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Radio’s 40 Year Old Music Programming Formula Is Killing Innovation, Alienating Younger Listeners, and Widening the Disconnect with Its Audience

Successful brands continuously seek new ways to delight their customers and attract new ones, but music radio stations aren't listening to that idea. If they don't tune in soon, their refusal to update their approach will hasten their demise.

Photo by RyanStefan.com on Unsplash.com

Over 40 years ago, radio executives introduced a pair of industry-disrupting innovations that have shaped the music consumption experiences of almost all American adults. These two pioneering strategies – audience music testing (AMT) and music rotations – created tens of millions of loyal radio listeners and billions in profits for station owners and conglomerates.

AMT and music rotations continue to determine how commercial radio stations select and present music, but amazingly, their 2017 implementations are almost exactly the same as when they were originally launched and haven’t been updated to reflect the dramatic changes in how music is consumed. The continued embrace of these Music Radio 1.0 approaches, in particular by classic radio formats (classic rock and classic hits), is not only chasing away younger potential listeners, it’s also eroding the future profitability of these formats and teeing up their eventual obsolescence.

AMT has its roots in the 1970s. It’s a form of focus group research that invites several hundred people who match a radio station’s target demographic to provide feedback on snippets of songs that fit the station’s format. The participants are given a dial apparatus. When they hear each snippet, they register their passion about it by turning the dial (all the way if they love the song, less if they’re not as enthused). Once the data has been tabulated, the songs that have generated the highest response scores are played on the air.

Music rotation was pioneered in the 1950s by radio station owner Todd Storz and further developed in the 1960s by radio entrepreneur and conglomerate owner Gordon McLendon. It’s a highly structured organization and presentation process that tiers a limited number of AMT selections based on their popularity, and then repeats them throughout the day.

The two methodologies still offer value in selecting/presenting music on radio stations that specialize in classic formats. However, the fact that their application hasn’t been adapted to reflect current music listening trends and also to accommodate the tastes of younger ears is, at best, misguided and sloppy, and at worst, clueless and destructive.

In the New York City area, where I live, classic radio programmers would view my POV with a nasty stink eye. They’d point out that WCBS-FM (owned by Entercom), which plays classic pop hits from the mid seventies through the 90s, and WAXQ-FM (owned by i Heart Radio), which specializes in classic rock, are profitable and among the most listened to stations in the market.

“No need to mess with success,” they’d likely counter. “Everything’s awesome and the reliable AMT/music rotation tandem is crushing it.”

While on the surface it seems that the defenders have a point, a close listen to the stations and an examination of the ratings data reveals deep vulnerabilities that aren’t being addressed.

For example: while listening to WCBS on consecutive weekdays, I noticed that “Somebody’s Watching Me”, a 1984 hit by Rockwell, aired every other day between 3:45PM and 5:45PM. This tight rotation is nonsensical, given that the song is over 30 years old. It isn’t driven by popular demand to hear it, and it isn’t dependent upon current charts or record company promotion to keep it active. With WCBS’ very limited playlist being churned aggressively each day, the usage of music rotation is based more on programming habit rather than a reflection of actual listener preferences.

Another challenge for the station is the audience that it seems to attract. Many of the commercials that I heard were for hospitals, cancer care, dental implants, and other senior-focused products/services. The clear takeaway is that the WCBS experience is geared towards newly christened AARPers who are nearing the upper end of the prized 25-54 year old demographic, which is the one that advertisers seek to reach with their messages. While having “mature” listeners as your sweet spot isn’t an issue, it ultimately will be when younger listeners, who aren’t being nurtured to follow the oldsters as they age out of the station’s money demo, aren’t on board to start tuning in.

WAXQ’s listener experience and limited youth appeal are also problematic. The station, like all in the classic rock format, employs a limited playlist of several hundred selections as well as frequent rotation of these songs (when listening, I’m almost able to predict when Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”, which consistently gets top AMT scores, is about to air). Ratings from A.C. Nielsen show solid numbers in the higher end of 25-54 with significant falloff in the lower tiers.

What both of these stations, as well as other classic stations, are missing is a strategy to engage teens, millennials, and thirtysomethings who love classic rock (which they affectionately refer to as “dad rock”) and classic pop hits. While classic format programmers may not think that these audiences connect with the older music, they’re quite wrong in that assumption.

“Our students, who range from eight to 18, discover classic songs in commercials, on TV, in movies, and at sporting events, and they love performing them,” says Kevin March, General Manager at School of Rock in Montclair, NJ.

School of Rock, a national after school music program with almost 200 franchise locations across the U.S., combines individual lessons with group performances of popular music’s greatest bands, genres, and songs.

“Our students listen to music on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and other online services – but never commercial radio. The only time where they hear it is when they’re driving with their parents.  They’re excited because they know the songs, but the repetition and limited playlists are a big turnoff for them.”

John Mullen, a higher education media professional at Hofstra University, adds to March’s observations when describing the thoughts of college students about classic radio.

“In my 12 years at Hofstra, I’ve seen the students become more and more engaged with on-demand music services,” says Mullen, who had previously been a programming executive at three of New York’s top rated radio stations. “Do they love the heritage hits? Absolutely. But with YouTube, Spotify, and others, the students can get their music whenever and wherever they want. This includes songs with big appeal that don’t play on classic stations because they weren’t included on the AMTs.”

Mullen’s ideas of how to make classic radio more appealing to younger listeners, and better compete with on-demand/streaming music services, are smart steps in the right direction: test a lot more songs, put more songs into rotation, and widen the rotation to avoid oversaturation. He also believes that studying data of format-specific user selections that are played on YouTube – which would be analyzed based on user age, zip code, and sex – would deliver significantly wider and more accurate choices of appealing songs to air than relying exclusively on AMT.

The Achilles heel of classic commercial music radio – and, one can argue, commercial music radio in general – is the unquestioning adherence to the convenient, familiar, and acceptable programming path of AMT/music rotation rather than seeking new ways to thrill, surprise, and learn from its listeners/customers. It’s indicative of an industry-wide defensive strategy (keep current listeners from tuning out) versus a proactive strategy (get new listeners to tune in). It also represents a “this is how we do it, this is how we’ve done it, and this is how we’re going to keep doing it” mentality that’s the unfortunate hallmark of organizations and industries in decline.

Given the many choices that consumers have to experience music, commercial radio will need to use informed creativity, ingenuity, and experimentation in its journey to maintain profitability and groom fresh (and younger) audiences. Relying entirely on the current applications of AMT and music rotation at the expense of other options will not make the attainment of these goals possible.

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