By themselves, Clear Channel’s much heralded eRockster.com and CBS Radio’s soft-launched Ampradio.com make a lot of sense.
And it would perhaps make even more sense if somebody combined the two concepts.
Launched at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, eRockster is a national station — built mostly around Indie Rock — that will stream, but also be heard on Clear Channel HD-2 multicast stations in a number of markets, overcoming some of the group’s previous hesitance about using those frequencies for a national brand.
Ampradio, programmed by KROQ/KCBS-FM Los Angeles PD Kevin Weatherly and heard on KCBS’ HD-2 channel, skews older than Radio Disney but younger and poppier than crosstown Top 40 powerhouse KIIS. (It’s along the lines of BusRadio.com or Corus’ brief-lived BoomBoxBaby.ca.) Ampradio is a mix of mainstream Top 40 music, Radio Disney music and, so far, just a few things that are falling through the cracks at mainstream radio. While it has great untapped musical potential in that regard, it is certainly on the right track in going after one of the constituencies that has been disenfranchised by radio and has responded in kind.
Like some of its Clear Channel Adult Modern cousins, eRockster has an older skewing, more library-driven feel. But it is built around a significant body of music that only leaks through to other formats in smaller doses — a Snow Patrol here, a Silversun Pickups there. It’s positioned as a national music community–competing in that regard with CBS’ Last FM; (Ampradio is heard in only one market, but there’s little that’s L.A. specific about the station or its Website at the moment.)
So what if you had a station that was targeted to a younger audience and served a need for new music that wasn’t being played anywhere else? What if there were a national youth-music channel that sounded different from the way Top 40 is being done now?
There certainly seems to be a need for it. No matter how much one likes KIIS, WHTZ (Z100) New York, WKQI (Channel 955) Detroit, WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston and a handful of others, they have effectively become the gatekeepers for much of the format. And no matter how those stations differ from each other, their additive effect on the national charts has created a national template that is still fast on rhythmic pop and slow on everything else, particularly Rock, even after several years of musical change at radio.
With ever declining young-end listening, the current Top 40 template is clearly leaving both audience and music on the table. “Handlebars” by Flobots, which shot to No. 2 at Alternative in four weeks, is getting all of 18 spins at Top 40; Weezer’s “Pork And Beans,” which is No. 1 at Alternative after two weeks is getting 29 spins. And those are records that are at least being played somewhere – as opposed to being missed by radio altogether. An infusion of new music doesn’t need to usurp what’s on Top 40 now as much as it is needed to augment it.
What might a national youth music channel sound like? The closest analogy is Britain’s BBC Radio 1 which has, over the years, been more aggressive on music than its commercial Top 40 counterparts. (There are complaints that Radio 1 isn’t cutting-edge enough at the moment, but the one we’re talking about is the one that has cheerfully played Arctic Monkeys and Sugababes together for many years.) Radio 1 is, obviously, available on the FM dial throughout the U.K., but has also been aggressive about pursuing new platforms as well.
Radio 1, with its talkiness and its eclecticism, is hard for many American programmers to parse or appreciate. But it uses its national superstation status so effectively that commercial broadcasters are now creating their own national programming not to save money — or so they contend — but to more effectively compete in terms of guests, content, promotions, etc. (The same goes for the impact of eclectic AC sister Radio 2.)
The closest thing we’ve ever had to Radio 1 in the U.S. was MTV a decade ago when there was still enough of a music component for its spins to drastically change a record’s fortunes in callout. These days, the closest thing we have in terms of reach and unique music mix is Sirius Hits 1, which plays imports (early on Duffy and Leona Lewis), finds its own hits, including unreleased music, and sounds nothing like the major-market template. Right now, it’s walled off–known mostly to subscribers, still as much a channel as a community–but a Sirius/XM merger would certainly increase its influence (depending on whether it’s SH1 or XM’s “20 on 20″that endures).
The concept of a national youth-oriented, new music channel is a key here: It would allow records that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radio achieve critical mass (as one person singing Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” on national TV has shown). It also would allow for the kind of promotional and staff resources that certainly wouldn’t go to a single station’s HD-2 channel. It would make it easier to create a community around the station. And it would allow broadcasters to finally research younger listeners, something that hasn’t been a top priority for most, even in the face of declining listening levels.
This isn’t to say that there’s not a place for a national adult channel that plays music not found on the radio as well, like eRockster or an American version of Radio 2. The new growth spurt at Triple-A (new in New York and Los Angeles and now present in about two-thirds of the top 20 markets) speaks to that need as well.
It is, in any event, nice to be able to write about broadcasters moving in the right direction. What stations like Ampradio or eRockster need is a sustained push and the resources to be able to ride whatever wave they happen on to.