The Unexamined Lives of Men

by Tom Webster, Edison VP

Rock radio has been struggling for a while now, with many markets in the US going from “x” rock stations to “x-1.” Some consultants I work with note (correctly) that the product has been weak, and there are certainly a lot of “active rock” stations that have cut their current category to almost nonexistent in response. I buy that this is a contributing factor, but I think there are deeper sociological forces affecting radio, and in particular, radio for men, than go beyond what records are being played.

My classic rock station frequently drapes itself in the booze-soaked cloth of the least exclusive frat house on campus.

It is also easy to blame technology for Rock’s struggles. Yes, the active 18-34 male has an iPod, broadband and an XBOX — they have for a while. So too, I can personally attest, does the 35-44 year-old male. The impact of these “distractions” on mass media, however, is not easily quantified. I recently attended an extremely enlightening and entertaining presentation by Nat Puccio, Executive VP of Grey Worldwide, in which he showed a series of data points that suggested these new forms of media (led by the Internet) are not replacing TV, Radio and print media, they are being stacked right on top of them. Now, according to Puccio, Americans consume around eight and a half hours per day of media. Before we had Myspace, Playstations and blogging, this figure was half that. Sure, Radio listening has declined somewhat, but those declines are not in proportion with the gains realized by other media.
What else has declined? Perhaps the biggest loser, according to Puccio, is word-of-mouth marketing: specifically, face-to-face word of mouth. As the time we spend on message boards increases, the time we spend in actual in-person social settings has decreased. This has implications for media planners, sure–the optimal media mix for any offering has always required constant tinkering, and that certainly won’t change for a long time, if ever. It also, however, has more profound sociological implications, which I promise I will tie back to radio shortly.
Author James B. Twitchell and photographer Ken Ross recently released a fascinating book of essays and photos called Where Men Hide, an exploration of the shrinking number of spaces in which men can literally hide from their wives, responsibilities and work – and more importantly, socialize with other men. The two segments that most intrigued me discussed the decline of the purely “fraternal” organization for men (the Elks, Moose, even the Honeymooner’s Royal Racoons) and the decline of Boxing as both spectator sport and as recreation.
In Robert Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone, he notes that “attending club meetings” has declined almost 60% over the last 25 years. Twitchell’s work reveals that among the hardest hit organizations are the fraternal orders — male social clubs that are based upon fraternite (in the Napoleonic sense, not as in Delta House) and not around service (such as the Rotary Club/Chamber of Commerce/etc.) The average age of the Masons, Twitchell notes, is now 67. They are simply not recruiting new blood quickly enough to replace their losses. If you travel through the small towns of Northern Maine, where I grew up, you will see in almost every tiny hamlet, village or “township” a disused Odd Fellows hall or an overgrown Masonic temple that now may still serve as a facility for community events, but no longer exists solely as a male fraternal organization. Those organizations that do successfully recruit men often succeed because they are “service” organizations. Apparently, we men can no longer justify disappearing for meetings on Thursday nights unless we are doing something productive, not just sitting around the Franklin stove drinking Narragansetts and talking about the Red Sox. That is what Applebees is for.
Twitchell also presents the boxing ring as a now-abandoned former “hiding place” for men. Certainly, hanging out at the local ring faded a long time ago, but the sport itself has declined to a mere shadow of its former self – no longer the “sport of kings.” Twitchell posits that television, perversely, had as much to do with its decline as it did with its surge in the heyday of Ali. Much of man’s enjoyment of boxing comes from watching it with other men – being caught up in the spirit of the moment has as much to do with the context of the event as it does the event itself. Boxing matches, like baseball games, spur endless debates among men about who would have beaten who, and who was the best. Within these conversations lie the deeper subtexts of male-to-male communication.
When boxing became a televised sport, the match endured, but the social narrative disappeared. The violence alone was not enough to sustain interest unless it was witnessed in the company of other men. There is no better proof of this than the fact that boxing has vanished from network television, but still flourishes on pay-per-view–primarily due to bars and other public venues that drive these purchases.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam attributes much of the decline in our social structure (not just among men) to three modern phenomena: the keyboard, the television, and the increasingly longer, often solitary, commutes Americans face every morning to get to work from their exurban McMansions. We are spending more time in solitary pursuits, and that time has to come from somewhere. For men, we no longer seem to have the time to just sit around the Odd Fellows hall; we can only get away for good reasons–either a service event, or a sporting event, perhaps–and not just to sit around and talk about guy stuff with no other guiding organizational principle. We also have little interest in watching the fight on TV unless we are out with other men, as noted above. The match itself was not enough to sustain interest for those men watching it alone in their suburban homes–without the narrative, the context, the fight itself serves as but a shallow placeholder for what men talk about.
So, what does all this have to do with rock radio? I mentioned earlier that rock’s recent dearth of quality product has contributed to rock’s current doldrums, but in a number of other recent surveys I have noticed something else. In many recent rock studies I have seen the NPR station shoot up with men. There are frequently a variety of explanations for this–“Howard has left the building” is most common among these. I wonder, however, if there is some metainformation missing from that analysis. I love classic rock–it’s the music I grew up with. My classic rock station, however, frequently drapes itself in the booze-soaked cloth of the least exclusive frat house on campus. I am a 37-year-old, grown-ass man, and I am not going to drop by J.P. McBeers on “hot wings” night, vote for the “Buzz Babe,” or even, frankly, queue up for tickets to the see Rolling Stones for the eleventeenth time. I just…don’t…care.
If you conduct focus groups with men for rock radio stations, in groups they will tell you that those things are, in fact, exactly what they want to hear. In groups, those things do matter–they are the convenient touch points around which men can share common ground, and form the jumping-off point for other aspects of male communication. Interview them alone, however, and a different picture emerges. Listening to booze, broads and jocks while I am driving alone may have a certain vicarious thrill, but that is overrated, I think. No, I think listening to those elements in solitary settings is like watching boxing alone in my house–occasionally a punch lands that makes me perk up, but without the narrative, the accompanying subtext provided in a social setting, it’s like an iceberg without the nine-tenths below the surface.
I don’t think it is so much a case of “serious” talk vs. frivolous–I think it is more a case of introspective talk vs. “Extraspective” (which, if it isn’t a word, should be). I spend more time listening to “All Things Considered” in the morning than “Carlos and the Chicken,” but not necessarily because NPR is brilliant. Like most men, my morning radio listening is a solitary activity, and NPR’s content is simply more “introspective”–I can interact with it, in my own way, and formulate my own opinions. Wet T-Shirt night at Sparky’s, however, I can’t interact with. I just don’t care about it. I think we make too much out of vicarious listening in this business. If I were listening to Bunky and Catfish doing a live remote at Teazers with a bunch of my friends, I would probably love it. But I am bowling alone, like most of us these days.
Rock Radio all-too-frequently tries to get into the heads of “men” but fails to engage “man.” I am not saying I want my classic rock station to air clips of “This American Life” interspersed with Molly Hatchet–that is absurd. But I will never, ever vote for the “Fox Babe of the Month.” Will you? My mortgage, wife and son are not burdens I am trying to escape, they are my haven–the center of my universe. I worry about the economy, I worry about my job, I think about gas prices and lately, I dread traveling abroad. Most of all, I worry about being a good dad to my always laughing, sweet 16-month-old boy. Increasingly, when I get together with my male friends, beer, babes and sports are the entree to the conversation, but not the main course. What works in groups simply fails to engage me while I am driving alone.
Am I different? Dunno. Radio is losing a lot of folks like me, however, and I don’t think the iPod is the biggest reason. I don’t want my classic rock station to sound like a classical station, and my intent here is not to simply present yet another ivory-tower, academic rant against populism. The between-the-records on classic and active rock stations, however, just doesn’t move the needle for me in an increasingly introspective life–and if you are honest with yourself, I bet it doesn’t do much for you either, as much as you might tell yourself your audience loves it. My father still wakes up every morning at 5:30 and drives over to the local Dunkin’ Donuts, where he “hides” with his closest male friends for an hour or so to chat about local high school basketball, the decline of the local paper mill, and what old antique hot rod he is restoring this week. Where do I hide? I don’t know. I do, however, spend a lot of my solitary time with some kind of audio companion. Increasingly, my rock station sounds like the guy you run into every five years at your high school reunion who never really grew up, but still lives for weekends, beer-league softball and can’t keep a good job. Fun to visit, but I cannot live there any more. The music used to matter–the music still matters. I want the rest to matter, too.

13 replies
  1. Tom Schuh
    Tom Schuh says:

    Wonderful article. You put into words exactly what has been nagging me about my radio listening for the past few years. Your theory plays into one I have about “local” vs. “non-local” programming. I’m troubled when I hear pundits trumpeting local programming as the savior for radio. Too often, what passes for local is just the “booze, babes and sports” talk that you mention above. If it’s not relatable, interesting, and entertaining to me in the solitary hours that I listen, then I don’t care if it’s local or not.

  2. Tom Webster
    Tom Webster says:

    Thanks, Tom–it is a complex issue, exacerbated by radio’s ever-tightening wallet. I can only hope, as the HD Radio initiative forces R&D expenditures on technology, that radio equally invests in the stuff that goes on the truck–and not just the truck itself.

  3. Bob Barnett
    Bob Barnett says:

    Wow! Talk about hitting the nail on the head. While I program country for a living, I grew up a rock fan and still remain at worst P-2 to the format. At 45, what you openly speculate on is exactly what chased me from the format.
    Two things are missing from rock radio. New music to go along with the classic rock…and an opinion on something…anything. Today’s classic rock station is all attitude and no soul. The jocks speak but are lacking voice and don’t allow me to be introspective about what they say. It’s neutral filler fodder about nothing.
    What would happen if the Glen Becks (young-opinionated and entertaining talent versus the old school talk hosts) of the world mixed their kind of “perspective” talk with rock music in an environment that got me emotionally involved in the process? Damn, it would actually be interesting to me again…that’s what!

  4. Tom Webster
    Tom Webster says:

    Bob, I think you are talking about that new Beck/Glenn Beck/Jeff Beck format. Who better than you to put it on the air in Miami?

  5. Bill O'Brien
    Bill O'Brien says:

    Glen Beck playing ROCK? That’s exactly the problem. Rock radio has lost the rebellious, PROGRESSIVE attitude it had when it was on top. Save Glen Beck (opinionated as he might be) for the conservative talk radio group who loves him and bring in an attitude AGAINST the status quo…THAT’s ROCK!

  6. JC Haze
    JC Haze says:

    Wonderful thought starter! And FYI, our Classic Rock station here in Manchester NH, is purposely NON-T&A radio, and we swear we will NEVER go there.
    It’s about the music, and some of those deep cuts rock radio has forgotten. (Guys: Remember the ALBUM?) At 96.5 The MILL, we do…and it’s working. ONE book after our format switch from Oldies, we’re #1(tied)with Men 25-54. And that’s without the T&A approach, and with minimal morning antics. To quote Cheap Trick: “Everything Works if you let it.”

  7. dan vallie
    dan vallie says:

    thank you for a very interesting and thought provoking article. I appreciate your perspective and found it refreshing mental exercise.
    now of course I have to think of how much of that can be applied in some practical way into radio programming.
    thanks for your thoughts
    dan vallie

  8. Tom Webster
    Tom Webster says:

    JC–let me know when The Mill starts streaming–love to hear it.
    Dan: I look forward to seeing (and hearing) what you come up with!

  9. Adam Fendrich
    Adam Fendrich says:

    Tom: Great job distinguishing between male group interaction in a focus group versus solitary radio consumption. As a programmer, I never understood the consensus of targeting the lowest common denominator at rock. The format didn’t start off this way, yet many Classic Rock, AOR and Alternative stations have done a bang up job of marginalizing their appeal by hanging their shingle in the machine shop. This really isn’t about black shirt versus white-collar listeners; it’s about widening your tent. Howard is the ultimate example of rock sensibility that straddles the microphone between strippers and deceptively highbrow programming. The great ones master this balancing act (add Carolla, John Stewart and Phil Hendrie to the list as well). As you pointed out, the silent majority of prospective rock listeners spend their evenings wiping mashed yams from their baby’s face, not toweling off the hot wings and beer before a lap dance. The miracle of rock music is far too powerful and universal a commodity to be narrow cast down to a single faction of listeners. Yet many men and women have left rock radio because they no longer feel that they have a place under the tent.

  10. Steve Burgess
    Steve Burgess says:

    Brilliant analysis. As a guy who grew up on early progressive radio (‘BCN in the early ’70s) and started his career at in late-term progressive radio (‘QSR in late ’70s), I can say that – although the music on Classic Rock, Alternative, Active Rock and AAA stations is right on the money for me, it’s the stuff in between that bores me to tears today. Glad it’s not just me! Danny Schecter, Jim Cameron, Norm Hale and Steve Huntington are examples of people who got this early on – maybe they were ahead of their time.
    And the concept of “group consumption” of media versus “solitary consumption” is eye-opening. Today, it isn’t just a blue-collar versus “white collar” thing. Men in general are more introspective than radio from the ’80s to now thought they were. Also, I submit that it is easier to program to the “group” type listener than to the “solitary” listener.
    Today I am engaged in how to design software that allows media buyers to purchase radio advertising effectively – and to target these very people. Figuring out how to target this group of 25-54 males engages many of these buyers a lot and there is no real data (soft or hard) that describes this differential in behaviors. Programming a radio station so that it satisfies the introspective aspects of the male listener while also juicing the “rock and roll” cortex of the brain would be a brilliant move. Jack-FM doesn’t do it. It’s all music, no thought. Getting truly talented story-tellers like Schecter on the air again in local radio might be the answer. And, it would provide an outlet for ad dollars that are now being spent rather blindly on generic music stations.
    I find myself listening to and enjoying podcasts like Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code (a mix of thought and decent indie music), Coverville (cover songs with a guy – Brian Ibbot – who talks a bit about them and even has his wife on the show from time to time) and the Rock and Roll Geek Show (sort of self-explanatory). When I go back to mainstream radio, I like the music, but miss the stimulation. So, I return to Adam and Brian.
    So – great music and talented, relavnent talk – that’s the formula for me. And, I bet it would work for the rest of my compadres, too. Plus, it would make the buyers’ jobs easier, too!

  11. Walter Sabo
    Walter Sabo says:

    The difference between Howard Stern and “the others” is that Howard is extraordinarily introspective. The show has never been about strippers. It’s about the internal life of one man that rings true for many men and women.

    As for NPR, it is important to note that it is not a true network. No two stations carry the same shows at the same times. The most successful stations carry very little network fare The prime indicator of NPR success is the size of the academic community and the Asian community in a city. In most cities it would not be a factor if it showed. In some cities it is very successful notably Boston, Washington and San Francisco, but they are atypical.

    YOU are acting just like other people of a certain age who evolve from the bar to the family room. Those active rock and classic rock morning shows you refer to sound like a bar. At some point who needs that? I too have a three year old and a 9 month old and they listen to Howard with me. It’s interesting that 18-24 year old men have less interest in him because he is Dad’s morning show!

    Where do you hide? Sounds like the car to me. I actually have, since childhood, known quite a few men who actually just sit in their parked cars for a couple hours a week reading and listening to the radio claiming to be listening to a ball game–the same one they could hear in the house.

    Walter Sabo, Sabo Media

  12. Joseph Gallant
    Joseph Gallant says:

    For the most part, an excellent article. Several of the reasons you cited for the decline in rock radio are very valid.
    But I think you missed a major reason, maybe the major reason, that rock radio is in trouble: the format’s traditional target audience of young men is now much more likely to listen to rap and hip-hop than to rock.
    No longer are rap and hip-hop listeners primarily black. Rap and hip-hop are attracting an increasing number of young white men.
    This is a cultural sea change, and the major reason I feel rock radio is in decline.

  13. Dave Lange
    Dave Lange says:

    You bring up some great perspectives. While I don’t know about joing the Roaming Bisons your points on the Sex and Drugs/booze attiutde that most stations weave into their imaging is a very valid one. It is dying off in the last 2 years, first the FCC sex crackdown a few years ago and just the temperment of the business makes it more obvious how out of step it is with the over 35 audience and as that population grows every year it becomes more important.
    Yes, this may have pushed a few males out and off to sports and other formats. But, we really don’t know because we no longer have a valid sample in our measuring services. Return in Men has always been a problem and with more cell phones, answering machines, and busy lives returning a diary or taking a phone survey is a lot less important. That’s if you can even get in touch with them. In Men 18-34 the return in Arbitron is off over 20% in the last 5 years and guess what Rock’s shares are off 20%. It’s also falling 35-44 in many markets. Is it the programming? or is it the bias in the research? Edison is a great researcher and knows better than anyone – bad sample=bad research.


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