Why Do I Hear Better Music in Supermarkets and Restaurants Than I Do on the Radio?
Somewhere on the road to the 21st century, Radio took a wrong turn.
No, it's worse than that. Radio slid completely off the road and went into a ditch. And now, Radio's wheels are spinning in a futile effort to gain some traction.
Let's look at the evidence. In virtually every market across the U.S., Radio's numbers are down. Time spent listening, persons using radio, and worst of all, revenue – all down. Listeners are voting with their fingers by switching to other sources of music entertainment.
And when you hear a better selection of music coming from a supermarket or restaurant's ceiling speakers than you do on any radio station in your market, you know Radio has a problem.
So how did such a great medium get into such a pickle? A number of factors, including consolidation and technology, have combined to lure Radio astray with the promise of easy and certain success.
As audience measurement efforts increased through the 80's and 90's, more companies turned to music research in order to eliminate songs that would drive away listeners in their target audience. Unfortunately, this tool slowly encroached on and eventually replaced the skilled program and music directors who created station playlists and formats using their instincts combined with research instead of survey numbers exclusively.
Not long after this trend started, the first wave of deregulation arrived, soon followed by a second, even bigger wave. The large number of independent stations in each market were consolidated into three or four clusters of stations controlled by large corporations. Driven by pressure from investors, these companies were reluctant to take chances with unproven formats. The loss of a share point or two meant millions in lost revenue and plunging stock prices.
Experimentation, with a few exceptions, was out. Research was in. Research the audience, research the music, and develop a safe format formula that attracts listeners and generates revenue without taking any chances. With the exception of a few morning shows, creativity was also discouraged. "Safe" music is played, titles are back-announced (or not), and an exciting format becomes –– un-exciting. On the street the word they use is: "boring".
And, it made sense to corporations to use these same carefully developed formats in other markets across the country. Why go to the expense of duplicating the research when the results are already in hand?
Trouble in Radio Paradise
Radio did not live happily ever after. After a few years, Radio stations had lost the individual "personality" that had made them unique to listeners. Research had homogenized the music and formats to the point where all Radio stations sounded alike. Given this blandness, compact discs or cassette tapes were preferable alternatives to many in the audience.
Radio has a history of re-invention. When television came on the scene in the 50's, Radio was declared dead. Radio responded with innovation and the golden 60's era of rock and roll was the result.
Radio in the 21st century is far from dead, but the need for re-invention has once again arrived. With hundreds of competing media outlets, including satellite, i-pods, and the internet, Radio unable or unwilling to respond risks becoming a dinosaur. Unfortunately, the conditions for re-invention are not good.
In the 1950's, Radio ownership was diverse and corporations were limited in the influence they could exert. Innovation came from small groups and individually-owned stations able to exercise a level of creative freedom and experimentation that is not present today. With Wall Street's demand for return on investment, few want to chance trying something different.
The British SAS commandoes have a motto: "Who Dares Wins". Great risk offers great rewards. However small the number, some stations will dare to experiment and these will be Radio's hope for the future. When Radio is pulled from the ditch where it's mired, the tow truck will be labeled: "Innovation".
Until the re-invention begins, I'll see you in the supermarket aisle.