IF ONLY RADIO WOULD GET OUT OF ITS BOX
There's an excellent article on the state of music radio by Todd Leopold dated May 17 at cnn.com. The article, "Do you remember rock 'n' roll radio?" focuses on what is today is an unusual phenomenon, an independent music radio station trying to make it work.
The station, CD 102.5 FM in Columbus, Ohio, is a locally owned commercial radio entry that appears to be finding a niche in the morass of corporate cookie-cutter models that otherwise occupies the FM band.
Radiophiles have heard this story before, and they often hearken back to a golden age that balanced musical expression and experimentation with an understanding for what might work in a specific community. They lament those long lost days, replaced by a bottom-line cutback model where stations lack any real character. In the case of Clear Channel, radio's greatest corporate offender, most of the DJs only pretend to be in the market that the station serves. Through voice-tracking and prewritten copy, key events or points of interest are mentioned in an effort to con the listener into thinking they're local.
But the golden age of radio is now 40 years in our rearview mirror. Indeed, this decline has been a long time coming, and it's hard to say to what level the medium will recover.
Forty to me is a key (and admittedly arbitrary) number. It's roughly indicative of the changing demographic dynamic that has endangered many a traditional business model. If you happen to be reading this article and you're over 40, chances are you're more likely to still access traditional terrestrial radio in some capacity. If younger than 40, you and your friends are more likely to listen to music on your terms, through a variety of commercial-free alternatives. To you, the "car radio" is just something in the middle of the dash that you use for your MP3 player or to access the GPS as you trek to that new restaurant you read about in the Weekly.
Recognizing the move from terrestrial signal to digital alternative, Clear Channel launched its smart phone app, iheartradio, which can access a crapload of stations, many of them operated under the banners of Clear Channel and the other corporate big boy, Cumulus. On one hand, it's been successful. With improved Internet coverage, listeners can access their favorite radio stations for longer periods. As long as you're in a good 3G, 4G, NextG coverage area, that radio signal will be there for you.
The bad news is that if you're willing to endure the iheartradio interface and want to access similarly formatted stations in other markets, you'll realize real fast just how stale the medium has become.
Diversity used to be radio's true specialty. On the purest local level, it knew what its fan base wanted. This was the era when the top-40 station, the rock station, the country station and the oldies station understood that different songs had different appeal in different markets. Clear Channel has now basically syndicated its entire model. And make no mistake, Cumulus is not far behind. So if you want to listen to the country station in Houston, or the country station in Charlotte, N.C., or the Clear Channel country station in Columbus, Ohio, only the call letters are different. The stations play the same songs, break at the same time, and even play the same national commercials at the same place in the spot block. It's as if the whole model is in perpetual syndication.
And naturally, the suits at the top believe one size fits all, regardless of market, because one size is a hell of a lot cheaper and better, they perceive, for the corporate bottom line. Because they figure ratings are going to continue to decline anyway, why bother attempting to improve the product? Why does it matter if the few folks actually left at a station might have a better understanding of what works in that specific market? Just play the song rotation emailed from Corporate, be sure to get that Midas spot in the commercial block about 50 minutes after the hour, and let the computers do the rest. Those still willing to listen will keep hanging around. The others have already been lost anyway. Never mind that the industry is doing nothing to try to lure younger listeners. By the time they're completely out of the habit, the suits will have cashed in and moved to other business ventures anyway.
Which is also a dynamic mentioned in Leopold's CNN article: the long-held belief that Clear Channel will eventually divest itself of many of its smaller market holdings. Tucson could certainly be included in that equation, and maybe that would be a blessing. Among the reasons: Tucson is considered a medium market, currently ranked No. 62 according to stationratings.com. As such, it is not an Arbitron People Meter market. (When Arbitron started to roll out its People Meter instant ratings pager device, talk was it would find its way to Tucson by 2010. Then 2011. By 2012, Arbitron said it had no immediate plans to expand beyond the 48 markets People Meter serves).
Sorry, Tucson. You still get saddled with the outdated and often inconsistent paper diary. Because the People Meter—even with its glitches and concerns about the data—seems to deliver a superior reflection of listening habits, markets outside the People Meter model don't get anywhere near the attention as the top 48. However, in a city like Tucson, where clusters still operate most of the frequencies on the FM band, there remains a requirement to adhere to a generic edict from above.
But because of cluster involvement, a market like Tucson is also too large to function with an independent mindset. For that, you have to check out radio in some of the outlying communities—such as the Ted Tucker-owned FM signal licensed in Florence, KCDX 101.3 (Mr. Tucker, I'd certainly love to chat about your station if you'd like to return my messages some time) or classic country format CAVE 97.7 FM out of Benson, which recently celebrated 30 years on the air.
So Tucson is too big to be quirky and imaginative in the search for an additional niche that might represent the untapped needs of the market, and too small to really matter in the eyes of the corporate calculators who crave the simplicity of one-size-fits-all.