Is The People Meter The Enemy Of New Music?

When KDLE Los Angeles changed format to Regional Mexican last week, relegating its Indie 103.1 programming to the Web, it left a note behind. On its site, the station announced, “Because of changes in the radio industry and the way radio audiences are measured, stations in this market are being forced to play too much Britney, Puffy and alternative music that is neither new nor cutting-edge. Due to these challenges, Indie 103.1 was recently faced with only one option – to play the corporate radio game . . . We have decided not to play that game.”
Indie’s many consumer press fans cheerfully took up the cry, most notably an story headlined, “The Indie 103.1 Shutdown: Was It Eaten by the People Meter?” It fell to Univision’s David Gleason to point out on the New York Radio Message Board that Indie had already fallen to a 0.6 in the diary world – not so much better than its final months in the 0.3-0.4 range. Gleason also correctly noted that Indie was a simulcast of two small signals in a geographically sprawling market. To which one can also add that Indie lasted five years – not bad for a station that peaked around a 1-share. “To blame the PPM is simply an attempt at an exorcism by those involved. It didn’t work in any ratings system,” Gleason writes.
It wasn’t long ago that PPM was being hailed as a boon for Rock radio. The first format change prompted by PPM wasn’t a Rock station going Spanish, it was Clear Channel’s Spanish WUBA Philadelphia becoming Alternative WRFF (Radio 104.5). And in that initial period where Philly and Houston spoke for the world, Radio 104.5 did very well in PPM. Radio 104.5’s more gold-based version of Adult Modern wouldn’t cut it with all of Indie’s fans, but they’ve managed to play enough rock critic favorites like Airborne Toxic Event and Band of Horses in the last 18 months that one can’t categorically declare a defeat for the cutting edge. WRFF has been up and down a few times now, but it was at a 3.2 in December – more than respectable for a boutique format.
So is PPM the enemy of radio stations that play new music? Depends what new music you’re talking about and how much of it you need to be happy. To anybody who has lived through three separate occasions when Top 40 looked like it might disappear entirely, any vital young-end format is not a bad thing – even if some MGMT would sound good between Britney and T.I. While PPM has propelled a number of gold-based stations back into prominence (KOLA San Bernardino, Calif., WDRV and WLS-FM Chicago), a check of who was winning in the top 10 PPM markets in December shows a more even balance between current-driven formats and gold based stations than you might think, specifically:
* New York: Three current (Top 40 WHTZ, Spanish WSKQ, Urban AC WBLS); four gold (AC WLTW, Oldies WCBS-FM, Classic Rock WAXQ, Rhythmic AC WKTU); three non-music (WINS, WCBS, WABC);
* Los Angeles: Five current (Top 40 KIIS, Spanish KLAX and KSCA, Hip-Hop KPWR, and Alternative KROQ–which will bear further discussion below); four gold (AC KOST, Oldies KRTH, Spanish Oldies KRCD and Spanish AC KLVE), one non-music (KFI);
* Chicago: Three current (Country WUSN, Spanish WOJO, Adult Top 40 WTMX); four gold (AC WLIT, Classic Rock WDRV, Oldies WLS-FM, Urban AC WVAZ); three non-music (WGN, WLS, WBBM);
* San Francisco: Five current (Hip-Hop KMEL, Rhythmic KYLD, Hot AC KIOI, Spanish KSOL, and Triple-A KFOG); one gold (AC KOIT), four non-music (KGO, KQED, KCBS, KNBR);
* Dallas: Six current (Top 40 KHKS, Country KPLX and KSCS, Hip-Hop KKDA-FM and KBFB, and Christian AC KLTY), four gold (AC KVIL, Oldies KLUV, Classic Rock KZPS, Spanish Oldies KLNO);
* Houston: Five current (Hip-Hop KBXX, Alternative KTBZ, Christian KSBJ, Spanish KLOL, Country KKBQ), four gold (Urban AC KMJQ, AC KODA, Classic Rock KKRW, Spanish KLTN), one non-music (KTRH);
* Philadelphia: One current (Active Rock WMMR), seven gold (ACs WBEB and WNUW, Oldies WOGL, Rhythmic AC WISX, Classic Rock WMGK, Adult Hits WBEN, and Urban AC WDAS), two non-music (KYW, WHYY);
* Atlanta: Six current (Urban WVEE, Country WKHX, Rhythmic WBTS, Top 40s WWWQ and WSTR, and Gospel WPZE); three gold (Urban AC WALR, Classic Hits WSRV, and AC WSB-FM), one non-music (WSB);
* Washington, D.C., Five current (Top 40 WITH, Urban AC WHUR, Hot AC WRQX, Hip-Hop WKYS, Alternative WWDC); three gold (AC WASH, Christian AC WGTS, Classical WETA); two non-music (WTOP, WAMU)
* Detroit: Four current (Top 40 WKQI, Hot AC WDVD, Urban WJLB, Active Rock WRIF), four gold (AC WNIC, Classic Rock WCSX, Oldies WOMC, Urban AC WMXD), and two non-music (WWJ and WJR).
These numbers are not without footnotes. They’re from December, the holiday format’s best month, which only strengthens the argument that current-based formats need not fall off the face of the earth. There are also a lot of Rock, Urban AC, and Spanish stations with a “yesterday and today” mix that could have gone in either column. KFOG has only a few heavily-played currents, but many more getting at least a handful of spins every week. KROQ has its own WRFF aspects these days. It has only 14 songs that Mediabase calls current getting 10 spins or more. But those include import buzz act Iglu & Hartly and Canadian rapper K’naan. It’s hard to quite put them in the same pile with KRTH.
So are there no cutting-edge stations here? Other formats don’t as readily provide the same test cases that Alternative does – there’s no Top 40 or AC equivalent of Indie. But within the Top 40 world, WHTZ (Z100) is very aggressive in terms of starting its own hits. Across town, WBLS, despite its own much publicized PPM travails, remains aggressive on current Urban AC music. KSCS and WKHX are both more current driven than the average Country station, while KPLX has three “Texas Country” titles in its top 10. But if only Santogold and Delta Spirit count as new music to you, you’re unlikely to take solace in any of this.
What we’re then left with is a debate about the more-adult, more library-driven format that Alternative has become. And that template was set at least five years ago, long before we knew what PPM held for any format, when KBZT (FM94.9) San Diego signed on and GMs decided to protect their upper demos (and their beer money). The Clear Channel modern rockers that could keep a two-year-old record in power as long as the research dictated go back even further. And long before PPM, it was clear that little new Rock music was as galvanizing, or at least as unifying, as ’90s Alternative. Right now, it’s hard to say how a station that was more current-based than KROQ, but less eclectic than KDLE would fare in PPM, because the test cases don’t really exist.
What is clear is that in the diary or in PPM, it’s hard to be a boutique format. When WRFF, WMMR and KTBZ had their initial strong PPM showings, broadcasters hoped that it would be good news for all things Rock. So far, more eclectic rockers like KSWD Los Angeles and WRXP New York haven’t received their PPM bonus. But even in a diary market, low ratings finally caught up with WHTG Monmouth/Ocean County, N.J., a heritage Alternative that was about halfway between WRFF and KDLE in terms of depth. What changed for boutique stations is as likely the ad climate – a flanker station like KDLE that was never geared for boxcar ratings numbers was always going to be a harder qualitative sell. And that kind of sell just got harder. How do you monetize your audience’s buying power when even those who can still spend are choosing not to?
The best of the music that powered Indie still has the opportunity to drive a successful radio station somewhere. And much of it is music that might be more at home at AC, Top 40, or a format that doesn’t yet exist. (It wasn’t typical of the rest of the playlist, but one can’t help but see some irony in Indie’s final most-played song: 30-year-hitmaker Prince singing “Crimson & Clover” – first a hit 40 years ago today.) It’s disconcerting to lose Indie, WHTG, and Bonneville’s iChannel within a few days of each other; then again, Top 40 was still losing radio stations in 1996, even as its last resurgence was picking up steam. There will be a package for today’s cutting-edge music that works in PPM, the bigger scare is whether the current slowdown on format experimentation will allow broadcasters to find it.

6 replies
  1. Keith Berman
    Keith Berman says:

    103.1 in Los Angeles is a weak Class-A signal (with the KDLE simulcast buddy covering the coast down in Orange County) that has never been able to sustain a format thanks to its signal issues — you couldn’t even pick it up in the Valley, I’d lose the signal pretty much immediately after I crested the hill and began descending into the Valley, and there are a huge number of people in the Los Angeles DMA who live there.
    Indie was the longest-running format on those signals, dating back 15 or so years to MARS FM. Then it went jazz, then to “CD 103.1,” then to dance as “Groove Radio,” then Triple A as “Channel 103.1,” then to Entravision’s “Super Estrella” network, then to dance again as “KDL,” then finally to Indie. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another station in a top-five market that’s been through that many format changes in the past couple of decades, and I think Indie’s longevity given those signals’ history speaks well to the relative success of its format.
    I don’t think it’s fair to blame Indie’s death wholly on its cutting-edge format or PPM, it just wasn’t able to be heard everywhere. Additionally, as Max Tolkoff has openly said, when he took over the station, it was running 18 different specialty shows, making it “the commercial equivalent of NPR,” in his words. It’s hard to gain format traction and increase TSL when you’re basically putting something new and different on the air every few hours, which is why he started paring back on those shows.
    Indie’s listeners may not have been numerous or meter-wearers, but they were passionate. I’ve been approached by people who I barely know who ask me what happened to the station, and people I’m not even friends with on Facebook have found me through friends of friends and messaged me to ask why the station went away.

  2. Bob Walker
    Bob Walker says:

    The PPM speaks the truth. Anyone who has ever been to a concert by a marquee act with a big library of songs has seen the PPM / new music effect take place. Whether it

  3. Cary Pall
    Cary Pall says:

    If you play a lot of new music, you’d better have a good set of ears and a good knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Throwing new music on for the sake of being hip and trendy without good judgment about the needs and wants of your audience will produce lousy results in PPM, diary,telephone survey or one-on-one interview. Blaming PPM for lousy ratings is like blaming the gun for a shooting murder.

  4. Mary Brace
    Mary Brace says:

    I’m with Cary Pall. PPM is going to demonstrate how tight control of playlists, with songs programmed in by people who are out of touch with listeners and don’t see direct results in dayparts, could be the best thing to happen to music radio in 25 years.

  5. Anthony Acampora
    Anthony Acampora says:

    Way too many people are making excuses for why Indie failed. The station did not play familiar music and as Keith correctly said, wasn’t consistent.
    That was a bad thing in the diary – but at least every so often, they could get a “vote” in the diary with some high TSL diary keeper that would give them a spike every so often.
    The issue now is that people actually have to LISTEN to your station as opposed to the emotional vote a number of stations get.
    PPM is very likely to make us look at how we research music and look at tuneout. We’ve been more reliant on favorability scores than familiarity – and I believe we may see a shift in that over the next two years.
    The fundamental programming that pioneers like Bill Drake gave us are more appropriate now than ever.
    Indie just wasn’t well programmed. It was unfamiliar, too eclectic, and wasn’t cohesive. For those people complaining about the signal, you can look at how they did in their coverage area – and they didn’t perform.
    New music will do just fine in PPM. Z100, KIIS, KLAX, WWPR, WQHT, KPWR, KGGI, etc…
    It’s a matter of the right new music.

  6. Chris MacDonald
    Chris MacDonald says:

    Sean thanks for the insight and presentation of info.
    Since indie format in its current incarnation cannot be divorced from the presentation of new, relatively unknown artists, and the titled question presumes that there is a value to capturing the indie music listening audience, perhaps a useful side question might be to analyze where audiences find new music. Already done? Available links? I would suspect more than ever, the current autonomic response is not terrestrial radio. A non-tested possible list:
    “My friend told me about this great new band”
    “I heard it on my favorite TV show/movie/entertaining commercial”
    “I go to website x or subscribe to internet service y (audio, text review, video, social network)”
    “I checked out friend’s/influencer’s/celebrity’s playlist”
    “I heard it at my local (insert local or national brand) coffee shop/retail location”
    Once those discovery habits are established, I would imagine it is extremely hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and over time erosion enters into more established, less experimental niches.
    Then the job would be to allocate resources to figure which ones of these present and growing discovery methods can be harnessed to channel audiences back to the terrestrial medium, or conversely, for a terrestrial station to diversify its portfolio to engage in these new discovery ventures. Then execute.
    The analogy seems to be the difference between old-school oil prospecting versus shale bed extraction. The old beds are gone because the mass audience continues fracture into thousands of overlapping pockets of discovery, but if you can find the rich sub-pockets of activity and draw into those areas, you may be on to something.


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