Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why Traditional Radio Is No Longer A Factor

Here's another excerpt from chapter 2 of my the Music 3.0 Internet Music Guidebook, entitled "The New Music Business." It's about the current state of broadcast radio and how it got that way.

Broadcast radio was once the lifeblood of the music industry. Even moderate airplay could be enough to establish an artist, while heavy rotation of enough songs could almost guarantee the artist long term career success. Today, radio is just a shell of its former self, almost irrelevant in its impact on the success of an artist. In fact, airplay on some stations can be even harmful to an artist’s credibility, since much of traditional broadcast radio is so lowly regarded by consumers and true fans.
Radio used to be one of the things they trusted, but now it’s transformed into something that music-lovers can't even tolerate, so real music fans don't expect FM radio to turn them on to new music like it once did.  Therefore, for new artists, radio is moot. Derek Sivers - founder and former CEO of CD Baby
So how has radio gone from holy grail to dirty coffee cup? Radio has undergone its own version of technological morphing that parallels that of the music industry. Back in the early days of radio, each station was locally owned and reflected the tastes of the community and region, including the music. Much of the great music from the 50’s through the 70’s came as a result of these local tastes, from Philadelphia to Detroit to Memphis to Cleveland to Chicago to Los Angeles, each region had it’s own distinct sound.

Another factor in radio’s rise was the relative freedom that “disc jockeys” had, being able to play just about any record that they liked. In the late 60’s and 70’s, this DJ freedom hit its apex on FM radio, as people tuned in specifically because they trusted the taste of the DJ. You could hear a raga from Ravi Shanker, hard rock from Led Zeppelin, jazz from Miles Davis and acoustic folk music from the Richie Havens back to back, but the air of discovery was high and listeners flocked to the major FM station in each region of the country. Your DJ was your personal music guide who could take you to new musical destinations if you just let him (or her), and you did.

During this period in time, FM radio was considered a poor step-child to AM due to the fact that the proliferation of FM radios was just beginning and its advertising revenues were still relatively low, so the format was generally overlooked by large ownership groups as a potential source of revenue. But money always follows listeners and soon FM radio was raking in big ad dollars, which attracted both Wall Street and Madison Avenue looking for a new income stream. Soon both local AM and FM stations were purchased by station groups and conglomerates, and in an effort to maximize profits, radio “consultants” were hired to review the station’s playlists and make them more “listener friendly”. When this happened, the DJ lost all his freedom as to what to play as the playlists were tightened to the songs, and even the time, that the consultant picked. Since the same consultant was determining the playlists for the entire station group, stations using the same formats were playing the same songs virtually everywhere in the country, regardless of the region. Radio became homogenized and stale.

Worse still was the fact that what was always a local media soon became anything but, with some stations turning to automated broadcasting with no live on-air personnel. Soon came the endless commercial spots from national advertisers, since few local advertisers could now afford the service.

For the listener, radio went from a point of endless music discovery where listening all night could be considered a reasonable leisure activity, to a sonic clump of audio goo designed to be as inoffensive as possible. In an effort to grow their profits, big money turned radio into background music instead of the companion that it used to be.

Prior to the influx of big money ownership, radio couldn’t afford demographic market research, and they decided what to play by registering the calls they received or by calling up the local music stores to see what customers where buying. Although the possibility of being over-hyped on a particular record existed, the information they received bore more of a relationship to what people in the area were actually buying and listening to. Now because focus group results take precedence over the preferences of listeners, we have more “turntable hits” than ever before, where a recording gets massive exposure but no one is willing to purchase it.

Advertisers want to control what’s being played around their advertising dollar and the need to please the advertiser (instead of the listener) is one of the reasons that radio is where it is today. No advertiser is willing to take a risk on being associated with new music when for the same money they can be associated with a known quantity, yet listeners have proven over and over that they are more than happy to embrace something new.
Before cheap data processing came along, calling up a record store and playing what they told you people were buying was a cheap form of market research. Music flourished in that environment. The minute it became a game of attracting the right demographics in a focus group, it was the end of commercial radio playing any music that people were passionate about. I think it's mind boggling that some people are taking this idea seriously. Media sage and historian (and former Motown engineer) Bob Ohlsson
Arbitron ratings between stations continue to be important, but far less so than when there used to be competition between stations as opposed to station groups.
I think this selection process is what dumbs down the music because in the old days it was still about selling advertising, only the music played was based largely on local record sales. The musical motivations of the audience have been taken out of the process. Bob Ohlsson
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