For Some, Radio Is Still The Best Way To Hear Music

When WCBS-FM New York dropped Oldies in 2005, it had a 3.0 share 12-plus.
When WCBS-FM came back last summer, it returned with a 3.7 share and has held there through the recently released winter 2008 book.
In that time, WCBS-FM’s many disenfranchised listeners had no shortage of choices that could have taken them away from terrestrial radio. They were directly targeted by Sirius Satellite Radio and its hiring of Cousin Brucie. They had their iPods. They could have found no shortage of customizable Internet-only Oldies channels.
They had plenty of options – many of which would have been seen by some industry people as far superior to the old WCBS-FM during its problematic last year. But when WCBS-FM came back, the listeners came back, too.
That’s significant, because as the debate about radio’s future continues, one of the continuing themes heard from some quarters is that there will be no interest in a music service that features personalities, and chooses the music for listeners (and compounds those apparent offenses by playing commercials as well).
That being the case, the theory holds, even streaming your signal is missing the point. What you’re offering now will not be what listeners want on other platforms.
And inherent in that belief is that the contention that the classic radio model was never a very good way to hear music to begin with. Listeners put up with jocks yakking over the music that somebody else chose because there weren’t as many other options. Or perhaps out of Stockholm Syndrome, but not because they enjoyed the entire package.
The notion that “radio is a terrible delivery system for music” has been, not surprisingly, bandied about pretty freely among new media people since the inception of alternate delivery systems, but it’s popping up more often among radio people now, who perhaps have some Stockholm Syndrome of their own.
So it’s worth reminding ourselves how many disenfranchised listeners – only some of whom had terrestrial radio access to Oldies on a suburban signal — were forced to find alternatives to WCBS-FM for two years and still chose to come back. Those listeners, at least, did not come to the realization that they never really liked radio to start with.
WCBS-FM has evolved, even over the last nine months. It has added the brief stagers that have become ubiquitous in a PPM world, and you can hear cold segues as well. But there is still enough front-and-center personality that if what you wanted from the station was merely music, unencumbered by companionship (or commercials) WCBS-FM would not be your choice. And if you were not willing to trust somebody else to choose the music occasionally, you would probably have little use for the station that spiked in the early ’70s nugget, “Rings” by Cymarron, this morning.
So is it only because WCBS-FM appeals to an older audience that its listeners didn’t seek out other new media choices for hearing Oldies and stay there? Theoretically, the 13% of the 45-54 audience that listened to Internet radio last week, or the 53% that have ever listened (according to the Arbitron/Edison Internet & Multimedia 2008 Study) would have found another choice between 2005 and 2007, thus at least keeping CBS-FM’s listening from growing. Besides, if the WCBS-FM model was never a good choice, why would even an older listener go back?
If the equation of “music + brief personality + we pick for you + having to sit through commercials” still works best for listeners above age 30, it may be because they were the ones who were most likely to hear that type of radio done right. And because the programmers who are still inclined to offer it to them are the ones who grew up hearing radio well executed. It has been in the last 10 years that our relationship with listeners has been repeatedly breached by stations too many commercials, too much repetition, and either obtrusive companionship or none at all. And while you can’t be sure that the generation that would rather text than talk will respond to that formula, you can say that it has rarely been offered to them, and that the WCBS-FM experience shows it is not inherently inferior.
This doesn’t mean in any way that broadcasters should not seek to offer listeners the content they want in the package and on the platform of their choice. The recent CBS announcement about the customizable Play.It that will be offered on the same player that now brings you their terrestrial streams and HD-2/Internet stations is the right idea. It doesn’t mean that broadcasters shouldn’t offer pure content/personality to those listeners who choose it. As in the U.K., broadcasters here should expand their reach by expanding their offerings.
But if the combination of pre-programmed music presented by personalities is not among radio’s viable offerings in the future, it will be because broadcasters destroyed it, not because the audience rejected it outright. And perhaps because broadcasters allowed a few of radio’s critics to become proxy for a segment of the audience whose needs and attitudes they should have studied more directly. There is a difference between self-improvement and self-loathing that broadcasters would do well to keep in mind now.

20 replies
  1. Rich Appel
    Rich Appel says:

    Perhaps one way to think about it is, the medium is the message. Several generations have been raised to expect personalities and commercials as part and parcel of terrestrial, but far as I know, no one’s yet figured out how to do personality radio on the Internet. So far, the expectations seem different on the other side (as in, no interruptions or commercials, deeper song selection and the ability to ‘take’ the music). If someone finds a way for FM listeners to download complete songs using just their radios, that could change the personality aspect of the medium as we know it.
    Specifically, in CBS-FM’s case, I’d argue that other choices did a lousy job of attracting the disenfranchised, simply because CBS-FM was never just a jukebox.

  2. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    It isn’t so much that radio is not a viable medium. It’s that for years (some of us would trace that development as far back as 1970), radio at large has been out of touch with a large segment of its potential audience.
    To “test” records and say “we know what’s marketable” is to assume that the “we” knows more about what the “us” wants than “us” knows.
    And there were those of us who were spoiled during that rare time (1964-1967) when radio’s assumptions and its audience’s preferences were actually in sync. It has not been that way for years. And as such, for many of us, there are far more direct and viable ways to access the music that matters to us.

  3. Bob Quick
    Bob Quick says:

    I love it…you told us we suck and that it was all our fault…AND YOU’RE RIGHT!
    Content will always win over jukeboxes (sorry, many of the folks reading this might not know what a jukebox is. For those of you, use iPods or internet streams).
    We’ve lost sight of that during the consolidation era. We have to re-invest in our top talent and groom new ones or all those dire predictions of the “death of radio” will come true.
    I have to go, I have a text to respond to…

  4. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Thanks, Bob. But I try not to be in the “radio sucks and it’s all our fault” business–lucrative though it often proves for others. The intent here is to remind radio of what it’s doing right.

  5. Eric Norberg
    Eric Norberg says:

    Bravo! Radio done right is an accompaniment to living and a friend at your side. Radio done right gives you the feeling that you will be missing something if you’re not listening. Radio in these roles will always be unique and relevant.

  6. Steve Stockman
    Steve Stockman says:

    The idea that everyone under 30 wants to choose everything for themselves is a crock. One desire that runs through all humans faced with myriad choices is the desire for a good Concierge. Someone to make our choices easier and more rewarding.
    Whether we

  7. Ed Salamon
    Ed Salamon says:

    As always, thanks for your insights, Sean. I know they always come from your love and appreciation of the mediumI like Steve Stockman’s term “concierge” to explain the power of astation’s brand. Listeners have always appreciated their AM or FM radio stations, and earlier their favorite personalities, sifting through the incomprehensible volume of available music to find the “best” records. Programming is a valuable benefit that radio offers, despite efforts to reposition music selection as “gatekeeping”.

  8. joe
    joe says:

    listen, the one thing that makes radio different now than it was 35 years ago when I got into it is that talent is now a liability rather than an asset. talent costs stations money, and good talent cost stations even more. when an automation system and a disembodied voice from godknowswhere can do what a warm body can do for 75-90 percent less than a warm body…
    radio needs to learn that the key to success now is what the key to success was then–good talent. give people something entertaining to listen to besides the music because they can get the music anywhere.
    take a look at john rook’s site ( and read his stories about what it was like programming for ABC’s KQV and WLS 40 years or so ago. I can’t imagine anything like that happening now.
    it was entertainment that kept people listening after the advent of television, and it’s entertainment that made the good stations legendary through the years, and a return to entertainment will turn things around now.
    it makes no difference how old people are are…25, 55, 105…they want to be entertained. like the old jingle sung, “it’s what’s between the music that counts!”

  9. Peter Butler
    Peter Butler says:

    Well said Sean!! A very real “hit the nail on the head” piece that should be read out at every gathering of more than 2 radio people. That article should be shouted out loud at the next NAB convention junket!
    It also applies to Australia, Europe, South Africa, Asia and the UK.
    Video, Play Station, PC’s, CD’s and DVD’s have all killed the radio star… but radio committed suicide years before in “reducing costs” by networking and automation.

  10. Richard Fusco
    Richard Fusco says:

    Radio is the only medium that can generate a real emotion bond and sense of community. An iPod or a your own customized channel can’t do that. WCBS-FM is a brand that generates an emotional bond and sense of community. That’s why listeners came back. Early FM radio was like that. WNEW in New York is a prime example. Scott Muni, Alison Steele and others at WNEW were our family. Radio Woodstock is a brand that does the same thing and we are extending the Woodstock brand to build a stronger relationship through an actual social network online community driven by the Radio Woodstock audio channel. It’s not about the delivery platform. (I happen to think that the Internet will be the primary delivery platform for all media within 10 years and it allows us to extend beyond the limitations of traditional broadcast radio with video, on-demand and user-generated content.)It’s all about the content, its presentation and how it all generates the feeling of participatory community. Fortunately, the Radio Woodstock brand does a lot of that work for us.

  11. Bob Christy
    Bob Christy says:

    A friend told me this story…a major group was doing music testing and to save money they used respondents from all of their formats in the cluster. They had an AC, Oldies and a Classic rocker. They put all the 25-54’s in the auditorium and they were off and running. The top song for 25-54 women? “You shook me all night long” by ACDC…the oldies and AC guys almost filled their pants!
    When I got in this business in 1970 we started to win with FM music stations because we were the same age as our audience and played music the AM top 40 giants couldn’t or wouldn’t…is anybody got the balls to put a bunch of 20-25 year old kids on the air and let them entertaine their contemporaries? Not a chance!A smart kid who sounds like his audience will beat a 40 year old superstar anyday. I did it when I was 24 and my competitor was 40 and was number 2 in the market. That was Indy in 1971, we did it again in Boston in 1976…all of us who were part of that revolution seem to have forgotten what happened and how we did it, haven’t we? By the way I sucked as a jock (according to the “radio” people) but the audience loved me!

  12. TJ
    TJ says:

    Joe said: “it makes no difference how old people are are…25, 55, 105…they want to be entertained. like the old jingle sung, “it’s what’s between the music that counts!”
    Well that’s “AM” at it’s finest ! !
    But I will –ALWAYS– long for what “FM” was about when it was countering the “AM” style in the late 60’s and early 70s…. When “It’s not what’s between the music that counts … It’s the music selection itself that is either entertaining, or is boring.”

  13. Tom Murray
    Tom Murray says:

    I think radio was at it’s best in the 70’s as a teenager I listened to WLS in Chicago…the BIG 89.
    Now that was radio….loved the music, the jocks, and yes…even the commercials. Still listen on the reelradio the “good ol’ days of radio”.

  14. Don
    Don says:

    It never was all about the music…. Name me one radio station that was successful for more than three books in a row that was just a jukebox. Everyone seems to forget that radio is SHOW BIZ. It’s about personalities, presentation, information, and ambiance. I have an mp3 player in my car with virtually every song I’d ever want to listen to. But…. when I head east…. I start scanning the dial around the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border for CBS-FM. Why? It’s fun to listen to.

  15. John McNary
    John McNary says:

    Wait a minute.
    WCBSFM increases its share of radio listeners, and this is held up as proof that it has more listeners than it used to?
    Doesn’t that just mean that the station’s share of a smaller pie just got bigger?
    If fewer people are listening to radio — as study after study shows — an increased share of radio listeners means absolutely nothing.
    The entire premise of this article is that WCBS FM has increased listenership as opposed to when it dropped its oldies format — so just how many listeners did it have when it “Jacked” its listeners, and how many does it have now?

  16. guy broady
    guy broady says:

    The Days of “Chuck Leonard, Frankie Crocker,E.Rodney Jones Type Personalities” are Gone.The New Jacks are “Winning” in Markets By Default ! If you are in an Ass Kicking Contest and You’re The Only One in The Contest…..Gimme A Break !

  17. Wade Collins
    Wade Collins says:

    Bob Christy-I wonder if you beat that 40 year old AM DJ or did the technology beat him. People flocked to FM for better fidelity and a bigger playlist, most of the DJ’s on FM were nto superior, most were just plain bad. Today we have “the street coming through the speakers” DJ era. CHR, Hip Hop, Alternative-the smug-non radio slick sound of yesterday. So where do you go? These jocks sound likely more like their target audience than at anytime in the past. Of course I never expected or cared to hear my peers on the air, I was looking for entertainment and showmanship not my pals.

  18. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    A very fair question. We did look at that possibility, but indeed 12-plus cume was up by nearly 275,000 persons from spring ’05 to summer ’07. CBS-FM’s cume rating peaked at nearly two points higher than pre-Jack (and is still significantly ahead, even after tapering off).

  19. andrea d. wiener
    andrea d. wiener says:

    And again, people, you don’t get it – even with all the technological googoos and gadgets out there, MANY listeners (INCLUDING and ESPECIALLY this writer) still want to hear the personalities makin’ it real and keepin’ it real – BRAVO CBSFM for coming back and keepin’ it real!!
    andrea in nyc
    (FULL disclosure: I was there for CBSFM 1 and JUMPED UP AND DOWN when CBSFM returned July 12, 2007 – BRAVO!!)


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