Is Radio Suffering From Too Little Research?

Assailing radio research has, in recent years, become an easy applause line for many people. Label reps happily quote research when they have a story, and assail the system when they don’t. Consumer press coverage of radio often begins with the assumption that “tight over-researched playlists have led to radio’s declining listenership” – an assertion so widely repeated that nobody feels the need to verify or even scrutinize it anymore. Even friends will lob “well, everybody knows music research is flawed” into a conversation, forcing me to decide whether to engage them on the topic again when it’s hard not to come off as self-serving.
But any recent declines in radio listenership, including this week’s reported decline in Persons Using Radio, actually coincide with a decline in the amount of radio research. Radio’s continuing fiscal squeeze means that even the broadcasters who have always given their stations the tools they need to understand their audience, have been making due with less. Many of the stations that used to conduct two tests of their music library every year are now doing one a year, or every other year. And the stations that used to get four tests a year are a distant memory of a bygone era.
I would, of course, feel that broadcasters should do more research. But long before research became my livelihood, covering the radio industry as a journalist had taught me that there were some broadcasters who were made more adventurous by having access to the music and market research that helped confirm or refine their gut instincts. That’s not the kind of story that has any reason to make its way to the consumer press. But if a lack of research is hurting radio, it’s not just making radio worse for listeners, but it’s specifically making radio less of what its consumer press and record business critics would like it to be. And it’s also hurting radio’s place with the next generation of potential listeners.
For starters, research has often been at the heart of radio’s more adventurous, more consumer press-friendly format decisions. CWFM (Bob 99.9) Winnipeg, the station that began the Bob- and Jack-FM boom, was born of anecdotal observation, but confirmed by and built on research. Research also drove the initial growth of the Classic Alternative format. And a recent Newsday story on the launch of Emmis’ Triple-A WRXP New York praises the station’s “unpredictability” as a “calculated risk” that “could help lead radio back into the age of increased relevance.” The story doesn’t mention the role that research played in making WRXP possible, but the station’s own press-release does. And without having been party to Emmis’ decision-making, anybody who sees Rock radio research for a living can see its imprint on the station’s Nickelback-to-White Stripes architecture.
Conversely, radio’s inability to captivate younger listeners, can also be tied to a lack of research, as well as the larger refusal to devote resources to younger listeners. Is radio inherently unsuitable as a delivery system for an 18-year-old, or is that person’s desired content just not available? Would a station that targeted the next generation of listeners play more Hip-Hop? Indie Rock? Radio Disney music? Do those listeners want music that is nowhere on the radio now? Broadcasters who were able to count on teen listening by default have rarely researched teens–a particularly young-skewing Top 40 station might go down to age 16–and the consequences of that decision are evident today. And with diminishing resources to target adult listeners, most broadcasters are unlikely to give younger listeners the chance to vote anytime soon.
As far as current music goes, research has been a tool for aggressive programmers from its beginnings in the ’70s (and, to be fair, many of the most conservative as well). WHTZ (Z100) New York — the biggest contemporary music station in the nation’s biggest market – often adds songs that have no airplay or negligible airplay elsewhere. Sometimes those songs go on to be Miley Cyrus’ “See You Again” or Cascada’s “What Hurts The Most.” Sometimes they’re long-forgotten titles like Audio Club’s “Sumthin’ Serious.” And it’s hard to imagine a station adding any of those songs out-of-the-box without the ability to triage the hits from the stiffs fairly quickly. And while some readers would undoubtedly prefer that Z100 use its left-field picks for, say, Band of Horses or Vampire Weekend, Cyrus and Cascada are still records that stand out from most of what is being played at Top 40 nationally. And Z100’s ability to find pure pop or rock product that works for them in a rhythmic pop world has nudged other stations to do the same.
Stations without the ability to research their music libraries rely more on older research — leaving the same songs that just made the cut with listeners in place for a year or two. Stations without the ability to research their music rely on national monitored airplay information. Stations without the ability to research their music rely on co-owned stations that do research, thus putting the decision-making process in a smaller number of hands. And for better and worse, the last 15 years have seen the starter station mantle pass from small- to large-market radio stations, specifically those that have had the resources to do callout – the ability to not just create stories on a record but to confirm them as well.
For a minute, it appeared that music research’s critics would find out exactly what happens in a world without callout when news broke last month that Clear Channel was freezing research budgets, among other spending. Clear Channel’s Top 40 stations have never operated as a monolith, of course. But they do represent 60% of the format in the top 50 markets. Z100, KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas, KIIS Los Angeles and others do play a major role in starting records at Top 40 and create stories on new records that are seen throughout the rest of the group. It was briefly believed throughout the music business that all CC stations would be without traditional local telephone callout for at least two months, although the story that is now emerging is that some stations will still have access to some callout, if perhaps not as frequently. Theoretically, that gives an even smaller number of stations have the potential to be even more influential.
Even if the bulk of our major-market Top 40s had gone without callout for a few months, it sems unlikely that the floodgates would have opened for new music. Some PDs would have relied more heavily on other tools — online research, sales, and, yes, gut. Others would undoubtedly become more conservative (and there has already been talk of some PDs clearing the decks of songs that were struggling because without research, there would be no opportunity for their fortunes to reverse). And with new Mariah Carey and Usher singles just out, and more new superstar product on the way, the bar for a truly left-field record to get through is raised anyway.
Some readers will undoubtedly dismiss this argument for “better living through research” because of its source. And those who most vilify research are unlikely, I realize, to be swayed by an argument that many broadcasters would be even more conservative without it. But however one feels about stations spending less on research, it’s easy to see it as part of a pattern of overall stasis: stations not spending money to effectively market themselves (or send the message to their own potential advertisers that marketing works), court younger audiences, invest in talent, or give HD Radio a real chance to succeed. Declining listening levels, glibly dismissed from the outside as a failure to give the audience what consumer press critics want, are a complex equation, and sometimes it seems like they’re not being addressed on any front.

13 replies
  1. Bill Harman
    Bill Harman says:

    Research used correctly has always been a valuable tool for any programmer, but it’s part of the equation and not the end all or be all. It scares me that research, like promotion, marketing, air staff and programmers are being cut out at alarming rates. Research without the proper plan and leadership is nothing but a stack of papers on your desk. To many are flying without and to many live only by its gospel. Either way you’re in trouble.

    Reply
  2. Dave Symonds
    Dave Symonds says:

    Sean,
    When I left the PD post at Alice and KOSI in Denver, both stations were #1 in their core demos due in no small part to Entercom

    Reply
  3. Matt
    Matt says:

    I laugh when people say that radio is over-researched. You’d be hard-pressed to find other industries who are less researched. Coke? Microsoft? Fox? I’m sure they fear being over-researched…

    Reply
  4. Mark Jeffries
    Mark Jeffries says:

    No. 1:
    What the hell does that have to do with the topic of Sean’s post? Were the letters “HD” even mentioned in the post ONCE?
    Stop trolling, troll.

    Reply
  5. Bill Tanner
    Bill Tanner says:

    Programming without research in a competitive environment is like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. I’ve always thought great radio was the creative application of careful research.
    Stations that I have worked with and have benefitted from this philosophy include markets of all sizes and many different formats including WJDX/Jackson, Y-100/Miami, 13Q/Pittsburgh, Hot 105/Miami, Power 96/Miami, WBHJ and WBHK/Birmingham, 107-3 JAMZ/Greenville, WIRED 96.5/Philadelphia and WBLI/Long Island. In Spanish, WXDJ and WAMR-FM /Miami, KLVE/Los Angeles, KSCA/Los Angeles, KLAX/Los Angeles, WSKQ and WPAT-FM/New York.
    Now there’s a variety of markets and formats who had one thing in common…good research.

    Reply
  6. PocketRadio
    PocketRadio says:

    #5 wrote…
    “What the hell does that have to do with the topic of Sean’s post? Were the letters “HD” even mentioned in the post ONCE? Stop trolling, troll.”
    Right here:
    “advertisers that marketing works), court younger audiences, invest in talent, or give HD Radio a real chance to succeed.”
    Amusing!

    Reply
  7. Josh Hosler
    Josh Hosler says:

    I’ve often wondered why radio isn’t trying out some of these iTunes hits. Yael Naim just hit #7 on the Hot 100 and is heard on TV millions of times a day … so where’s the radio exposure? And what about Feist’s “1234,” also a Top 10 hit due to digital downloads?
    No, iTunes won’t give you targeted demographic research, but come on — can’t anyone take a chance anymore? Those bare sales numbers are pretty impressive.

    Reply
  8. Matt Derrick
    Matt Derrick says:

    Research is only as good as the people reading it. It’s sort of like the National Intellegence Estimate… If your republican you read one way… if your democrat another. A lot of Pd’s can’t really read between the lines of what it is saying. In additon research alone is research overused when it comes to Hits based radio. Some companies tie the Pd’s hands when it comes to adding music… You have to research the research and get the opinion of 10 different (usually old white guys) about what women want to listen to…

    Reply
  9. Paul Kelly
    Paul Kelly says:

    Sean,
    Many good points, and in answering the question, “Is radio sufferring from too little reseacrh?” The answer is yes, and as you say, it may sound self-serving in answering the question this way, considering the source. I’m not afraid to say that Kelly Music Research has seen the number of projects decline over the past few years. As we have both sat at conventions listening to speeches about “radio reignited”, etc…many companies have made the decision to cut back on the research, looking at it as an expendable “expense.” Some have forgotten research is a valuable

    Reply
  10. kelly
    kelly says:

    I hate to burst New York’s Bubble, but we have never had a good radio station and probably never will. I listened to 101.9 at home and it sounds like K-rock.. playing too much classic rock like pearljam ten songs and led zeppelin. Bleh, they play bravery believe but so is krock. In the meantime, I have my Itunes, Kroq, KCRW, and Indie 103 to keep me happy. The funny thing is all three LA stations play Vampire Weekend more than any rock radio station in New York. I don’t think any of my friends even know we have rock radio stations. Here’s the research..Under 25’s like what they like. We find it on myspace, lastfm, jango, through friends, etc.

    Reply

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