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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Lesson for Radio from SkyMall's Fall


John Ford
Director of News Operations
Radio Ink Magazine

The parent company for SkyMall filed for bankruptcy last week, citing that it was a victim of the times. New rules on airlines and tech that allows smartphones and tablets during flights, just nibbled away at the mainstay of the seat-back pocket. Airline passengers once held captive during their flight, have new ways to pass their time. Sound familiar? The parallels between in-flight and in-dash draw some compelling comparisons.

The SkyMall story is capturing the imagination of netizens. The story currently ranks at #6 on Viral News Chart. Despite the fact that we have all those smartphones and tablets, we're sentimental about loosing the in-flight entertainment gleamed from browsing the latest "SkyRest Travel Pillow" and "Porch Potty" for our pooch. Let's face it, SkyMall was more entertainment and advertising, than it was a sales catalog.

In the same way that radio has held captive it's listeners in-car for decades, the imminent arrival of the connected car poses the same kind of paradigm shift for the dash as wifi, tablets and the smartphone did for SkyMall. It wasn't that SkyMall was oblivious to tech, it's pages were spilling over with the latest hi-tech gadgets. For SkyMall, its white hot center should have been more about incorporating the product into technology, not technology into the product.

SkyMall was already in place and a part of the travel experience with airline passengers. Airline consumers saw and see it as a part of their in-flight experience. Someone at SkyMall had to have had the insight that a deal with the airlines could have been struck to offer the in-flight mag as an option loading on smart devices once a user logs into the airline's wifi. Why wasn't it part of the back-seat infotainment system? A quick Google search will land you on the SkyMall web site home page. The backend was there, SkyMall it seems just didn't make the jump quick enough.

Like Radio Ink, Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media spends a lot of his energies investigating the connected car and how it could effect radio's place in the dash. As a consultant, he's logged a lot of time in the air and has probably flipped through enough pages of Sky Mall to wallpaper your on-air studio. Jacobs tells Radio Ink, "The death of Sky Mall is a cautionary tale for radio. Like radio in cars, the airlines offered a captive audience, and Sky Mall was a product that was good enough to kill time." Jacob's goes on to note, "As Sky Mall learned, they now compete with everything, and that's precisely what broadcasters are up against in new cars."

According to Jacobs, "If we think about radio's USP as proprietary personalities you can't hear anywhere else and local content that reflects the ethos of a community, there's a 'there there.'  Of course, all that assumes that broadcasters are filling those needs." Jacobs continues, "Like Sky Mall's dilemma, the challenge of the 'connected car' compels broadcasters to consider an expanded competitive environment." The real question broadcasters need to ask Jacobs says is, "What is it about local radio that makes a driver want to listen on a menu that contains 10,000 songs in my personal music library, satellite radio, the embedded Pandora and NPR apps in my dash, as well as every app available on my phone?  THAT is the question."

The evolution of in-dash entertainment to cars is here and is posing a real challenge for broadcasters. Like SkyMall had the captive eyes, we now have the captive ears. Radio has experience developing talent and serving our communities to deliver compelling content to listeners. As with SkyMall, it is more about incorporating the product into technology, not technology into the product. But as Jacobs points out, the product will have to deliver compelling and unique content.

Many will say SkyMall was just a buggy-whip whose time had come. Still, from the buzz surrounding the bankruptcy of SkyMall on social media, it did have value to its captive legions of page flippers. But, to burrow a Marshall McLuhan quote on a medium he didn't live to see, in the case of SkyMall, "The Medium is the Message."  For airline commuters SkyMall will just be another fond memory of times before smartphones, tablets and wifi. Like Yogi Berra said, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be."

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