Despite the fact cable TV was introduced nearly 30 years ago and despite the fact television viewers can often have 100+ channels at their disposal, most people still watch networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. Likewise, even in the face of growing competition from music services like Pandora, iHeartRadio, Spotify, GoogleMusic, podcoasts, Facebook’s music app, and dozens of other options, most people still get their music and talk via good old fashioned FM and AM radio. Recent research by Arbitron found, in fact, FM and AM radio reach 95% of Persons 12+ every week, an increase from 91% in the 1970s when there were far less choices.
This is not to say that number won’t decline in the coming years, but it does suggest broadcast radio isn’t facing a death sentence. Yet it seems broadcast radio is always defending itself when, in fact, it should be proud of what it does well, and should be working to keep doing it well and figure out ways to do it even better.
Chances are you have a friend with a 64 GB iPod full of music and podcasts, but what’s on their iPod at any given moment is but a fraction of all the music stored on their 1 TB external hard drive. Oh, and guess what …your friend has an iPad and a half dozen thumb drives full of music, and sometimes they burn MP3s onto a disc. Your friend also has an iPod Nano (for wearing during workouts). Further, he probably has satellite or cable TV and those services typically provide 40+ music stations to enjoy at home, and there’s a good chance he has and subscribes to satellite radio in his car. Oh, but he’s not done there. Lately, your friend probably has been raving about iHeartRadio and Pandora, and he uses them on his iPhone, his PC, his iPad, and anywhere else he can install the apps. But just wait until he discovers Spotify. And lastly, don’t forget the music he stores on his iCloud and two other cloud services. He has no shortage of ways to find and listen to music, and at cocktail parties he probably will tell everyone in the room he thinks broadcast radio is dying and he never listens to it …well, except for NPR every now and then.
But guess what? Though it seems like the person described above is everyone, he’s actually less than 5% of people. Most people don’t want to work that hard to avoid Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift. In fact, most people want to hear Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift and they want to know when the next Lady Gaga comes along, and they get the music they want on FM radio.
Pandora was first and gets the most attention, and rightly so. It’s creative, fun, and commercial free. It certainly has its appeal. Pandora (and now iHeartRadio) create custom stations based on an artist or genre of music, and each plays random songs that “sound similar” or are “liked by other listeners” who also like the artist or genre you like. So if you start a station on Pandora or iHeart based on Led Zepplin because you want more 70s-sounding rock with driving guitar riffs, a high-pitched front-man, and mythic themed lyrics, Pandora and iheart are going to start throwing bands into your playlist like Yes and Rush, and then they’ll try and find similar artists. Some people enjoy telling Pandora and iHeart ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on the music and creating a perfect station that sounds like Led Zepplin. Pandora was built around a complex computer program that can detect certain music algorithms and themes, pace, and style and then create a perfect blend of music for your station – you create your own station.
Pandora appeals to music snobs who thumb their nose at formulaic pop-music or an endless supply of classic rock that can be found on broadcast radio. It appeals to the crowd who can’t understand how anyone can listen to Christmas music beginning in mid-November and seemingly never tire of hearing Burl Ives’s “Holly Jolly Christmas” (Christmas stations typically double or triple their listenership when they flip to 24/7 Christmas music).
Broadcast radio should, and is, paying attention to new and creative music services, but it should not lose sight of what it does best.
If you were given an FM tower, what would you do with it? Some people would tell you they’d do something decidedly different than what current FM radio does. They insist they’d play cool acoustic music and deep tracks off old 70s and 80s albums that never get the light of day, and they would introduce and play a great deal of underexposed modern music like Wilco and The Decemberists. Now, suppose those same people wanted to actually attract listeners? And suppose they also wanted to make a few bucks and earn a living? If that was their goal, you can bet their FM station would suddenly get a healthy dose of Lady Gaga.
Truth be told, despite the fact Pandora boasts 2.1-billion hours worth of music, some people – no, most people – don’t want or need that much music.
Broadcast radio is still in the drivers seat. It’s only major liability might be its a lack of locality and increasing lack of creativity, but it can fix that quickly. Over the past 5 years, broadcast radio has gotten away from what truly makes it great and unique – it is local and part of the community. But even as large corporate owners try and control it from on-high, it still must be doing something right because most people are still listening – and younger listeners (Teens, Adults 18-24) are listening at their highest levels in history. Plus, broadcast radio hasn’t even figured out a way to tap into it’s full bag of tricks, namely HD Radio, which makes your FM signal digital and delivers an amazing audio experience. What’s more, with HD Radio, there can be 3 or 4 stations on any given dial position, called side channels. If you have an HD Radio and you live in a city where programmers have control over these side-channels, you already have an amazing world of alternate music and talk programming just waiting for you to find it.
Broadcast radio has programmers, promotions, and personality. To survive and thrive, it should depend upon these people more than ever. Perhaps the non-FM listener shuns broadcast radio because it lacks the creativity, diversity, and discovery it once seemed synonymous with, but radio can fix that and get back to its roots while still maintaining mass appeal.