Microsoft’s Sound-Alike Radio Stations

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

It’s not like terrestrial broadcasters had nobody to compete with already. On top of an increasing number of stations in their own already fractionalized markets, there was first Music Choice on cable TV, then Internet radio, then Internet radio’s addition of already familiar brands, such as VH1 Radio or Radio @ AOL, then satellite radio, then the iPod. By the time the last two showed up, broadcasters were a little less inclined to focus on Internet radio, particularly when satellite radio had gotten so much the consumer press adulation and the iPod had won the hearts even of broadcasters themselves.

But early this month, Internet radio reclaimed terrestrial broadcasters’ attention when Microsoft’s new MSN Music service unveiled 900 new radio stations that were billed as sounding like specific local stations, “but with fewer ads, no DJ chatter, and less repetition.” Using computer generated playlists, based on monitored airplay data, a typical listing for New York City offered listeners a station “like 100.3 FM, WHTZ, Z100 Today’s Best Music, Top artists: Kevin Lyttle, Avril Lavigne, Ashlee Simpson.”

MSN, like most music portals, was already offering music channels, but until recently, most major Internet stations were based on the assumption that listeners wanted an experience that was entirely unlike mainstream radio with broader variety and longer playlists. Internet radio, in short, was for people who didn’t want to hear the hits.

The obvious answer to whether broadcasters should be worried about a jockless Internet clone of their music is “shame on us if that does work.”

Quiet as it’s kept, satellite radio has already softened that aesthetic a little bit. Yes, there are still channels specializing in music not usually heard on commercial radio. But XM and Sirius also offer mainstream formats that look fairly, well, mainstream. Check out the playlists for their Top 40 formats this week and you’ll see music that’s slightly more conservative than the average large-market Top 40. And while you’re still likely to hear satellite radio play oldies that don’t typically test well, you’re less likely these days to encounter gold that you’ve never heard of, at least on its mainstream formats.

Then again, many of us had wondered from the beginning if what listeners wanted from their alternate media was to hear the hits, just presented differently. Maybe the magic bullet isn’t endless variety, but established hit music without 14 minutes of spots each hour. One terrestrial station, WRDW (Wired 96.5) Philadelphia, tries a similar sell—telling listeners they can hear the same station commercial-free on the Web.

So having decided not to cede the hits to mainstream radio, how good a job does MSN Radio’s software do of mocking up your radio station’s music mix? Let’s go to the monitors of both Top 40 WHTZ (Z100) New York and its MSN sound-alike station on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 12.

WHTZ (Z100) New York, 1:30-2:10 p.m., September 12, 2004

Akon, “Locked Up”
Maroon 5, “She Will Be Loved”
Next, “Too Close”
Linkin Park, “Breaking The Habit”
Usher, “You Make Me Wanna”
Finger Eleven, “One Thing”
Jojo, “Leave (Get Out)”
Nitty, “Nasty Girl”
Tanto Metro & Devonte, “Everyone Falls In Love”
Black Eyed Peas, “Let’s Get It Started”
Janet Jackson, “Again”

MSN’s “Like 100.3, New York,” 2:15-3:30 p.m., September 12, 2004

Christina Milian, “Dip It Low”
No Doubt, “It’s My Life”
Jay-Z, “Can I Get A . . .”
Jessica Simpson, “With You”
Akon, “Locked Up”
Nitty, “Nasty Girl”
Jojo, “Leave (Get Out)”
Vanessa Carlton, “White Houses”
Jessica Simpson, “Angels”
Nina Sky, “Move Ya Body”
Christina Milian, “Dip It Low”
Eve, “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”
Deborah Cox, “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven”
No Doubt, “It’s My Life”
Allure, “All Cried Out”
Vanessa Carlton, “White Houses”

At first, MSN’s faux-Z100 sounded like any generic national Top 40, and sounded a lot more recurrent and less Urban-flavored than the real-Z100. Then it played some of the records that give Z100 its unique DNA (the Deborah Cox and Akon songs). Then it put two of the same songs together that Z100 had segued a half-hour earlier (albeit in the reverse order). And listening to a number of other MSN sound-alike stations that afternoon, I certainly heard songs that I associated with their respective role model stations (e.g., K-Ci & Jojo’s “Crazy” on their WIOQ [Q102] Philadelphia soundalike).

As for that “less repetition” claim, though, there were three songs that repeated about 35-40 minutes from each other. That’s the sort of repetition Top 40 listeners think they hear, but it’s not what you’d actually encounter, even on a station like Z100 that repeats its powers 85 times a week. And none of those three songs is actually a power on Z100. The No Doubt and Vanessa Carlton records, in fact, were both averaging two daily spins.

The MSN computer is also missing the artist separation rules that most stations would impose. CKNG (92.5 Joe FM) Edmonton, Alberta, may be known for its variety, but its MSN clone played both two Maroon 5 hits and two Amanda Marshall songs about 30 minutes apart from each other. The size of the Microsoft library is reportedly limited by the amount of music licensed for its use and that seems to be an issue, at least for now.

There were other musical quirks. I heard the Carlton record, not yet a national consensus hit, several times during the course of my afternoon listening. I also came across New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” twice within a few minutes on consecutive Hot ACs, not something that would necessarily happen on regular radio. I also heard the sound-alike for Hot AC KSTZ (Star 102.5) Des Moines, Iowa, play one of the station’s signature songs (Ben Harper’s “Steal My Kisses”) next to an equally left-field one that KSTZ, at least according to its monitored playlist, didn’t play this week (DNA & Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”).

Presentationally, the sound-alike stations may as well have been the Internet radio stations of 5-6 years ago. The only between-the-records elements were occasional brief ads for MSN’s premium radio and streaming video services. Records were played in their entirety and faded out—usually long (but not unbleeped) versions that you wouldn’t actually hear on most radio stations.

Musically, however, while the sound-alike Z100 wouldn’t fool PD Tom Poleman or MD Paul “Cubby” Bryant, it might have fooled a non-industry listener. The subtleties, of course, are of the sort that most of them wouldn’t notice. And there are mainstream commercial broadcasters who would be perfectly happy to put on a station that mocks-up a rival. Those stations don’t usually win, but the object is usually just to create a two-share annoyance anyway.

There are certainly scenarios where the combination of a sound-alike and a marketing engine of MSN’s magnitude could be scary. A well-liked station with signal problems could be vulnerable (and should start thinking of ways of streaming its own audio if it doesn’t already). A listener who moves across the country might settle for a station that sounds like their old favorite, particularly if the new one doesn’t stream, rather than checking out what’s available in their new town. And while being the station that isn’t playing Christmas music hasn’t turned out to be such an advantage for terrestrial stations, listeners could now have the option of their P1 station in two flavors—regular and all-Christmas. And iN3 Partners’ Robert Unmacht is absolutely right when he points out that MSN is correct in staking out its place in any forthcoming wireless broadband radio era.

For the handful of Canadian stations represented here, the MSN sound-alikes have the potential to do something even more troubling: mock-up their stations without following Canadian regulations. The two Canadian Hot AC sound-alikes I listened to played 27% and 31% Canadian content respectively, not so different from the 35% that most terrestrial stations are legally mandated to play. But then I checked out the MSN version of CIDC (Z103.5) Toronto and heard only one Canadian song out of 20—and that was Avril Lavigne’s “My Happy Ending.”

While it’s interesting to see an Internet broadcaster now trying to replicate mainstream radio, rather than entirely demonizing it, one opportunity remains untapped. For the most part, new media has made little of its unique ability to create a shared national listening experience. Children of the ‘70s don’t have to be from Chicago to have grown up with John Landecker on 50,000 watt WLS. But if you’re looking for a national bond now, it’s among listeners of terrestrial broadcasters Howard Stern, Tom Joyner, or Rush Limbaugh. Only now, with the hiring of established personalities such as Opie & Anthony or Bob Edwards are the satellite networks moving into that arena.

Then again, a lot of local stations aren’t taking full advantage of being local. The obvious answer to whether broadcasters should be worried about a jockless Internet clone of their music is “shame on us if that does work.” Broadcasters have spent the last decade focused on what comes between the records, or so they believe. MSN’s Z100 sound-alike station hasn’t recently given away “Nelly’s pimped-out Chrysler 300.” It isn’t playing the “Z100 $100,000 Match Game.” Listening to MSN’s sound-alike is not like listening to Z100. (The same likely goes for KROQ Los Angeles.) But out of 900 stations that MSN seeks to clone, can all of them claim to be more than just a handful of records?

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.