Radio remains one of the most powerful marketing tools available to the recording industry, despite skyrocketing costs of gaining access to the airwaves via independent promoters. While word-of-mouth, video and Internet brush fires occasionally catapult unknowns to stardom, radio remains the most reliable and efficient means of enticing listeners to record stores. Yet many fans surfing the airwaves are far from satisfied.
The complaint: Consolidation has made radio even more cookie-cutter bland, with narrow, unimaginative playlists. Demographic targeting and audience testing eliminate variety, stifle regionalism and foist the least objectionable music on the public.
Failing to recognize that an individual’s tastes are broader than a narrow format, stations avoid adventurous artists and diversity. Music’s presence is being eroded by gabby DJs and juvenile morning shows.
Underscoring the gap between programmers and listeners is a roster of records that sold well without radio support: the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and debuts by Josh Groban and Norah Jones.
“More and more, radio is programmed literally by machine, hurting the limitless potential that makes radio special,” Light says. “All the great things about radio, including identity and community, are being devalued. In places that kind of station still exits, people hold onto it with religious fervor.”
The defense: As quirky outposts merged into titanic corporations, radio became a big business beholden to Wall Street’s profit standards.
“The stakes are higher,” Light says. “One genre is now bigger than the whole industry used to be. It’s absurd to think that corporations are going to value artistic merit and innovation. That’s not what the game is.”
Listenership levels are still high, pointing to a content silent majority, and surveys show that most people prefer the tight, predictable playlists that repeat their favorite hits over and over.
“There’s never been any conspiracy to ignore the records people want to hear,” says Sean Ross, editor of Airplay Monitor. “Compared to 10 years ago, there’s a wider variety of music being exposed.”
Specialization has led to stations that play only hip-hop or dance music, yet scattered outlets continue to aim for a mix.
Ross says that although radio stations find it challenging to present widely differing styles of music, “you do have Top 40 stations that can accommodate Michelle Branch, Eminem and Linkin Park.”
As for records that weren’t set in motion by radio, stations eventually came aboard.
“In the end, Man of Constant Sorrow (from O Brother) was a Top 40 country hit,” Ross says. “There are stations looking at Norah Jones and Josh Groban.”
The outlook: Such satellite services as XM and Sirius promise more choices and minimal filler, but will people pay in a marketplace rife with cost-free transmissions? (Yes, according to companies that sell cable TV and bottled water.) Online radio offers more variety but lacks portability.
Commercial radio, which has withstood all technological threats, likely will survive, though listening levels could erode as ears turn to cyberspace and other diversions.
“It’s hard to know what to make of Internet and satellite radio,” Light says. “I’m not sure cutting the pie into smaller and smaller pieces is a good idea, even if the fragments are getting bigger and bigger. Hip-hop is a self-contained economy.”
Little may be gained in splintering. An alt-country satellite station, Light reasons, will preach to the choir and be ignored by the uninitiated, hindering exposure.
“Judging by initial responses to satellite radio, it’s not the non-issue that broadcasters were hoping for,” Ross says. “On the other hand, its effect is perhaps too diffuse to really force any one radio station to react.”
Radio’s urgent challenge is recapturing baby boomers.
“As it does a better job of acknowledging younger listeners, radio does a worse job of acknowledging anyone over 35,” Ross says. “There are no commercial classical stations in Detroit, Philadelphia or Miami anymore. The labels have learned in the past five or 10 years to reach the 35-year-old who wants to buy a Bee Gees record even if it’s not on the radio. (Labels that) find a way to market to 45-year-olds who grew up on rock ‘n’ roll will have an advantage.”
The 45-and-up demographic has gradually increased its marketplace clout since 1990, accounting for 23.7% of record sales in 2001, says the RIAA.