How much has radio programming changed over the last eight years?
I recently came across an presentation of mine called “Radio Programming Trends: 2006.” It was written for the Hawaii Association of Broadcasters, one of the best speaking gigs ever, in a time before PPM, the iPhone and the rise of Pandora.
The ten programming trends I identified at the time weren’t meant to be predictions, just a wide-angle look at the current landscape. Indeed, the most significant trend at the time has been largely reversed. Here’s how I viewed radio programming in 2006, and what’s changed.
At the time: Jack- and Bob-FM had just come off a year of explosive American growth. The building boom in second and third Top 40s was still two years away. For the decade previous, most of the traffic had been moving away from Top 40 as major groups decided not to compete with Clear Channel’s younger skewing, more aggressive version of the format. Kelly Clarkson’s success with a more pop sound was a pleasant surprise, but it wasn’t yet a movement.
Now: The situation has been almost reversed with just a few true outlets for “then” remaining in some markets. Several formats, like Country and Hot AC, rely increasingly on newer music. Others, like Urban AC and Mainstream AC, aren’t current-based but they’ve largely jettisoned the oldest two decades of their library. The rush to build new Top 40s slightly predated the arrival of PPM, but was accelerated greatly by it. It took several years, but CBS, Cumulus and others finally decided that two Top 40s could grow the audience, rather than become mired in a war of attrition.
At the time: Even eight years ago, it was no secret that the younger audience didn’t have the same relationship with radio that their parents did. Plus, the “Alternative is going to lose its beer money if it doesn’t get older (or just give up and go away)” discussion was at its peak.
Now: It would be nice to think that broadcasters recognized the importance of pursuing younger listeners, but Top 40′s comeback and building boom has been a function of its adult appeal. If Top 40 were merely a 12-24 format, it would still be on one station per market. Or it would be on a translator. Alternative was reinvented as an older-skewing gold-based format and is only beginning to go more current now. And while all Urban radio has had challenges in the PPM era, it is R&B/Hip-Hop that is most noticeably diminished.
At the time: Oldies was in danger of disappearing. Adult Standards was in the process of disappearing. So, as it happens, was Smooth Jazz. Buys were shifting from 25-54 to 18-49.
Now: PPM and a new name gave the “Greatest Hits” format an extended lease on life. KRTH Los Angeles and WCBS-FM New York are major success stories, but the format has never returned to other markets including Houston and Washington, D.C. And now there’s talk about the future of Classic Rock and News and Talk formats.
At the time: New York had at least five different gold-based radio stations, including two different Rhythmic ACs. The success of Bob- and Jack-FM had spurred programmers to try every conceivable variant. The only problem was that with radio’s “shared experience” having been sharply fragmented after 1989, it was going to be harder to play oldies for each new generation.
Now: We’ve had two different waves of ’90s-based rhythmic gold, the newest of which (now heard in Boston, Portland, Ore., and Seattle) is somewhat more successful than the first. Gold-based Alternative has crested twice, giving way only to a recent undeniable wave of current music. Even gold-based Country, a format that the Country music community does not want, is resurfacing. None have posted Bob- or Jack-like numbers.
At the time: WTOP Washington, D.C., had been simulcasting on secondary frequencies for eight years at this point, but its attention getting (and ultimately very successful) move to a full signal was just a few months old. NPR was also demonstrating the power of FM talk, but there was still skepticism about a format that had been looking for a shot on FM for 15 years and could still cite only New Jersey 101.5 as a major success story.
Now: You can debate the upside for the stations that moved. You can ask if they should have gone FM sports instead. But you can’t argue that it happened. And you can’t argue that life is still just fine for most of the stations that decided to remain only on AM.
At the time: Urban radio had just come off an unprecedented building boom that left the biggest African-American markets with two Hip-Hop/R&B stations and two Urban ACs, but which had also brought two Urban stations to Spokane. In addition, the excitement around Reggaeton had brought young-leaning bilingual stations to many markets for the first time, and spread the Tropical format beyond the East Coast for the first time. Spanish-language Oldies formats were proliferating as well.
Now: By the time PPM hit, Urban was already looking a little over-fragmented, and many of its stations were in no position to accept a piece of the market that was even a little smaller. The Latin and Urban building boom went on hold for a while, especially among groups that didn’t specialize in them. Over the last few years, Urban has started to build again, spurred in part by the easy availability of FM translators as spoiler stations.
At the time: Country and AC had settled into comfortable places at the top of many markets, an ironic benefit of those formats’ buzz having worn off over the previous five years.
Now: Urban’s PPM travails meant that stations like KBXX (the Box) Houston and WEDR Miami were left alone for a while and looked pretty healthy. Last year, they both got new Clear Channel competitors, on full-fledged signals. Country stations that had ruled northeastern markets alone like WKLB Boston and WPOC Baltimore have new competition on translators. In fact, the only question is whether major-market stations will ever again have an eight-share by having an entire format left to them.
Then: The success of Bob- and Jack-FM had led to the unusual spectacle of consultants coming to town to advise the competition on how to expand their library. Satellite radio had also helped listeners get accustomed to a wider list with at least a few jolts. And several years of Top 40 playing its powers more than 100x a week had finally shown that you could play the hits too often.
Now: PPM hit as the novelty was wearing off the Variety Hits format and programmers retrenched. Satellite radio has tightened slightly. Even Pandora, unless you insist otherwise, will feed you mostly songs that research well.
Then: Clear Channel was under weekly attack in the consumer press for its alleged national stranglehold on the charts. For the most part, any attempts by rival radio to make an issue of it seemed like sour grapes. But KBZT San Diego had been able to successfully attack rival 91X. WKLU Indianapolis was also thriving by exploiting its small-group owner (and six minutes of commercials an hour). At the time, I told the group, “We’d see more of this if there were more owners that could credibly claim to not be corporate.”
Now: The consumer press bashing of radio has mostly ended. The most appealing proposition for listeners turned out to be “live and local.” Or, in the case of WZBA (The Bay) Baltimore, “Family owned, locally programmed.” With more Ryan Seacrest and Nash-FM everywhere, even casual listeners are starting to notice that it’s not all live and local . . . and it’s not always better than what a local station could do.
In 2006, only one major format, Easy Listening, had actually vanished from the dial in recent memory. In the few years that followed, its successor, Smooth Jazz, would face a similar fate. As for trend No. 1 and Top 40′s much different standing now, the cyclical nature of its success (and that of most formats, really) almost guaranteed a reversal.
If there’s any change, it’s that the cycle has become less dependable. Those who specialize in identifying the Top 40 cycle in progress are still waiting for those doldrums after eight years. By comparison, Top 40′s mid-’80s boom lasted about 4-5 years. There is some concern about whether today’s EDM-driven Top 40 product is quite as adult-friendly as last year’s, but there are also signs of a major break with the musical past, in which case current music gets the benefit of the doubt for a while.
Beyond that, when one considers what seems like eighty years’ worth of change that have taken place in the last eight years, it’s interesting to note that the programming and format landscape has been changed mostly by the advent of PPM, which tended to reinforce the radio programming laws of 1966, and by the proliferation of FM translators. Unprecedented variety is available to listeners, but broadcasters are leaving that job to satellite and online radio – unless there’s a low-cost opportunity to mess with a rival. New format trends are still waiting to take hold.