by Tom Webster, Edison VP
Rock radio has been struggling for a while now, with many markets in the US going from “x” rock stations to “x-1.” Some consultants I work with note (correctly) that the product has been weak, and there are certainly a lot of “active rock” stations that have cut their current category to almost nonexistent in response. I buy that this is a contributing factor, but I think there are deeper sociological forces affecting radio, and in particular, radio for men, than go beyond what records are being played.
My classic rock station frequently drapes itself in the booze-soaked cloth of the least exclusive frat house on campus.
It is also easy to blame technology for Rock’s struggles. Yes, the active 18-34 male has an iPod, broadband and an XBOX — they have for a while. So too, I can personally attest, does the 35-44 year-old male. The impact of these “distractions” on mass media, however, is not easily quantified. I recently attended an extremely enlightening and entertaining presentation by Nat Puccio, Executive VP of Grey Worldwide, in which he showed a series of data points that suggested these new forms of media (led by the Internet) are not replacing TV, Radio and print media, they are being stacked right on top of them. Now, according to Puccio, Americans consume around eight and a half hours per day of media. Before we had Myspace, Playstations and blogging, this figure was half that. Sure, Radio listening has declined somewhat, but those declines are not in proportion with the gains realized by other media.
What else has declined? Perhaps the biggest loser, according to Puccio, is word-of-mouth marketing: specifically, face-to-face word of mouth. As the time we spend on message boards increases, the time we spend in actual in-person social settings has decreased. This has implications for media planners, sure–the optimal media mix for any offering has always required constant tinkering, and that certainly won’t change for a long time, if ever. It also, however, has more profound sociological implications, which I promise I will tie back to radio shortly.
Author James B. Twitchell and photographer Ken Ross recently released a fascinating book of essays and photos called Where Men Hide, an exploration of the shrinking number of spaces in which men can literally hide from their wives, responsibilities and work – and more importantly, socialize with other men. The two segments that most intrigued me discussed the decline of the purely “fraternal” organization for men (the Elks, Moose, even the Honeymooner’s Royal Racoons) and the decline of Boxing as both spectator sport and as recreation.
In Robert Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone, he notes that “attending club meetings” has declined almost 60% over the last 25 years. Twitchell’s work reveals that among the hardest hit organizations are the fraternal orders — male social clubs that are based upon fraternite (in the Napoleonic sense, not as in Delta House) and not around service (such as the Rotary Club/Chamber of Commerce/etc.) The average age of the Masons, Twitchell notes, is now 67. They are simply not recruiting new blood quickly enough to replace their losses. If you travel through the small towns of Northern Maine, where I grew up, you will see in almost every tiny hamlet, village or “township” a disused Odd Fellows hall or an overgrown Masonic temple that now may still serve as a facility for community events, but no longer exists solely as a male fraternal organization. Those organizations that do successfully recruit men often succeed because they are “service” organizations. Apparently, we men can no longer justify disappearing for meetings on Thursday nights unless we are doing something productive, not just sitting around the Franklin stove drinking Narragansetts and talking about the Red Sox. That is what Applebees is for.
Twitchell also presents the boxing ring as a now-abandoned former “hiding place” for men. Certainly, hanging out at the local ring faded a long time ago, but the sport itself has declined to a mere shadow of its former self – no longer the “sport of kings.” Twitchell posits that television, perversely, had as much to do with its decline as it did with its surge in the heyday of Ali. Much of man’s enjoyment of boxing comes from watching it with other men – being caught up in the spirit of the moment has as much to do with the context of the event as it does the event itself. Boxing matches, like baseball games, spur endless debates among men about who would have beaten who, and who was the best. Within these conversations lie the deeper subtexts of male-to-male communication.
When boxing became a televised sport, the match endured, but the social narrative disappeared. The violence alone was not enough to sustain interest unless it was witnessed in the company of other men. There is no better proof of this than the fact that boxing has vanished from network television, but still flourishes on pay-per-view–primarily due to bars and other public venues that drive these purchases.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam attributes much of the decline in our social structure (not just among men) to three modern phenomena: the keyboard, the television, and the increasingly longer, often solitary, commutes Americans face every morning to get to work from their exurban McMansions. We are spending more time in solitary pursuits, and that time has to come from somewhere. For men, we no longer seem to have the time to just sit around the Odd Fellows hall; we can only get away for good reasons–either a service event, or a sporting event, perhaps–and not just to sit around and talk about guy stuff with no other guiding organizational principle. We also have little interest in watching the fight on TV unless we are out with other men, as noted above. The match itself was not enough to sustain interest for those men watching it alone in their suburban homes–without the narrative, the context, the fight itself serves as but a shallow placeholder for what men talk about.
So, what does all this have to do with rock radio? I mentioned earlier that rock’s recent dearth of quality product has contributed to rock’s current doldrums, but in a number of other recent surveys I have noticed something else. In many recent rock studies I have seen the NPR station shoot up with men. There are frequently a variety of explanations for this–”Howard has left the building” is most common among these. I wonder, however, if there is some metainformation missing from that analysis. I love classic rock–it’s the music I grew up with. My classic rock station, however, frequently drapes itself in the booze-soaked cloth of the least exclusive frat house on campus. I am a 37-year-old, grown-ass man, and I am not going to drop by J.P. McBeers on “hot wings” night, vote for the “Buzz Babe,” or even, frankly, queue up for tickets to the see Rolling Stones for the eleventeenth time. I just…don’t…care.
If you conduct focus groups with men for rock radio stations, in groups they will tell you that those things are, in fact, exactly what they want to hear. In groups, those things do matter–they are the convenient touch points around which men can share common ground, and form the jumping-off point for other aspects of male communication. Interview them alone, however, and a different picture emerges. Listening to booze, broads and jocks while I am driving alone may have a certain vicarious thrill, but that is overrated, I think. No, I think listening to those elements in solitary settings is like watching boxing alone in my house–occasionally a punch lands that makes me perk up, but without the narrative, the accompanying subtext provided in a social setting, it’s like an iceberg without the nine-tenths below the surface.
I don’t think it is so much a case of “serious” talk vs. frivolous–I think it is more a case of introspective talk vs. “Extraspective” (which, if it isn’t a word, should be). I spend more time listening to “All Things Considered” in the morning than “Carlos and the Chicken,” but not necessarily because NPR is brilliant. Like most men, my morning radio listening is a solitary activity, and NPR’s content is simply more “introspective”–I can interact with it, in my own way, and formulate my own opinions. Wet T-Shirt night at Sparky’s, however, I can’t interact with. I just don’t care about it. I think we make too much out of vicarious listening in this business. If I were listening to Bunky and Catfish doing a live remote at Teazers with a bunch of my friends, I would probably love it. But I am bowling alone, like most of us these days.
Rock Radio all-too-frequently tries to get into the heads of “men” but fails to engage “man.” I am not saying I want my classic rock station to air clips of “This American Life” interspersed with Molly Hatchet–that is absurd. But I will never, ever vote for the “Fox Babe of the Month.” Will you? My mortgage, wife and son are not burdens I am trying to escape, they are my haven–the center of my universe. I worry about the economy, I worry about my job, I think about gas prices and lately, I dread traveling abroad. Most of all, I worry about being a good dad to my always laughing, sweet 16-month-old boy. Increasingly, when I get together with my male friends, beer, babes and sports are the entree to the conversation, but not the main course. What works in groups simply fails to engage me while I am driving alone.
Am I different? Dunno. Radio is losing a lot of folks like me, however, and I don’t think the iPod is the biggest reason. I don’t want my classic rock station to sound like a classical station, and my intent here is not to simply present yet another ivory-tower, academic rant against populism. The between-the-records on classic and active rock stations, however, just doesn’t move the needle for me in an increasingly introspective life–and if you are honest with yourself, I bet it doesn’t do much for you either, as much as you might tell yourself your audience loves it. My father still wakes up every morning at 5:30 and drives over to the local Dunkin’ Donuts, where he “hides” with his closest male friends for an hour or so to chat about local high school basketball, the decline of the local paper mill, and what old antique hot rod he is restoring this week. Where do I hide? I don’t know. I do, however, spend a lot of my solitary time with some kind of audio companion. Increasingly, my rock station sounds like the guy you run into every five years at your high school reunion who never really grew up, but still lives for weekends, beer-league softball and can’t keep a good job. Fun to visit, but I cannot live there any more. The music used to matter–the music still matters. I want the rest to matter, too.