How to Save Commercial Music Radio

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September 30, 2012 by Ian Goldstein

By Rafael Chaiken

America’s radio stations have seen better days. Few alive today remember when radio was a dominant entertainment medium, when families would eagerly gather round their “radio sets” each night to hear the latest programming. The advent of television ended the the glory days of old time radio, but FM and AM broadcasting remained a central means to discover new music and listen to one’s favorite songs throughout the twentieth century.

Yet in the last decade or so, terrestrial commercial music radio — the subject of this post — has faced an unprecedented challenge. MP3 players have become ubiquitous, enabling music fans to take a library of thousands of songs wherever they go. Internet radio has come of age, with services such as PandoraSpotifyLast.fm, and Grooveshark becoming increasingly popular. Since 2001, satellite radio has attracted some of the the most die-hard radio fans, though fewer than one in ten Americans (23 million as of August 2012) subscribe.

These new forms of competition put radio at risk of losing listeners, and with decreased listenership comes a dropoff in advertising revenue as advertisers follow their audience. The 2008 economic downturn hit radio hard, with revenue falling from $21.3 billion in 2007 to $16 billion in 2009 (Radio Advertising Bureau). Though revenue rebounded to $17.4 billion in 2011, a recent report by Fitch Ratings predicts a slow, steady decline from here on out.

It’s way too soon, however, to declare commercial music radio a dying medium. Terrestrial radio retains a number of important advantages. It’s still the least expensive way to listen to music, since once you buy a receiver there are no fees for Internet access, subscriptions, or song purchases. Nearly every car has a radio, providing unmatched market penetration among a captive commuter audience. And radio can keep listeners aware of current national music trends in a way that more individualized media (i.e. Internet radio and MP3s) never can.

How can radio’s historic role in American musical culture be maintained? I’ve come up with six actions that can make radio more relevant and competitive in light of its newfound competition. These stem from my own listening as well as reading about current issues in broadcasting:

1) Add more variety: If you listen to a typical radio station for a few weeks or months, you’ll soon start hearing the same songs over and over again. This is a conscious programming choice, and to radio stations it makes sense. People generally get more enjoyment from hearing music they already know, as many who have been dragged by friends to an unfamiliar band’s concert will attest. The fewer songs are played, the more listeners will grow to love them and tune into the station. If you enjoy a certain genre, familiarity with songs in that genre breeds affection, not contempt.

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In the long term, though, this programming strategy is doomed to fail. When you hear a song excessively, the music grows tiresome (see my crude and unscientific graph). In my own experience, stations that at first seem exciting can grow stale within a few months.

To combat this problem, broadcasters must add more variety to their playlists. They can maximize listener enjoyment by selecting less-well-known songs (“deep tracks” or “deep cuts”) by popular artists, at once maximizing familiarity and originality. A certain amount of repetition will — and indeed should — remain, but today’s norm is overkill that causes longtime listeners to look elsewhere.

2) Announce every song: Back in the day, disc jockeys would announce the name, artist, album, and sometimes additional interesting information about every song they played. This enabled new listeners to build up a base of knowledge about the songs and artists in a particular format, while older listeners could learn new tidbits about their favorite songs.

Sadly, this practice is no longer the norm. DJs will now announce the first song when starting a cluster of several and then announce the last one when they return, not mentioning the middle songs. This practice, I believe, grew out of the consolidation in station ownership following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated radio broadcasting. Conglomerates — most notably Clear Channel — purchased thousands of radio stations and merged their operations, with a single DJ operating stations in multiple cities at once. Technologies such as prerecorded song announcements enabled this, but overburdened DJs were left with less time to discuss their music than before.

By restoring comprehensive song announcements, DJs can provide value to listeners beyond that of hostless Internet radio and MP3 playlists. They can also cultivate a personal relationship that causes an audience to return day after day.

3) Focus on the music: Perhaps this is my personal peeve, but I generally tune into commercial radio to listen to and learn about music, and I want hosts to act accordingly. I’m probably not interested in inane banter about what the DJ did last weekend or the latest wacky celebrity news story (for that we have the Internet). I’d like to focus on the music without extraneous chatter, just as I would with Internet radio or MP3s, and I’d think others feel the same way.

4) Mandate HD Radio: This may be the most crucial item for the future of terrestrial radio. Though many are unaware, 2,100 stations are already broadcasting in the digital HD Radio format. HD Radio is akin to digital television broadcasting and offers similar advantages: CD-quality audio, up to two extra channels for each station, and textual program information.

HD Radio enables terrestrial broadcasters to match or exceed the sound quality of Internet and satellite radio. It’s clearly the future of commercial music radio and has already been around for ten years. So, why hasn’t HD Radio caught on?

Unfortunately, HD Radio receivers are not yet widespread. You can buy them in electronic stores and they’re standard in some premium cars, but most radio purchases are still analog. Broadcasters have jumped on the bandwagon, but the free market isn’t working on the consumer end.

This problem was avoided with digital TV because the federal government mandated an analog-to-digital switchover in 2009. I propose the same with radio. Commercial broadcasters could be prohibited from analog broadcasts after a certain date, and the government could distribute vouchers for new HD radios. The proposal may not be politically feasible or even legal — HD Radio is one company’s product, not a universal format, and the digital TV switch involved reselling frequency rights — but if it could be accomplished listeners would benefit immensely. At the very least, radio and car manufacturers should make HD receivers standard, affordable equipment, not an expensive, optional luxury.

5) Standardize the Radio Data System: Even without digital broadcasting, a technology exists to include textual program information in analog radio signals. The Radio Data System transmits a station’s name, the program, and the song title/artist so they can be displayed on a radio’s screen. Like HD Radio, this technology is available in premium sound systems and upgraded car radios, but I can’t understand why it never caught on on a mass scale. RDS enables conventional stations to match their Internet competition by providing song information, and it should be made widely available today.

6) Add radios to TV sets: This proposal may be the most far-fetched on this list, but there’s no practical reason not to do it. It would be simple and inexpensive to add HD Radio tuning capability to new digital TVs. This would provide another easy way to listen to radio. Song information and even trippy visualizations could be displayed on the screen. TV manufacturers and broadcasters would likely rail against this proposal to avoid helping a competing medium, but if accomplished it too would benefit consumers.

If you can think of other ideas, feel free to add them in the comments.

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