Company News · September 24, 2003

The Care and Feeding of “Anti-Radio”

By Tom Webster

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

So does the audience really want something different?

Programmers have the right to be more confused than ever after two seemingly contradictory events of recent weeks.

On Sept. 12, Infinity’s WNEW (102.7 Blink) New York blew up most elements of its eclectic, rhythmic-leaning adult top 40 format after five months, becoming a more conventional bright AC. The heavily publicized, heavily marketed format had spent the last three Arbitrends parked at a 0.7 share 12-plus.

Four days later, the Canadian summer ratings came back with good news for most of the country’s fast proliferating Jack and Bob stations. The most spectacular story was in Calgary where the classic hits/hot AC hybrid debuted with a 19.0 share, overtaking double-digit heritage rocker CJAY in one book. But there were also successes in Ottawa and Vancouver. In Winnipeg, where the format began 18 months ago, the first “Bob FM” finally showed signs of leveling to only around a 10-share.

In broad terms, Blink and Bob/Jack weren’t such different animals. Both were adult top 40s driven by broad libraries (albeit with different leans)—over 1,000 songs in the case of the Canadian outlets. Both tried to give listeners the variety found in their home collections, even if it transcended conventional format holes. Both were addressing broadcasters’ growing perception that the public dissatisfaction with today’s radio goes further than a handful of disgruntled consumer press writers. Both stations were, in short, trying to offer the audience some form of “anti-radio.”

Why did only one of these attempts at anti-radio work? You can’t explain it away just by citing the differences between American and less over-radioed Canadian markets. Calgary may have fewer FMs, but that explains the difference between a 19-share and a 9-share. Not the difference between a 19 and a 0.7.

So here are some thoughts on the care and feeding of anti-radio:

Anti-radio takes many forms. Soft classic hits outlet WDRV (the Drive) Chicago is earnest on the air. The Jack stations parody that earnestness with the positioning slogan “Playing what we want.” Both are, nevertheless, driven by a combination of library depth and giving listeners a sense of being different.

Anti-radio may work better when at least some of the elements of the radio station are familiar.

Anti-radio works best in carefully applied brush strokes. KPLX (the Wolf) Dallas has used a handful of “Texas Music” titles to differentiate itself, but it’s still a very hit-driven radio station, with a considerable library component. The now-defunct KIKK-FM Houston played much of the same music, but was more aggressively different and less familiar on every front, and never gained traction. To that end …

Anti-radio may work better when at least some of the elements of the radio station are familiar. The Jack/Bob stations were more aggressive versions of the Jacor “Mix” hot AC outlets that proliferated in the mid-‘90s. (And those were cousins of the first wave of gold-based AC FMs of the early ‘80s.) As with most of the Mix outlets, the Jack/Bob stations aren’t asking listeners to learn new music. Blink was giving them currents, and a wide variety of gold, and a number of bringback titles, then hoping they also wanted to hear entertainment news.

Anti-radio works best if you have a way to explain it to listeners that doesn’t defeat your entire premise. Listeners have heard enough traditional radio positioning that CFWM (Bob 99.9) Winnipeg’s “’80s, ‘90s, and whatever” slogan could simultaneously parody that sort of positioning and take advantage of it. Blink, on the other hand, was apparently so determined to avoid radio clichés that the station was barely explained to listeners at all.

Anti-radio ought to work for modern rock. Rick Carroll’s KROQ Los Angeles was, after all, one of the original anti-radio stations, coming along at a time when radio was its most liner card-driven. KROQ helped establish the template for anti-radio: the jocks were self-deprecating, but the “world famous” station still had swagger. But, eventually, modern rock program directors wanted to prove that they were capable of sounding as professional as their competition and not playing 1,000 songs. Now, with an infusion of Outkast, White Stripes, and Dashboard Confessional making modern rock an alternative format again, programmers should be able to develop a stationality that takes advantage of the music.

Anti-radio already works for R&B. From the mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s, the infusion of “churban” stations also forced urban programmers, many of whom were still taking their cues from Frankie Crocker’s low-key, wide-variety WBLS New York, to tighten their music and presentation. The minute that happened, of course, WQHT (Hot 97) New York came along and suddenly the emphasis was on sounding “street,” not slick, and it remains so at the format today.

Anti-radio works in cycles. WDRV’s low-key approach recalls WMMO Orlando, Fla., a decade earlier, not to mention the early progressive FMs. Rick Carroll often drew on the first decade of top 40. Canada’s “Jack” stations use a mid-‘70s top 40 jingle package with “we do what we want” sung to the tune of “we do it for you.” Usually an anti-radio cycle winds down because overuse destroys its uniqueness. When Scott Shannon used “don’t be a dickhead” as a liner at KQLZ (Pirate Radio) Los Angeles in 1989, he was already licensed to carry a loaded positioner. The wannabes who copied both Pirate and WFLZ (the Power Pig) Tampa were not, and the combination of overuse and misuse had a negative impact on not just their own stations but on top 40 at the time.
Radio’s critics often believe that everybody shares their dissatisfaction with today’s radio. Radio’s defenders try to minimize any dissatisfaction by citing studies that show it to be a minority opinion. In the end, there’s probably enough demand for “anti-radio” that a fragmented industry cannot ignore it. Edison Media Research’s “Internet and Multimedia 10: the Emerging Digital Consumer” found that 73% of the audience already thought the stations in their market did a good or very good job of playing the kind of music they liked, and 69% thought those stations did a good job of providing musical variety. And those numbers are heavily driven by partisans whose favorite formats (adult standards, classical, and jazz among them) aren’t represented in many markets. All of which suggests that anti-radio is the compliment to an existing format hole or listener need, but not a full franchise unto itself.

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 Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or

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