The Official Radio Station Of Bad Times

For more than 20 years, two music formats had a clear association with bad economic and political times.
One was Oldies. It made a short-lived foray on to the FM dial during the early-to-mid ’70s, with inflation, impeachment, and crime in the cities as a backdrop. It truly took hold in the late ’80s; when Black Friday came to Wall Street in 1987, there was already a new Oldies FM signing on every week.
The other was Country, which saw the Urban Cowboy era ride into town on the heels of an energy shortage, a hostage crisis, and the determination by many that they were not better off than four years ago. And it was during the downturn of the early ’90s that it became bigger than ever.
It’s certainly possible that broadcasters may have glommed on to a coincidence in timing here. In each case, there were other changes taking place in the format landscape (such as the late ’80s/early ’90s implosion of Top 40) as well as changes in the music itself. And it wasn’t the post-Sept. 11, 2001 mood of national uncertainty that helped Country as much as better music did a few years later. Finally, there was also the seeming contradiction of listeners using Oldies for escapism but Country for commiseration. And didn’t 1964 listeners famously embrace the Beatles as something new after the Kennedy assassination?
The answer may be that an individual’s response to crisis can vary – either fight or flight – and what listeners want from radio in bad times may depend on the individual. Maybe we are indeed under the shadow of a pending economic tsunami; maybe things are only going to be as bad as they already are today. Either way, it’s worth asking what stations can offer listeners in these times of uncertainty when even adjusting the music logs to reflect the day’s weather is considered a lost art.
So what does each format have to offer listeners in bad times? Each has advantages and challenges.
Classic Hits: It’s the go-to format here, but “Good Times and the Greatest Hits” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Good Times And Great Oldies” did. The mid-’70s music at the center of the format doesn’t always exude good times and youthful exuberance either (“Just The Way You Are”? “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”), but listeners have professed not to mind. It’s also a little hard to invoke the ’70s as simpler times, although some people felt that way about the ’50s.
Country: The lyrical emphasis of recent years is mostly unchanged – family, faith, the simple life, and the importance of getting home a little earlier from the office to enjoy them. Will that message continue to resonate? In 2008, it’s harder to sell the realities of day-to-day life as “Just Another Day in Paradise.” There are a few darker songs at the moment (Carrie Underwood’s “Just A Dream”), there are tearjerkers (“You Can Let Go,” “I’ll Walk”). What doesn’t yet exist at radio is the current equivalent of Merle Haggard’s early ’80s “Are The Good Times Really Over?” But I wouldn’t be surprised if the demo isn’t sitting on a publisher’s desk somewhere.
R&B and Hip-Hop: Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Bill Withers spoke to the havoc of the ’70s as well as any Rock artist (and R&B continued to do so well after rock’s singer-songwriter movement had trailed off). Five years ago, Hip-Hop was the first format that allowed open dissent about the Iraq War. But the genre is not at its peak of topicality now and has certainly lost its franchise as “the only music that matters to an 18-year-old.”
Rock: Fewer people have made the connection between rock and bad times, but it had pretty good years in 1980 and 1992 as well. (Anybody who was in Detroit listening to WLLZ play now forgotten songs like “No Time To Lose,” “Got To Rock On,” and “Last Chance [to believe in yourself]” will tell you just how directly it addressed Motown’s existential despair of the early ’80s, and the $1,000 a day giveaway didn’t hurt.) And Linkin Park is now trying to write about Katrina and Iraq on this album and not just stultifying bad parenting. But it, too, will have to reclaim the attention of younger listeners. And much of its most topical music never moves beyond rock radio.
Mainstream AC: It is certainly the most versatile of the formats in being able to address various needs. If you’re looking for comforting favorites, they’re there. If you’re looking for new music, there’s just enough of it in a easy-to-swallow package. If you’re looking for somebody who directly addresses life in these times, Delilah and John Tesh would like to weigh in.
Top 40: It was the format that listeners turned away from in bad times in the past, but the music is much stronger today than it was in 1989 or 1992. If it is indeed uptempo diversion that listeners seek now, Top 40 has had that music in decent supply for the past several years. It also has its growing emphasis on entertainment news as a modern-day version of the depression-era boom in movie going.
And maybe, in the year of the change agent – whomever you may believe that to be – the conditions are ripe for a new format to spring up around a new body of music. Radio would have to be in a position to find that body of music – harder in this disconnected-from-the-youth era – and would have to find owners willing to put it on the radio.
In an atmosphere where every station has the ability to address listeners’ moods in some way, the station that speaks to the national mood will probably be the one that addresses it locally. It will be the one that pays bills and mortgages. It will be the one that communicates empathy for and gives a voice to listeners whose lives were becoming more complicated even in happier times. And it will somehow manage to do that in a world where PPM has made programmers newly wary of letting their talent say anything, unless they’re Delilah, Tesh, or Ryan Seacrest. It will also have to offer information at a time when many stations have also gotten away from anything other than entertainment news.
Radio has one other advantage in responding to listeners’ bad times: empathy. While no recent year has been quite as dismaying from a stock price or revenue standpoint as this one, broadcasters are already sadly familiar with uncertainty in the workplace and the need to keep going regardless. In a time of less, it is hard to find the resources to superserve listeners’ needs or even the internal focus to do so. Broadcasters have at least had some time to come to grip with these realities. And any uncertainty we may feel about radio’s ongoing place in listeners’ lives can be offset with the knowledge that we once again have the opportunity to cement the relationship.

5 replies
  1. Claudia Perry
    Claudia Perry says:

    Excellent observations as usual Sean. I think the current climate of economic and political uncertainty may lend itself more to escape than topicality in music. Also, in previous times, radio was in a position to react more quickly to an overall mood than over media. In the present day with online forums, blogs etc. would people look to radio in a less media-saturated time.

  2. Michael McDowell
    Michael McDowell says:

    It’s not that either format, be it country or vintage rock (as opposed to the “O” word, which is misleading, inaccurate and really, really needs to be dropped from general usage) necessarily reflects economic fluctuations.
    More often than not, the audience of that format, I believe (and especially the vintage rock format) is at best cavalier and (more likely) indifferent to such developments and will remain loyal to their listening habits, irrespective of societal developments.
    Don’t believe me? Find a station that would play the Outsiders, Buckinghams, Dusty Springfield and Chubby Checker. Then throw in a New Kids On The Block record and watch the howls of indignation.
    Michael McDowell
    Blitz Magazine

  3. Bill Conway
    Bill Conway says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you use the word “Mood.” Perhaps , as you point out, a current intensive format is going to work better if the music product is hitting the mood the audience is looking for. Mood enhancment, whether it is to reinforce a mood or change a mood, has always been a big factor is selecting a station at the point of purchase.

  4. CJ.
    CJ. says:

    “And didn’t 1964 listeners famously embrace the Beatles as something new after the Kennedy assassination?”
    Er .. wouldn’t have anything to do with better music?!?


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