by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
While broadcasters may be smart to start finding their place in podcasting now, they shouldn’t be as quick to surrender to the rapidly spreading notion that radio needs to retrofit everything it does for a world in which all media usage is individualized and “on demand.” Doing so would mean giving up one of radio’s strengths–one that many programmers have already neglected in recent years.
From its inception, radio at its best has always been about the shared experience
From its inception, radio at its best has always been about the shared experience, the thing that everybody heard, or heard about, whether it was the on-air showdown between Jack Benny and Fred Allen or WABC New York helping Ringo Starr find his lost St. Christopher medal during the height of Beatlemania. As Bob Costas once put it, radio as a shared experience meant that “American Pie” “came out on Monday and by Friday, everybody had heard it.”
Radio as a shared experience was most obvious, of course, in the days of Top 40 stations with a 30 share of the market. Local hits notwithstanding, the body of music that Top 40 played was widely circulated enough that the first 15 years of rock-and-roll have been pretty neatly covered by one radio station, despite occasional attempts to split the Beatles and Aretha Franklin in to two different format. And many of the Oldies format’s current problems have stemmed from trying to move beyond the years when Top 40 was a shared experience.
The 50,000-watt AM Top 40 rockers were shared experiences. WLS Chicago wasn’t just a station that brought small-market night jocks out to their car radios after their own shifts were over, it also represented “bright lights, big city” to listeners in other markets across the region where the station showed up in the local ratings. For that matter, night jock John “Records” Landecker’s “Boogie Check” was a shared experience as well, at a time when the phones were used a few times per shift for maximum effect–not every other record.
Music junkies used to DX out-of-market stations to hear the songs that weren’t being played in their market–something offered in ample supply by a WKBW Buffalo, N.Y., or CKLW Detroit. But I still come across people who grew up in New York or Chicago for whom the 15-20 current records played by WABC or WLS respectively was enough, and who never would have considered listening to one of the other Top 40s in the market.
Rock radio from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s was enough of a shared experience to spur Classic Rock radio, and to resonate in our current spate of Jack/Bob Classic Hits/Hot AC-hybrids. Top 40’s early ’80s resurgence also resonates–reminding us of the period in which, as Edison’s Larry Rosin observes, everybody owned “Thriller” regardless of what else they listened to. By 1984, a 10-share, not a 30-share, was phenomenal, but it was still enough that I had friends in their mid-40s who could tell me what they heard on KIIS Los Angeles’ Friday afternoon countdown.
By the mid-’90s, of course, it was Howard Stern and other talk hosts, not DJs, who represented the shared experience–albeit a much more polarizing one. The jocks that went out to their cars to hear Landecker had become PDs going out on their lunch hour to listen to Rush Limbaugh. And R&B radio, even in its brief “more music, less talk” period never surrendered its connection to listeners, as evidenced by the impact of Tom Joyner and, now Wendy Williams.
Music radio, as it fragmented further, had a harder time creating a shared experience. In a landscape of four-share stations, the stories of the record that broke from one well-placed spin became fewer and further between. As far back as the mid-’80s, TV became the medium that could break a record by playing “At This Moment” in just the right scene. By the mid-’90s, it was music video that could finally start a record testing nationally by giving it more critical mass than any 30 local spins a week. (That said, once the industry began looking to TV or movies to break music without radio, it became clear that a “Start The Commotion” or “O! Brother, Where Art Thou?” could only happen every now and then.)
And yet, the shared experience still happens occasionally. A few times a year, there is still a record of the magnitude of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” or Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”–the song that scales the chart by 10-15 places a week. Like its spiritual antecedent, “Mickey,” one knew right away that “Hollaback Girl” would both polarize and galvanize–it’s always the first record that civilian friends bring up when discussing music. And I’ve seen two different columns this week commenting on its lyrics.
The shared experience still pops up on a small scale, as well. A few months ago, a record person and I were kicking around cover ideas for one of his artists. He mentioned an Aretha Franklin song that still sounded great after 30-plus years. I asked if he’d been listening to WRKS New York weekend oldies host Felix Hernandez, who had played it the day before. He had been.
One unfortunate aspect of radio in recent years is that the shared experience often became a negative one. The jocks who got the attention were the most controversial. The best- researching element of morning shows became the phone scam. The thing that got a radio station the most attention was the stunt that much of the market became aware of, not because everybody was listening but because of negative press–whether it was Opie & Anthony or the WQHT (Hot 97) New York “Smackfest.”
Satellite radio has had the opportunity to offer some sort of shared experience, but so far it’s been diluted, both because of a cume that’s spread over 200 channels, because the two networks have relied heavily on voice-tracking at the outset, and because it never really tried to cultivate a nationwide, “larger than life” feel. That’s starting to change a little now, with more attempts by jocks to work in national geography–but I haven’t heard a national “Boogie Check” yet.
It’s not inconceivable that podcasting, as employed by existing radio stations, could represent some sort of shared experience by focusing listeners’ attention on one new song–assuming the rights issues are worked out–or morning show bit, even if everybody doesn’t hear it at exactly the same time.
Mainstream radio, by the way, has a pretty good shot at being the content sought after by Podcast users, even if it’s the blog-like “anybody can podcast” aspects that are most publicized now. While MP3 may have made obscure songs easier to find or offer, a decade later, it’s still the well-known major-label, major-artist product that reaches critical mass on the Web. And there’s still no hit song that truly broke from MP3 alone. While radio has to work harder to break the hits, it still has more critical mass to deploy on behalf of a “Hollaback Girl” than anybody else.
Whether it’s radio or TV, listeners haven’t lost their ability to respond to a shared experience. Despite the articles you’ve read about TiVo’s impact on the water cooler conversation, it likely still took the water cooler to make hits of “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.” (Consider also that both those shows came from network TV, a medium almost as maligned as mainstream radio.) Radio’s ongoing survival depends not only on new technologies but longstanding strengths, and neither should be overlooked.
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.