A Return To 25-54itis?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

It wasn’t so long ago that many full-signal FM outlets gave up on anybody who wasn’t 25-to-54-years-old. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, after broadcasters realized they had paid too much for their radio stations, and before duopoly really took hold, the effects of “25-54itis”were everywhere: Top 40 stations switched to Hot AC, then to something else altogether; successful Urban FM stations moved to AM; the complete implosion of Easy Listening in a year’s time.

Top 40 stations switched to Hot AC, then to something else altogether; successful Urban FM stations moved to AM

What you had on the dial in many markets after 25-54itis took hold were four AC stations of some sort, although when Country kicked in, that became three Country stations in a given market, or maybe two Oldies stations. Each market had a Classic Rocker and a Mainstream Rocker that might as well have been Classic Rock. Owners did worry that younger listeners might not learn to use radio. But they saw it as a problem that would only be corrected once Congress and the FCC gave them duopoly. Or agency buyers began asking for younger listeners.
Through the ’90s, 25-54itis began to loosen its grip on the dial, at least a little. Most markets finally got an Alternative rocker. Top 40 crept back, too; first in a more adult version, then drastically younger once some of the Clear Channel “Kiss FM”s came to town. Hispanic and Hip-Hop radio boomed and began showing up in markets where few owners would have considered them a decade earlier. When Clear Channel dropped Jammin’ Oldies WTJM New York to go after more saleable demos with a Hip-Hop/R&B outlet, WWPR, it was clear that the paradigm had changed.
Maybe it was cluster synergy that fostered the greater format diversity. Maybe it was just broadcasters following trends that brought them to Hip-hop and Alternative. For whatever reason, the dial was a much more interesting place in the late ’90s and the early part of this decade. When broadcasters insisted that they were offering more format diversity than their critics were hearing, they weren’t wrong–at least at the time.
But in the past week, we’ve seen a flurry of “death of Oldies”stories in the consumer press, prompted by Infinity’s switch to “Jack FM”at WCBS-FM New York and WJMK Chicago. Few writers have directly compared the Oldies exodus with the late ’80s demise of Easy Listening, but it’s hard to think of any other time that so many owners walked away from respectable ratings. There’s flux at the young-end, too. The Hip-Hop building boom of 2003 is over, and some of the markets that once proved how universal the music was, such as Des Moines, Iowa, and Spokane, Wash., have lost their only Hip-Hop outlet. Alternative has had its own prominent defections, and while beer money and cellphone-only listeners are the most publicized culprits, there has also been a demographic split in the music that makes it hard to target younger and older listeners together. With the recent changes:
* 21 of the top 100 markets now have no Oldies FM (and that number doesn’t include seven markets that have no Oldies station of their own, but can hear the format from an adjacent market). And the four top 20 markets currently missing the format–New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Baltimore–have all lost the format in recent weeks.
* 15 of the top 100 markets have no Mainstream Top 40 (or none from an adjacent market). In the top 30, that includes Denver, which recently lost the format, and San Francisco and Baltimore, which have been without it for years.
* With the recent changes at WXRK New York and WPLY Philadelphia, 24 of the top 100 markets have no access to a full-time Modern Rock FM. (The modifier is necessary because of part-timer WHFS Baltimore and an AM in El Paso, Texas).
* At least 36 markets have no significant Adult Standards station–meaning one that shows up in the ratings at all. And that number is expected to increase to 38 when the sale of XETRA-AM, currently serving as the Standards outlet for both Los Angeles and San Diego, closes.
* A stunning 51 markets have no station billing itself as Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop. While that number decreases to 11 markets if you include Rhythmic Top 40 stations that specialize in Hip-Hop, the very nature of that format means there’s nobody in those markets committed to African-American listeners except, in some cases, Urban AC stations.
At the same time, the rush to cover the Jack/Bob position in many markets is, effectively, increasing the amount of Hot AC 25-54 format duplication. Owners that would not consider the Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrid in their cluster a year ago because of the damage it would have done to a sister Hot AC or Classic Rocker are now signing one on for exactly that reason–they would rather flank themselves than be attacked.
Hot AC is now partnered with Jack/Bob in markets like Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, and Portland, Ore.–stations that had been in less saleable formats like Oldies, Smooth Jazz or Top 40. In Des Moines, Clear Channel traded Hip-Hop for a Jack-like format, even though it already owns a gold-based Hot AC that plays much of the same music. And the WCBS-FM change means Infinity now has three New York stations offering a 25-to-34-year-old some significant ’80s gold component.
There are still some places where the radio landscape differs significantly from 1990. Urban radio, which then faced its greater challenge from Urban AC, continues to lean to the Hip-Hop side. Existing Alternative stations, many of Clear Channel’s Modern Rockers prominent among them, are rocking harder than a year ago–although the seeming motivation in this case is to follow the Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit fans as they move into 25-plus.
Most significant, the changing demography, and, as important, the rise of Hispanic ad dollars, means that Latin radio continues to grow. Encouraged by the growth of stations like KLOL Houston and KZZA Dallas, broadcasters are now viewing second- and third-generation Hispanics as potential listeners that no longer have to be ceded to English language radio until age 35. As with the younger Top 40s of the late ’90s, some of the reggaeton-driven newcomers are made possible primarily by cluster synergies and are meant to flank, not to win. But if you’re finally getting to hear your favorite music on the radio, a station’s motivation doesn’t necessarily matter.
The problem is that a lot of other listeners are no longer getting to hear their music on the radio, and that seems like an odd decision to make at a time when the industry is worried about losing listenership in general. Giving listeners an extra suite of HD stations or streaming every station in the world via wireless broadband is an admirable goal, but it’s a long-term strategy that isn’t giving them anything new in their car this morning.
But isn’t Jack/Bob offsetting that potential lost listening by repatriating iPod or satellite radio users? Well, as their Hot AC and Classic Rock competitors can tell you, that format is hardly getting all its quarter-hours from new listening. And even if Jack/Bob’s Time Spent Listening is greater than the average Hot AC, its average TSL is not greater than that of other adjacent formats.

A new Arbitron/Edison Media Research study shows that the average TSL of the first eight American Jack/Bob converts is 6:15 a week, a full 1:15 longer than Hot AC’s average five hours. That’s certainly impressive for a format that many detractors predicted would be inherently unfriendly to TSL. But consider the equivalent or greater TSL of Classic Rock (6:15), Mainstream AC (7:00) and Oldies (6:45). And that latter format is one that has been programmed for cume, not TSL, for the last 15 years.
Consider also the recent Arbitron and Edison Media Research Internet and Multimedia 2005 study where iPod and satellite radio users say that they’re spending 15 minutes less per day, or 1:45 a week less, with terrestrial. So if a new gold-based Hot AC adds five quarter-hours to a traditional Hot AC listener’s radio week, it’s still not enough to offset the loss of seven quarter-hours. So what happens when a format with lower average TSL replaces an Oldies station whose listeners have just had their favorite music yanked away from them?
We may never quite know how much the narrower format spectrum of the late ’80s/early ’90s influenced today’s radio listening. The 16-year-old who is more interested in PSP than FM today wasn’t the one snubbed in the early ’90s–that listener moved into the radio demo at a fairly good time for young-end offerings. The Black and Hispanic listeners who had to wait for many years to be superserved–and are sometimes still waiting–have not reduced their listening. But other listeners have, and their gradual lowering of listening levels began, not coincidentally, in the late ’80s when formats were at their most homogenized.
In the late ’80s/early ’90s, listeners’ own mixes were still on cassette and satellite radio was only on the drawing board. At the time, I remember one potential satcaster defending the new medium from an angry NAB panel audience by suggesting that it would be truly unserved formats, like Vietnamese, that got satellite channels. When Satellite radio did boot up, the format choices were less obscure, but they were still geared at people whose tastes were more eclectic than what was typically on the radio. In recent months, of course, both satellite and Internet radio’s offerings look a lot more like mainstream radio, and they are not shy about letting listeners know. Several years ago, when New York lost Country radio, neither XM nor Sirius marketed itself to the disenfranchised listeners. This time, there were ads in both New York and Chicago. They weren’t targeting fans of deep cuts–just the listeners who were happy hearing “Respect”and “Satisfaction”every day.
Today’s broadcasters will doubtlessly have a lot of reasons why the new 25-54itis is regrettable but unavoidable. Many will blame somebody else, whether it’s Arbitron for not reaching a cellphone-only Alternative listener, or an agency buyer for not recognizing that a 48-year-old is at peak spending power. But broadcasters’ failure to see the long-term implication of their moves is a culprit, too. You can’t blame a broadcaster for adopting the newest format that targets a money demo. But you can ask why multiple stations in a cluster would target one set of radio users and leave other listening on the table.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.

Read other articles by Sean Ross

4 replies
  1. mark dylan
    mark dylan says:

    As ALWAYS….You’re a VITAL READ!
    These Jack/Bob formats seem to turn us back
    full-circle to a time when diversity meant
    EVERYTHING and then some for radio..
    Just one man’s opinion,but these formats WILL
    set up a strong defense against satelite,podcasts
    and personal ipods as well..Glad to see the music
    FREED UP….and the proverbial “stick” out of
    radio’s …asknotwhatyourcountry… ;-D

  2. ROB
    ROB says:

    I absolutely hate the radio in my city (detroit). I think about how great it used to be, back in the ’60’s where you’d hear obscure soul singles along side The Seeds. Then the next wave brought fm stations that would play the Velvet Underground. Then it all went to hell in a handbasket, I couldn’t understand why no one would touch The Ramones. And it doesn’t matter anymore. Poor US radio, most of the time I’m listening to Xfm from London via the web. Why couldn’t someone open up a station that would play absolutely EVERYTHING. It wasn’t so bad listening to The Rationals & Dean Martin on the same station.

  3. Larry Stoler
    Larry Stoler says:

    I read your article regarding 25-54itis. I am concerned about this because so many are going after the same demo that I wonder if ultimately the pie will be cut so much that no one will be served.
    I think to much time is spent worrying about the agencies rather than making the listeners feel good about what they are listening to and properly promoting it.
    I don’t believe these Jack, Bob, Ben, Frank formats are the answer. I believe they will go the way of Jamin Oldies because of the way they are programmed and the insulting liners that are used between songs such as in New York.
    I think the attitude by many making decisions is the heck with the listeners such as the way the change took place on June 3 on WCBS FM.
    I hope the day will come when stations will get back to obtaining as many listeners as possible from all ages.


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