Why Idol Changed Radio . . . And Will Likely Continue To

One of the themes of this year’s spate of “American Idol” coverage has been the relative disappointment of the sixth season and its aftermath (finale ratings down, a disappointing tour, and a relatively soft opening week for Jordin Sparks) as well as the major label deaccession of earlier winners and contestants (Hicks, Studdard, and McPhee all gone).
A lot of that loses some of its potency in context. Season six was off slightly from a heavily boosted season five. Sparks album sold less in an environment where all albums were selling less. And ever since Justin Guarini, it had been pretty well established that not everybody touched by “Idol” was going to have hit records.
But even if the “Idol” machine had ground to a halt – and with Jordin Sparks’ second single and Daughtry’s fourth now in play – it clearly hasn’t, — the impact of “American Idol” at radio – and not just Top 40 radio – can’t be denied.

  • “Idol” helped reopen pure pop as a category for Mainstream Top 40, to the point where it is perhaps the second core sound (after rhythmic pop). It made possible Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” probably the most imitated record of the last five years. Less obviously, the success of “Since U Been Gone” helped spur existing artists like Avril Lavigne and Nelly Furtado to make pure pop records.
  • “Idol” helped further cement TV’s reputation as the magic bullet that can save a new record or artist six months of slow going at radio. In doing so, the show spread its tentacles far beyond the contestants. When you see the Alvin & the Chipmunks version of “Bad Day” on the downloads chart, remember “Idol”‘s role in propelling the Daniel Powter original beyond its likely American resting place at Mainstream AC .
  • In the same way that “Idol” had enough juice to bring pop music back at Top 40, it also had the ability to put an artist like Bucky Covington or Kellie Pickler on Country radio’s docket without the 3-6 months of set-up that have become de rigueur there (even before the 3-6 months that it takes to break a record by a new artist).
  • “Idol” propelled Carrie Underwood into image artist status at Country within months and allowed Underwood to cross to Top 40 with the purest Country crossover since “Achy Breaky Heart.”
  • “Idol” has, in fact, contributed artists to every major contemporary format. And it’s not an accident that the one genre that most needs a new superstar – Hip-Hop – is the exception.
  • “Idol” has shown the ability to boost multiple artists at a time, including those like Elliot Yamin, whose albums come out outside the scope of the Sony/BMG labels.

What’s clear now after six seasons is that “Idol” isn’t omnipotent – even if it’s been pretty close at times. Not everything touched by the show has been a hit. Then again, not every superstar artist hits with every record these days. And as Clarkson found out, there are both enough Idols in circulation, and enough people making pure pop records, that no act can count on being alone in the category.
“Idol” also has limitations for those winners and contestants who aren’t obvious vehicles for mainstream or rhythmic pop, as Taylor Hicks and Clay Aiken ultimately proved not to be. As anybody who has done A&R will tell you, it’s very hard to turn around an album in six months, much less dwell at length on just who an artist is. Jordin Sparks relied heavily on material from mainstream songwriters; Blake Lewis co-wrote much of his own. Neither of them made exactly the album one might have expected from them or (beatboxing aside) an album that no other artist could have recorded.
That said, the debate about whether “Idol” produces serious artists is almost beside the point now, particularly in a world where Gwen, Avril, and Nelly would rather make pure pop records themselves. Kelly Clarkson put two successful projects together – always a challenge – and only her quest for serious artistry derailed the third one.
So even if it’s at 80% of its previous influence — and that would be a precipitous decline – “Idol” is likely to continue to spread its tentacles at radio this year. Tastemaker stations like WHTZ (Z100) remain very conscious of pop culture and, until something else comes along, “Idol” remains a tent pole of pop culture. The artists who come from the show have enough name recognition to get their records listened to by other programmers who don’t have as much time to spend hunting out new music.
That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be nice to see the finale songs get better, the albums turned around even quicker to capitalize on the excitement, or some of the material be a little more distinctive. Radio could also freshen the way it treats “Idol.” Hearing the theme music start and the previous night’s show recapped with a few of Simon Cowell’s nastiest actualities thrown in there is as much of a cliche now as the celebrity report that starts with the “Entertainment Tonight” theme music.
More globally, it would also be nice to see radio reclaim its agenda-setting capabilities from TV, or to see the next wave of music emerge. In the 15 years between the Beatles and MTV, radio had the ability to create the next big music without TV; that now seems like a distant memory. If “Idol” really tapers off, it will leave an excitement void and a need for another shared experience, and radio might give some thought to what that would be.

20 replies
  1. Mark Hamilton
    Mark Hamilton says:

    Don’t agree that Idol has contributed an Artist to every ‘major contemporary format’….
    Well, I suppose that would depend if you consider Alternative ‘major’ and Daughtry ‘alternative” HAHA

  2. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    Whereas the so-called “return of pop” and all is probably to be lauded, a show such as “American Idol” would have a lot more aesthetic impact if it didn’t have to wade through such an enormous sea of mediocrity to find the occasional wannabee who can remotely carry a tune.
    My hat is off to Simon Cowell. He gets booed only because the stage moms and dads leading the booing are incapable of accepting any sort of criticism whatsoever of their little darlings. But almost invariably his observations are, although blunt, generally right on the money.

  3. thistime
    thistime says:

    AI is only interested in Top 40 artists and Country. They aren’t interested in a blues artist, or a soul artist, or any artist that can put mega-bucks in their pockets. They aren’t looking for career talent – they are looking for an instant star. When that star fades and they are no longer useful to Clive and his now fading BMG conglomerate, then they get thrown in the trash. AI is destroying the music business. And that’s a fact of life.

  4. Tracy Austin
    Tracy Austin says:

    Yes, some might see Idol stars as flashes in the pan, but I think the success of Daughtry, Carrie and of course Kelly (don’t count her out yet) show that once again it comes down to the combination of likeability, talent and having the right songs. Idol may be getting a bit tired, but as cheesy as the sponsor tie-ins are sometimes you can’t deny it is a money-making promotional machine! It always comes down to the age old debate about pop music being credible. Ace of Base, Nsync, Britney Spears all brought us great pop records before Idol came along, and to keep a balance radio will always want to look for some of those. The companies should be getting their own online Idol models ready to fill the pop culture void that will be left when it’s over.

  5. Dan
    Dan says:

    “Idol” also has limitations for those winners and contestants who aren’t obvious vehicles for mainstream or rhythmic pop, as Taylor Hicks and Clay Aiken ultimately proved not to be.
    I can’t imagine why you would say that Clay Aiken hasn’t managed to go mainstream unless you also mention that Clive Davis drives these artists and if he decided that Clay should make a Christmas CD follwed by a covers CD, then blame Clive, not Clay because Clay has said that he was mandated to do it Clive’s way or no way. He doesn’t care or doing Sloooooow songs either.
    You do know how the labels work, don’t you? They decide everything including picking the songs.

  6. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Never said that Clay and Taylor didn’t obligingly TRY to make pop records — just that, from a Top 40 radio standpoint, it never really took with program directors. Both are distinctive personalities that needed songs that a) didn’t sound like they could have been recorded by anybody else, and b) were still undeniable hits that can be on the radio next to “Fergalicious.” That’s a tall order.

  7. Linda
    Linda says:

    Sean, do you seriously not understand how radio works? They want songs similar to the existing hits out there, and they want payola to go with those songs. Clay’s and Taylor’s songs didn’t click with the program directors because there was no label $upport attached to them.
    At least be honest with your readers.

  8. Rusty
    Rusty says:

    American Idol is as much a freak show as the old Gong Show and at least it was INTENDED to be bad. Pure pablum for the National Enquirer crowd. The people who watch it are shallow phonies. READ A BOOK!!!!

  9. Max K
    Max K says:

    “”Idol” has, in fact, contributed artists to every major contemporary format. And it’s not an accident that the one genre that most needs a new superstar – Hip-Hop – is the exception.”
    I like how your article completely disregards metal, punk, hardcore and any related genre as a “major contemporary format”, as though these artists aren’t having any success. Look at Ozzfest, MTV2, Fuse, Warped Tour; these are all multi-million dollar enterprises. The reason you don’t see them on Idol is because they believe in working for a career instead of selling their souls to a TV show.
    There’s more to music than Top 40, Sean. Turn off American Idol and check it out.

  10. Kyle Storm
    Kyle Storm says:

    AI has turned out some pretty good talent, regardless of this pop criticism nonsense. Clarkson is bona fide, and her last album under-appreciated. Didn’t she war with Davis over that? Daughtry, Underwood, Aiken, Yamin, Pickler and Fantasia all have had great success, and all are as talented – or dare I say better – than many others on the radio right now. Radio continues to slam Idol, while playing their records. Why? because they are good, and the singers legitimate.

  11. Kinnison
    Kinnison says:

    Basically this article is saying that AI is nothing more then a hype machine for Mediocre artists. The greatest example of this is when William Hung is able to cut a record deal.

  12. Amused
    Amused says:

    Somehow I doubt that radio will be the trendsetter for some new shared experience for who is going to be the next big star. Most young people (radio’s target market) don’t listen to the radio anymore because they can get better selection and no commercials on the internet, Ipods, satellite, and CD’s. I’m in my late 20′s and would love to hear better rock music on the radio. Don’t get me wrong, I love bands like Pearl Jam but am sick and tired of hearing songs that were popular when I was 14. If I have to hear one more Nirvana song on the radio every single day I’m going to blow my head off.
    Take some chances.
    Play some new music.
    Stop playing stuff that sounds like rap. If I wanted to hear that I wouldn’t be listening to your station.
    If it’s more than 10 years old it better never be played more than once a week (not counting oldies night or something).
    If you don’t I can find plenty of websites, or satellite channels that will.

  13. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    I confess I am an AI junkie. And while not every artist did well after AI, I don’t think you can say AI is only interested in this or that since America picks the winner.
    I liked Taylor Hicks when he sang on AI, but his debut album, quite frankly, sucked, whether as a pop album, blues, or whatever you want to classify it as.

  14. Aaron
    Aaron says:

    The question posed at the end of the piece seems kind of a duh question. Just as Radio lost its abilty to drive musical trends to televison. Televison will lose its position to the internet as bands buck the system and the “underground” method goes mainsteam. I think you will find more bands catching on via social networking and video sharing sites. As long as the filter police don’t shut them down.

  15. Raspy
    Raspy says:

    American karaoke, er, Idol has efficaciously “dumbed down” music(or what passes for it) with the belief that “yes, you, too, can be America’s next idol.” In reality, No you can’t. Nor should you be. The belief that everyman has a set of pipes the world is just waiting to hear is ludicrous, all bathroom acoustics notwithstanding. Please keep it in the shower, or in the church choir where it belongs.

  16. Sammie
    Sammie says:

    The whole “idol mentality” is a cheap shot at the big time. These people need to pay their dues and earn their stripes and then , and only then, will people accept them with anything other than the customary “oh look, its the latest American Idol winner” comments. Its no wonder that most of the winners return to relative obscuirty since they don’t have the experience to sustain a career in the music business. Most of these singers couldn’t do a long tour because they don’t have the chops to deliver the goods night after night because they’ve never had to that. They would blow their voices out by the third night and have to cancel. I support singers who have been at it for years singing in bars, clubs, and touring relentlessly. Once they get the break, they are ready because they are experienced !


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