Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Radio Industry: Barely Illegal

Remember those happy days of yesterday-year when radio was first to turn on young demos to new music, fads, and fashion?

Now, it’s dead last on anything related to popular culture.

By the time radio discovers something new, it’s already over with the masses.

Did you read last Friday’s Wall Street Journal?

There was that piece about Clear Channel’s Premiere Radio Network compiling and pitching marketing data on the top illegal music downloads as a new tool to resolve flagging CHR and Urban playlists.

Radio’s still not reading the room and its dilemma with the space-time continuum has barely corrected itself after five years of aimless drifting.

Mediabase, a division of Premiere, one of two companies that tallies tangible radio airplay, is working with Big Champagne (http://www.bigchampagne.com/), a peer-to-peer researcher on the venture.

They’re even peddling their results to competitors in markets where they don’t have a direct CHR or Urban contemporary rival.

Premiere claims deals with over 100 stations for its illegal download compilations, including some owned by Radio One and Emmis.

They’re finally getting it, almost.

New songs illegally downloaded are the most popular, which means stations playing new and current music should be playing those tracks – and not necessarily having playlists frontloaded with those pimped by labels or scoring on their hopelessly dated call-out research.

Did I tell you the one about the PD who lived and died by call out? He went as far as to plan his playlist based on test scores alone. He didn’t want to know titles. He even hated the format. He was an automaton. I had no choice but suggest that he be shown to the elevator at the end of the hall.

After some major realignment (including hiring a highly innovative PD that got it) the station soared in both in ratings and revenue.

No guts, no glory.

What many in radio repudiate is that illegal downloads have already replaced radio as the source for hearing new music amongst those under 30.

Show me a naysayer and I’ll show you someone who fears change.

It was a perfect storm of circumstances falling into place at a moment when new media morphed into mainstream media.

That trend was perceptible five years ago when illegal downloading had come into its own with the proliferation of Broadband and file-swapping sites.

The radio industry ignored it and the record labels handed the market to the pirates. Their chieftains refused to learn and accept the new digital world.

They’ve been playing catch-up ever since and still can’t buy a clue.

How about the Universal Music Group and their threat to stop selling their music through the iTunes store?

Bono should be concerned, especially when his management was front-of-the-line when it came to recognizing where the audience was migrating. While Universal was occupied with churning out pussycats, Bono was releasing anything and everything his band ever recorded on to iTunes, including stuff Universal couldn’t be bothered with.

That silhouette spot they did for iTunes, which put “Vertigo” in heavy rotation on TV? They did it for free. Promote it and follow the money. Little wonder why U2’s one of the wealthiest bands on the planet.

For the past few years, the top downloaded titles were not analogous with terrestrial CHR and Urban radio playlists. The downloaders were ahead of radio’s curve – and they, instead of radio, began influencing their peers on new music, which, in turn made radio’s tardiness uncool to the demo.

That’s one of many reasons why radio feels like its getting a daily trampling by the bulls from Pamplona.

Illegal downloading charts and info are readily available from a number of sources, most of them free and on the Internet – for every format and then some. If you don’t know where they are – you’d better learn quickly.

We’re a country of haves and have nots. Those that can afford a computer and an iPod or reasonable facsimile are hearing new music first from downloading and Internet radio.

Those that can’t listen to radio.

Terrestrial radio will never be exactly as it once was when the world was quite different from what it is today – but it could still be viable. There’s an average of four per household. But, unless there’s good reason, the kids ain’t turning them on.

Would they listen to terrestrial radio more if it played the right music and was plugged in to today’s pop culture?

Of course.

Why did young people migrate from radio?

You mean in addition to those clueless, corporate programmers that wear those ill-fitting suits, use fractured syntax, and rarely visit your market but make all the programming and marketing decisions for it?

Glad you asked.

Pay-for-play favored artists and labels willing to buy their way on to the charts, which is exactly what they did.

Since there are only so many slots for new adds, payola served as a tool to keep other songs, often those with greater appeal, off their playlists. As a result, radio ceased being the soundtrack for its listeners.

Those advocates for “legal payola” as a continuous source of non-traditional revenue did little more than set stations up for the inevitable fall.

I’d like to compare their memos to market managers to the ones Kenneth Lay and Ken Skilling wrote to their managers regarding Enron’s business ethics policy.

Some believe the recently exposed radio payola scandal provided another point in favor for Elliot Spitzer's gubernatorial victory in New York state.

Passive call-out research passed away when cell phones replaced land lines with younger demos. They were sooooo twentieth century and history years before radio figured it out.

Radio didn’t get the Internet either. I’ll never forget the GM that told me back in 1998 that “the Internet is the CB radio of the nineties" and spending anymore than five minutes a day on a station’s site is time wasted.

Say you do ensnare a live respondent on a land line. In today’s world, a young person having the time and willing to listen to twenty to thirty song hooks over a land line ought to get a life. Everyone else has.

Terrestrial radio needs to reach and influence the peer leaders. The first-one-on-the-block type. Just like the new music and trends they pass on to their peers – you’ve got to win this crowd over to promote your radio station as worthy.

They set the trends. They influence.

Let’s stop here for a moment so we’re clear on this.

Radio should not base a playlist solely on download results. You still need passive research – but unless you do it on-line you’re not going to get an accurate read.

There are active and passive zip codes. It’s knowing your market and which is which and how to reach the proper percentage of each on-line.

You also need chutzpah, forward-thinking and a little bit of futurist in you.

There are exceptions to the rule. AC and Classic Hits remain passive. Those formats are audio wallpaper. It’s music for people that don’t exactly like music. The trouble with these formats is that you have to spend big bucks on other media to remind the snoozers what station they’re listening to.

There are a few exceptions and I’ve heard a few – very few - forward-motion ACs that get it. In all cases, they have strong on-air personalities.

Why is Hot AC dying? Like it or not, that format exists in both worlds. You have to know where one ends and the other begins. Few do.

Another piece of free advice. You define what your format parameters are. Forget the labels and trades. You have to be what you need to be and not what they want you to be.

So, the good news is that you realize research has to originate on–line.

The bad news is that you’re late.

Remember when the radio station you listened to was a vital component of who you were?

Today, what’s radio? Oh, yeah…that thing we listen to if we have nothing else to listen to. Or it’s something my parents used to listen to in the car before they got (multiple choice here): A. a docking station, B. a CD player, C. Sirius, or D. XM.

Note that I didn’t mention HD Radio. No one does.

Air personalities? Lack of farm teams killed off a whole generation of ‘em. Inventive, innovative air personalities can increase TSL for terrestrial radio.

Listeners want to be turned on to the new by those they like and trust.

Let's look back at the original KISS-108 in Boston when Sunny Joe White was running it.

Only those living in Boston got its somewhat outlandish CHR-club-dance-fashion format.

Sunny Joe White didn’t do call-out research – even then when it was still a viable tool in those ancient times. He found his respondents in clubs and concerts and would informally poll them on music and trends. And he’d combine that research with his gut and by monitoring the competition.

KISS-108 had hardwearing competition over the years – most doing straight-ahead by-the-book CHR radio. They never came close. Ratings or billing.

You can accept the verity of downloads driving new music formats today or ignore it and face the consequences.

The radio industry can be saved – but it has to stop killing itself with friendly fire.

As Walt Kelly’s Pogo said eons ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


Anonymous said...

I just got a new car with a built in docking station. I didn't even bother with the presets on the radio. When internet radio is available in cars I may go for that. The docking station is perfect.

Anonymous said...

i went to school in boston and while there started listening to kiss108. its format was nothing like i had ever heard in albany where i was from. it became my favorite station while i was in boston and to this day i havent found another station that can compare. i occasionally visit boston on business and today kiss108 sounds like every other station. thats why i listen to npr and my ipod in my car.

Johnbfree said...

This reminds me of the (new) old cliche, if you're not growing you're dying. Once upon a time, radio DID have a captive audience, until they started putting 8-track players in car stereo's. I suppose AM thought they had a lock on the market, until they began selling FM converters. The recording industry and radio industry are completely out of touch. You cannot manufacture trends. Trends come from the energy of youth wanting to make their mark on society. You have to be in touch at the street level. The Grunge movement was really the last musical movement that the industries took advantage of. It arose, from all places, Seattle which was WAY off the musical map until then. Despite Guns and Roses and the Hairspray crap of the 80's being shoved down our throat, Grunge took the nation by storm, a movement by the youth of the 90's rejecting the shallow 80's and striving for somthing that refelcted their feelings. An artist can now record songs on his/her computer in their liveing room and have it on MySpace by dinner and have e-mailed all of his/her friends by bed time. by the time he/she is in home room they might be world wide. Meanwhile, Clive Davis is arguing with Kelly Clarkson and Simon and Paula are arguing about...well you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

It's surrealistic. Who would have thought that Clear Channel would try to market illegal download playlists? Like you said that information is available for no cost on numerous sites on the net so radio programmers must really be clueless to pay for this service. You could have mentioned songs like "Saved the World Today" by the Eurythmics as one example of a song that was a top download a few years back that never received any airplay on U.S. radio.
I have been exposed to new music that I like from other downloaders and internet radio stations. What radio plays today is not what people want to hear. I read where they cleared up payola with radio. You could have fooled me. Either it still exists in a different form or programmers and consultants (you don't count)have all gone deaf.

froggy said...

This just shows how out of touch radio programmers/managers are. If they do not know how to access this information on their own they should not be in the business.

I agree that you can get a far better snapshot of pop culture today from nearly anything on the internet.

Like you said by the time radio picks up on something mass appeal it is over.

I think terestrial radio would be better off if it simulcasted internet radio stations.

Jose Fritz said...

John, you state that there are two companies that tally "tangible radio airplay". There are three; Mediabase, BDS and Mediaguide. Mediaguide is the newcomer but they monitor more stations than the other two combined. there are other radio monitoring services in other countries as well. otherwise an excellent peice as usual.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with you about radio. When I was growing up (late 60's - mid 70's) radio was my connection to the present and future. Especially when rock on FM started. The DJs would tell you what was happening locally and spoke to you. Today it is all prerecorded or formula driven making it difficult for me to relate. I listen to internet radio and my local Adult Album Alternative station. I don't have an iPod yet. I do have iTunes and burn my own CDs for when I am driving in my car.

kendall said...

well said old friend!

Jerry said...

You got it right. I worked at a station where the GM picked the music after he signed a deal w/McClusky. New swimming pool, new car lease, club membership paid. Get the picture?

Anonymous said...

Do any of you question why, if the G-Man is so smart, he doesn't have a job working as a programmer these days? If John has all the answers someone would be more than willing to hire him, right? Sounds like someone is on the bitter side.

Rick Simonsen said...

Just reading over the comments and came across the diatribe above which I feel must be answered.

John Gorman has been involved in a number of advertising and marketing consulting projects for our company. I am pleased with his services and I just wish he would spend so much time on his damn blog!

When I ask him about radio programming he says been there, done that and he has made a pretty good career of it I would have to say.

Anonymous said...

>>Do any of you question why, if the G-Man is so smart, he doesn't have a job working as a programmer these days?<<

No, as a matter of fact, I don't question that at all. There are a number of smart programmers who no longer program. They may have moved on to different positions, or started their own consultancies, or left the industry altogether.

Do you ask that same question of Mike McVay? Bill Drake? Mel Phillips?

Give me a break.

>>If John has all the answers someone would be more than willing to hire him, right?<<

They do, as a consultant, at a pretty good clip too.

>>Sounds like someone is on the bitter side.<<

Yes, but that's OK that you are. I'm sure someone will hire you soon, sir/madam.

Cambridge Ken said...

Two lines from JG's "Barely Illegal" that should be posted in every radio station.

1. The radio industry can be saved – but it has to stop killing itself with friendly fire.

2. We have met the enemy and he is us.

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