11/07

Radio: There Will Be No More New Music Formats

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If you’re waiting for a new music format – a knight in shining armor – to save your flagging ratings, then you will be waiting for the rest of your professional career.

Because there never will be one ever again.

What’s the next big new format?

Radio has been asking that question forever.

Most recently, the answer was Classic Hip Hop. Is it the next big thing? Maybe not (from Radio Ink):

If you listened to Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins on his earnings call you might come to the conclusion that he believes the Classic Hip Hop format — or BOOM, as Radio One calls it — has run its course. Radio One created the Classic Hip Hop format and yesterday Liggins said, “We invented the format and we’re the first to exit the format. It is not a sustainable long-term ratings getter.”

Think back to the last successful new format that swept America and found a permanent place on many Nielsen rankers…

You have to go back to the Variety Hits format, “Jack.”

And that format is 15 years old now.

Let’s talk formats. New formats come from two places:

  1. New tastes from young consumers
  2. Unserved tastes from the audience at large

Let’s review each in turn.

New Tastes from Young Consumers

Alternative is a great example of a format rising from the new tastes of young audiences Until the birth of Alternative there was a thread of music popular among many young people that had no home on the radio. And so the format was born in 1980 or so. That’s 36 years ago!

Urban and CHR (and Rhythm CHR) and Country all target the tastes of younger audiences (and their older siblings and parents), and all of these formats are decades old.

There has been no new youth-based format blasting onto the radio dial in generations, and I submit there never will be. And not just because broadcasters are reluctant to focus their attention on under-25 consumers (although that too), but because the tastes are so fractured among millennials that there is no popular thread of music that isn’t already absorbed sufficiently well by an existing format.

Everything else is a long tail suited to the anything-anytime-anywhere on-demand platforms of YouTube or Spotify or Pandora, etc.

The music that young people can all agree on is, in other words, the music already on the radio. They no longer need to agree on everything to find the precise music that turns them on on one platform or another.

One of the consequences of infinite choice is that “hits” become more important while niches splinter into an infinite variety of tiny slivers. And the more slivers you have, the less valuable any one becomes for a potential radio format.

Radio will never see another major youth-oriented format.

Unserved tastes from the audience at large

Not every new format requires new music – it could simply rediscover music that listeners are already familiar with but most radio stations have forgotten. This is clearly what Classic Hip Hop attempts to do.

The problem with this approach is that it requires a deliberate narrowing of variety in order to deliver on the specialization that the format label promises. And in this era where I can find exactly the narrow flavor of music I want on any digital platform, radio’s competitive advantage is breadth, not scarcity. Radio’s where I go for all the stuff I like on one station, not a dozen stations each featuring only a piece of what I like.

This is why the biggest CHR stations cover “all the hits.” It’s why the “New” Country station is also generally the “Mainstream” Country station. It’s why the Adult Hits format was built on variety rather than scarcity. It’s why the “New” Rock station is now the “Everything that Rocks” station. It’s why there’s little significant distinction between “Hot” and “Mainstream” AC. It’s why many “Classic Rock” stations double as “Classic Hits” stations and sometimes triple as “Oldies” stations.

Across the dial, radio is becoming more variety-oriented and less specialty-oriented – more mass and less niche. #Radio is becoming more variety-oriented and less specialty-oriented - more mass and less niche. Click To Tweet

Listeners come to radio for mashups of the music they love, not for sonic splinters.

Winning with a mashup means you’re competing against every other station with its own mashup, each jockeying to create a meaningful difference in the minds of listeners that will justify the additional listening occasions that add up to a ratings win.

This can be done, of course (I spend my career helping stations do it), but it’s not about the next new format, is it?

So music will go in and out of style. And adventurous programmers will pluck forgotten genres from the dustbin of radio history and wrap a tagline around it. Listeners will react – for a while. Then the broader-based competitors will add in that missing element, whatever it was, to their variety-based mix, and the upstart specialist will begin to fizzle.

Every radio station is a buffet, and you need plenty of variety to keep listeners coming back for extra helpings.

The days of novel radio music formats are over.

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