How Format Trends and Press Coverage Intersect

I’ve gotten an interesting series of phone calls from reporters covering the radio business lately.

Over the summer, I received calls within a few days of each other from reporters in Albany, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio. Keyed to the respective spring book ratings success of Rhythmic WAJZ (96.3 Jamz) and Urban WCKX, the stories they were writing could have as easily been written in many other places a decade ago: Hip-Hop becomes part of pop culture; Hip-Hop’s appeal spreads beyond the African-American audience; Hip-Hop becomes a force in middle-America.

The irony was that these stories were being written amid numerous stories about the decline of Hip-Hop music (and to a lesser extent Hip-Hop radio) elsewhere, some of them tying in with the post-Don Imus controversy about Hip-Hop lyrics. In New York or a post-PPM Philadelphia, one might have written a very different story about the influence of Hip-Hop music and radio. The Albany and Columbus stories were, however, absolutely correct for their markets. One could also write that story now about Denver. And while Hip-Hop’s appeal is hardly a new phenomenon in these markets, you could also write accurately about its strength in Atlanta or San Francisco.

Then a few weeks ago, I got a call from a reporter in Washington, D.C., who was working on a story about the travails, as he framed it, of Rock radio. WWDC (DC101) wasn’t as strong as it was a few years ago — even with its in-format rival gone. Classic Hits WBIG was still a two-and-a-half-share radio station, as is former rival WARW, which switched to Triple-A WTGB (the Globe).

That call, of course, came right around the time that PPM was spurring a building boom in Rock radio elsewhere. In Philadelphia, the success of WMMR had spurred the successful launch of WRFF and the relaunch of music on WYSP. Meanwhile, Clear Channel alone had parlayed WRFF into similar Modern Rock/AC hybrids in Cincinnati and Los Angeles. And in one of the key signs of a format land rush, some of those changes were taking place in markets where there was already somebody in the format. (To be fair, the D.C. story that was ultimately written was about the format’s struggles in D.C. — absolutely true — without claims that there was a problem nationally.)

All of which has brought me to a realization both about how formats become perceived as hot or cold in the consumer press, and within the industry. Format building booms and busts often reflect the current attitude of a given group owner or the saturation of a format in a given market — not necessarily its nationwide viability. How that translates into consumer press coverage of a format’s strength often depends on logistics — particularly in terms of where a format change takes place.

Format booms (and busts) seem to take place along several patterns:

  1. There’s one of something that becomes successful and suddenly, everybody wants to lock it down for their market as with Rhythmic Hot AC KQMV [Movin’ 92.5] Seattle. In the rush to get there first, stations that seemed to be doing okay with their previous format go away. As format trends proliferate more quickly, this scenario is threatening to usurp the more typical one that follows.
  2. There’s one of something that becomes successful (all ’80s at KYPT Seattle a decade ago), but the rest of the industry watches skeptically, until there’s a second one (KVMX Portland, Ore.) Then the land rush is on, seemingly viable stations get blown up, and markets may suddenly end up with two stations in a format that didn’t exist there a few weeks earlier.
  3. Format booms and busts can spread within groups. Over the last decade, Clear Channel has gone through a number of them — Rhythmic-leaning Top 40s, second Country stations, Urban and Hip-Hop outlets, Air America affiliates, Rhythmic ACs, Triple-A stations, and now ’90s-heavy Modern Rock/Hot AC hybrids. The successful ones take hold; others, like WPHH, are wont to be changed during the next building boom. That’s not proof of a conspiracy to homogenize American radio. It just means that the biggest group owner logically has the most format change candidates at any given time, and how could its decision making not be informed by a success like WRFF? Other groups have their format booms as well, whether it’s Entercom’s Country “Wolf” pack or the Jack-FM building that spread through CBS two years ago, which, we’ll soon see, says a lot about how format trends spread to the consumer press.
  4. Format bust cycles don’t always reflect the need for a format in a market as much as whether there’s room for two of them — Country was strong before 1990 and after 1995. But in the years in between, a new Country station could grow the audience instead of merely cutting the existing shares in half. Hip-Hop is still a seven share format in New York, but it’s divided into two less attractive pieces. And Hip-Hop shares for incumbent WZMX Hartford, Conn., had only recently started to really show the effects of having WPHH there. Hip-Hop will probably now look pretty good in Hartford for a while. The only true sign of a format in decline is when the second station goes away and the first doesn’t profit (which, to be fair, seems to be the case in Washington these days, but not elsewhere).
  5. When markets lose their only station in a format, it’s often a function of sales or operators’ predictions as much as available audience (see Easy Listening in 1989 or Oldies in 2005).

Okay, now consider how this translates to consumer press coverage. There are, of course, exceptions, but I’ve seen the following scenarios play out many times in following the radio business and how it is covered over the past 20-plus years.

  1. Stories about a format’s strength often stem from one of two events: a local station changes format or the ratings come out and a new station is No. 1 in the market (or at least on a significant ascent).
  2. Not every market has a dedicated reporter covering the radio beat, although the number of markets where radio is a consumer press story has certainly increased over the last decade. In many cases, the radio coverage is by the pop music writer or by somebody from another beat altogether depending on the story (a sportswriter covering the launch of another all-sports station, a Latin culture writer on the boom or bust in Reggaeton). But whether a story gets covered in a given market depends a lot on whether there’s somebody to cover it.
  3. A format change in New York or Los Angeles is more likely to become not only a national story but often the national story. The twin stories about the growth of Jack and the then-decline of Oldies never got as much coverage as they did when the success of KCBS Los Angeles prompted near simultaneous Oldies-to-Jack flips in New York and Chicago. When the WCBS-FM change made the New York Times — and not every local format change does — it spread to the electronic and national media. By that time, of course, the rise of Jack and the travails of Oldies were not new stories, but they were at least real stories. Losing KZLA Los Angeles at a time when there was already no Country station in New York did prompt a number of “Country in trouble” stories in the consumer press at a time when Country actually looked pretty good almost everywhere else.
  4. The rise of new formats and the perils of established ones seem to be more compelling and widely covered stories than the resurgence or durability of existing ones. The New York Daily News did cover WHTZ (Z100) New York’s return to No. 1, coinciding with its 24th birthday. But I haven’t seen a lot of “Top 40 is back” stories around the country. And the “pop is back” stories I’ve seen in recent years were as much tied to the success of the “American Idol” artists as anything else, just as the “Country is back” stories were tied to the sales of Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich or, now, Carrie Underwood. (Remember, the coverage often starts at the music writer’s desk.)
  5. National networks are easy to cover as national stories: National Public Radio; the launch and subsequent travails of Air America; the brief, tumultuous life of Greenstone Media. That said, I’ve also seen the local struggles of Air America in many markets extrapolated into the “national rejection of liberal talk radio” story, at which point I’ve had to say, “What about Portland, Ore.? What about San Diego?” (Okay, I can’t use that last one anymore.) The three-year love affair between the consumer press and satellite radio benefited from the national nature of that story as well, spurred again by the music writer/radio writer overlap, and tempered only slightly by terrestrial’s failure to collapse on cue.
  6. Even the trade press can be ruled by logistics. The growth of Bob- and Jack-FM went largely ignored for 12-to-18 months because so few American programmers followed Canadian radio, and no U.S. trade had dedicated coverage of Canada. Now, R&R has a Canadian presence and things would likely be different.

The next format boom may not be as easy to cover, because it’s manifested itself in so many different ways. The rise of “new adult music” has been reflected in different format booms in different markets, whether it’s AC WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York, WRFF’s Adult Modern blend, or the ongoing success of KBCO Denver. Then again, because it’s driven by a body of music that was often visible as a whole only to music writers, the sales and radio rise of artists ranging from Snow Patrol to Colbie Caillat may be a more natural consumer press story than some of the others.

6 replies
  1. Rolland Johnson
    Rolland Johnson says:

    Great article.
    I think XM and Sirius also got “positive” press because they spent over $500 million on public relations. I also believe the stock market coverage of radio has affected how formats are perceived in the media and given national coverage. Most of us continue to have great success just sticking to the knitting and focusing on what the audience tells us they want.
    Rolland Johnson
    Three Eagles Communications

  2. Jim Taszarek
    Jim Taszarek says:

    Sean . . .
    Some formats fail at their first stations because of the nature of the sales management. In a large market staff with a tradition of avail selling – they can’t sell it until the numbers come in. The station management can’t sustain the lack of billing and – k’blam – down she goes. In many cases there have been formats that would still been around had the sales manaqement been trained and rewarded for non-transactional sales. There were Bobs/Jacks that failed – others that were hits – and still on the air. In three cases I know of, it was a function of sales management bringing in revenue before the numbers showed success. Indeed, the format should have been a success everywhere.
    Thanks for the articles.

  3. Phil
    Phil says:

    Great stuff!
    It should be noted that additional fuel powering “consumer” press is technology, or rather, the marketing of that technology. When Apple sells 100 million+ Ipods, or Pandora heads to the front lines of the rights fees battle, it’s very easy for those music editors to note the rise of “choice” and declare formats, or radio for that matter, as “dead!”
    Also, with few exceptions, most music editors are predisposed to dislike radio because of it’s desire to be mass appeal, it’s love of the hits and unwillingness to play local music. Don’t forget that in most cities newspaper insists on looking at radio as competition. It doesn’t take much to push them to turn on the “local station.”

  4. Ed Salamon
    Ed Salamon says:

    This is one of your best, Sean.
    I can only add that press coverage, especially in the trades, can spark a bandwagon effect and turn these stories into self fulfilling prophesies


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