By Don Keith
Regular readers of this blog know that I often castigate broadcast radio and the gutless corporations that now hold the keys to those tower-on-a-hill facilities. At a time when rapid technological change and the way consumers expect to access media offers traditional broadcasting so many possibilities for creativity and momentum, those dunderheads are stuck in low gear. As a successful former broadcaster for 22 years, and a guy who either marketed to radio owners or bought advertising from them for the next 22, I continue to be amazed at how these guys remain stuck in 1998. When they most need to do bold things, they stick to the tried-and-failed.
Here is what inspired this latest fit of pique. Cumulus Broadcasting, the second-largest group operator by number of stations owned (behind behemoth Clear Channel) purchased an FM signal in New York City. Over the last few days, they employed the oldest trick in the book to try to create attention: the "Wheel of Formats." Back in the day, we called that old saw "stunting," trying to drum up excitement as people heard all different kinds of music and talk programming presented on the station's air. Listeners were supposed to work themselves into a frenzy trying to guess what the station's new "format" would be.
Here is what it sounded like.
Of course, most radio listeners don't have a clue what a "format" is. Nor do they really give a damn. Only radio geeks pay any attention to things like this. It is so inside-radio. People like what they like and have no trouble finding it--be it music or talk--in an unprecedented variety of places. Places that don't live and die by Arbitron ratings. That includes the FM radio band (AM radio is dead and rigor mortis has long since set in, all because of the same thick-headedness that is now destroying the FM band). But oh, are there so many more choices now than there were back in 1974 when this sort of junk actually worked!
That includes the Internet (Pandora, iTunes), iPods, tablets, XM/Sirius, computers, smart phones. In some of those places, users can even pick and choose which songs they want to hear, and the source will learn their tastes and add in other songs the computers think the listener will like. Radio stations will never be able to do that! So what do they do? They play the same 400 songs that "fit the format" over and over until what listeners that remain vomit and give up.
People can hear any kind of music they want to hear free, usually without commercials, screaming promotional announcements about how cool the radio station is and how many songs they play between those dreaded commercials, blathering disk jockeys who read the same insipid slogans over and over, try to be funny when they are not, and insist on telling you that was Kansas singing "Carry On My Wayward Son" for the umpteenth time--all the junk that makes broadcast radio almost unlistenable.
This was a chance to some things right in the nation's most major market.
For a day and a half, though, the new NYC country station's Internet-stream web page did not even list the names of the artists and song titles. A city without country music radio for so long may not know who Little Big Town or Billy Cunningham are, or why they should care that a spot on the FM dial was now playing a kind of music that was previously available to them on over-the-air radio. Same thing, though, on the air. See, there is still no human being conversing with all those potential new listeners between the songs. Instead they have those irritating produced promotional things that they are jammed in between each song played.
No warm, welcoming voice, telling Staten Island or the Bronx who these singers, musicians, and songwriters are or why New Yawkuhs should care that Nash 94.7 is on the air.
I doubt the music mix is customized for New Yawk, let alone individual New Yawkuhs. No, if they are sticking to form, Cumulus is playing the country songs that are getting the most "spins" on all the other country radio stations around the USA. That is the ultimate tail-wagging-the-dog. And probably the top 200 oldies that people most want to hear according to tests that are done in hotel ballrooms around America. Tests in which a hundred folks are recruited, paid $20, and sit for an hour or two, listening to 10-second bits from mostly the same 400 songs each time and asked to rate them.
Look, it has been a long, long time since I programmed a radio station and plenty has changed since then. But I maintain that the medium is about to become an afterthought. Mark my words: FM will follow AM to total darkness.
That is simply because radio insists on taking what they deem to be the safe path. Put on some tested-to-death tunes, eliminate everything that has ever been considered an irritating tune-out, do only what has researched well in the past, remove any risk, use a pat and constantly-repeated slogan, play one song after the other, and tell listeners over and over--beneath a wooshing cacophony of electronic sounds and using an emotionless but deep-voiced announcer--just how great and wonderful Nash 94.7 is. Not what makes it different. Not what makes it worth their attention and time. Not what makes the station any better than all the other places they can find the exact same music on a multitude of listening devices. Not what should make them run, not walk, to Facebook and Twitter to tell friends about the new station and how great it is.
They play songs sung by Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood? So?