by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
In 2004′s “The Wisdom Of Crowds,” business writer James Surowiecki puts a lot of faith in “decision markets,” the ersatz stock trading exercises that allow participants to wager on everything from the outcome of elections to box-office returns and Oscar nominees. The results often support Surowiecki’s belief that a large and sufficiently diverse group makes better choices and more accurate predictions than a few top-down decision makers. (Surowiecki also cites all those instances where participants are asked to figure out, say, the number of jelly beans in a jar, in which the group average usually outperforms most or all individual guesses.)
When Columbia University researchers had 14,000 volunteers vote on 48 new songs on the music website Purevolume.com, they found it “very difficult” to predict the hits
And yet when Columbia University researchers had 14,000 volunteers vote on 48 new songs on the music website Purevolume.com, they found it “very difficult” to predict the hits. The only conclusive pattern in their recently released study was that respondents who were aware how their peers were voting could be influenced by a song’s existing popularity. And yet, two different such groups would still vote very differently–meaning that the peer pressure could swing either way. In this case, a decision market wasn’t a viable alternative to an individual’s A&R decision, merely a confirmation of the difficulty of the A&R process.
Of course, the Columbia respondents had little chance of actually predicting the charts, since they were limited to new songs from outside the pop/rock mainstream that are not currently being promoted to radio. While sites like Purevolume.com and MySpace.com have proven their ability to put a song on radio’s agenda, it is still, at best, unusual to see a record break at radio without actively being worked there. In that regard, the now defunct AIR competition–in which programmers were being asked to predict not just a song’s hit potential, but program director behavior (theirs included) may have been a more representative decision market.
But if you want to see the wisdom of crowds at work, look for stations that still use their music testing wisely. Consider the ongoing success of WLTW (Lite-FM) New York. At a time when New York was particularly crowded with gold-based formats, Lite was headed for a best-ever 7.4-share last fall even before the Christmas music kicked in. As a station that was a mile wide and an inch deep long before that became the mantra for Jack and Bob-FMs, Lite has always been definingly mass-appeal. And in recent years, they’ve gotten there by targeting Surowiecki’s large and sufficiently diverse sample–PD Jim Ryan has said in the past that he regards African-American listeners as part of his coalition, for instance.
The ability of some stations to shoot for mass-appeal and still achieve it cannot be understated at a time when the recent rollout of so many HDRadio multicast stations has put some programmers in a niche frame of mind. Talking to programmers in the day or so after the latest round of multicast announcements were made, there was a tangible excitement about both the spirit of cooperation that emerged among major broadcasters and their ability to experiment with new formats in a way that had rarely occurred in this post-deregulation age.
But it’s also exciting to come away from Surowiecki with a sense that mass-appeal radio is still attainable, if done correctly. And that radio can still specialize in the shared experience. Add that to the down fall book numbers for most of the Jack- and Bob-FM Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids and there’s an increased sense that everything we thought we knew as programmers is not wrong.
But what about the decline in listening levels over the last two decades? That must suggest that not every listener was satisfied with mass-appeal radio, right? Well, declining listening levels probably reflect a lot more than the availability of more niched radio alternatives. But even if they do, the number of listeners who could not possibly be satisfied by existing radio choices–those who had to choose the variety of Internet or satellite radio–turned out to be a relatively small number. Small enough, in fact, that satellite radio eventually needed a change in strategy and began recruiting Opie & Anthony, Howard Stern, major sports franchises, and now Ellen Degeneres and Oprah Winfrey. In other words, mass-appeal content.
It’s important for broadcasters to use their HDRadio multicast channels to claim their space on an infinite dial that may as easily manifest itself as wireless broadband as satellite or HD radio, and to do the best possible jobs with them. But the content that helps spur a sale of an HD radio may as easily be the successful mainstream stations offering higher quality audio, or the chance to hear a N/T powerhouse on FM. Too much emphasis on the niche channels would be like the incumbent station that falls from an eight share to a five in the face of new competition, then alienates its remaining audience by chasing the smaller group that left.
Mass-appeal is something that radio still has the ability to do well. And even those formats that have been whittled down to niches in many markets usually have at least a handful of stations leading the market somewhere, suggesting that it’s not such an impossible task for their counterparts. And whatever problems the Columbia researchers may have had, it’s still not that hard to find out what people want to hear if you ask the right ones the right questions.