04/09

Future of Music Radio: Today’s Hits and Less Variety

Have you noticed?

There hasn’t been a significant new music radio format introduced in a decade.

Sure, we’ve had Rhythm AC and Classic Hip Hop and perhaps other approaches that make nominal sense in a smattering of markets. But nothing big, nothing widespread, nothing popular across markets.

Not since the so-called Adult Hits format. And that, you should remember, was presented as the antidote to the narrowness of terrestrial radio formats when those were the only formats we knew. It was built for the appetite for variety, the disdain for clutter and interruptions, and – critically – the lack of alternative workarounds to create your own definition of variety absent chatty clutter – exactly the kinds of free workarounds that flourish today on everyone’s smartphone thanks to platforms like Pandora, Spotify, and others.

So how do you create a new mix of music for an audience that prefers to mix their own?

You don’t.

You retreat to the tried and true.

When everyone can create their own favorite unique music mix, the opportunity for music radio is to give most people what they want most of the time, and that’s the hits.

Today’s hits, to be exact.

We’re in the midst of a transition to current-based music across the board.

Here is the profile of the top formats in 2014, according to Nielsen.

NielsenTopFormats

Now let’s remove the spoken word formats and ask the big question: What fraction of the top music formats in 2014 are current-based, i.e, currents play an outsized role in the format?

NielsenTopFormatsMusic

The answer is 80%

Why is this happening? Why is radio going current and hit-oriented?

  1. When I can program my own variety, I don’t need you to do it for me. What I do look to you for, however, are the familiar songs I like on the easy platform I have in my car
  2. Thanks to PPM, stations which drive Cume are rewarded with higher ratings. And nothing drives Cume like today’s hit music whether we’re talking about the hits of CHR, Country, Urban, etc.
  3. As more and more choices proliferate, there’s a limit to what folks can agree on in enough numbers to gel into an audience that will reward you with their loyalty. The hits are, by definition, what everyone agrees on when they agree on nothing else.
  4. PPM is biased against morning shows and open mic’s, thus constraining the ability of on-air talent to grow and excel, and restricting management’s desire to take chances when it comes to talent. As a result, the most popular talents are generally the ones that have always been popular, and they are fewer and farther between than ever.
  5. There are still too few non-music alternatives to bake into a radio station or too little vision to do the baking

As I look ahead I see this trend gathering steam.

Oldies is no longer old, now it’s the “greatest hits.” Mainstream AC is now Hot AC and Hot AC is now Adult CHR. Mainstream Country is now New Country. Classic Rock and Classic Hits remain, but together they comprise what is likely to be a shrinking 15% slice of the 25-54 pie.

We’ll see fewer formats in the future than we saw in the past. Stations will go for Cume over “different,” and that will push more stations into fewer popular and contemporary formats, ever more competitive. The days of launching a Smooth Jazz format are long gone.

The music race will end with lots of stations in few formats that are primarily contemporary and hit-based.

Meanwhile, some broadcasters will invest in talent that can break ties and build and perpetuate iconic brands in a new era where any station can and will play the same hits.

The reason to prefer one station over the other will be the humans before, between, and instead of the songs.

The reason to prefer any station over Pandora or iTunes Radio will be those same humans.

At least for now.

Get in the human business.

Meters may care about exposure to barely audible signals and pretend to call that “listening.”

People care about humans.

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