radio is subject to the flip that other media have experienced when things went digital, though so far evidence of that happening is not very big. Though it might change and erode in favor of all things digital, there seems to be a fair amount of loyalty still. Time will tell, but so far the industry is holding its own. In fact iheart just made the biggest sale in radio history yesterday ($200 million) from Omnicom, the giant ad conglomerate, who on the same day recommended that their clients shift 10-25% of TV budgets away from TV and toward online video. (Thank goodness they did not do that with radio, but instead doubled their spend).

    I appreciate your thoughts and ideas and they are all worth paying attention to.

    Eric Rhoads, Publisher RADIO INK

  6. Eric Rhoads’s avatar

    PS.. no offense Paul, but I meant Doc.

  7. Ethan Lindsey’s avatar

    Isn’t there an inherent contradiction to your two points? If you are sharing traffic and content with the radio, and thus, it’s providing more contextual content (nearby gas prices, localized news stories, weather, traffic, etc), isn’t that the same content advertisers want and will pay for? Where you are (localized ads)/where you are going (coupons for local Starbucks)/what you are doing?

  8. Fred Jacobs’s avatar

    Doc, this is a great piece, and I will echo Paul’s comment that we wish you could be with us in Detroit. We are really excited about this second DASH conference. We learned a great deal from the first go-round, and we have an amazing agenda and a fantastic group of executives and thought leaders from an eclectic group of companies. Thanks for the thoughtful “prequel.”

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar


    There are several issues here that need to be pulled apart, and I didn’t do that because I didn’t want to make a long post even longer.

    One is data sharing. Much of what we share is without or approval or express permission. We have no choice about it if we want to use smartphones. This situation will change as individual power grows in relationship to powerful service providers such as Google, Apple and Amazon. Apple is already making clear that customer health and financial data belongs to the customer first, and that the company should have no access to it without customer permission. This has started in Apple Health, a new service, but the main reason for this is that Apple sells direct to individual customers. Google does not. Google sells intelligence about customers to advertisers. But Google is more ethical about using individual data than many other companies. Anyway, data sharing is a gigantic ball of worms that are growing into snakes and even nastier species. Expect the whole subject of surveillance to become far more fraught in the future than it is now — and for individuals to win in the long run, for the simple reason that, as Eric says, they drive the market’s bus.

    Another is highly targeted advertising and promotions. These can be personally relevant without being personalized based on surveillance. A car dealer might want to advertise on Pandora because targeting can be sharply defined and focused, based on algorithmic assumptions that factor in musical tastes, geo-location and other variables — without getting so personal that the driver feels creeped out when she hears ad. (And remember that one benefit of paying Pandora is hearing no ads at all. But that’s another issue for another thread.)

    Advertising itself may soon start to go the other way. For example, a driver may ask the market (and not just Apple or Google) where the next exit with a nearby Starbucks is. Or tell the market he needs a stroller for twins at the city park in the next two hours and has up to $200 to spend, without yielding any more personal information than what’s required to create what sellers call a qualified lead. The name for this is intentcasting, and there are a pile of companies already pioneering in the space. (Helping make this happen is part of my work, by the way.) Can radio help with that? I think so, but again that’s another thread.

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