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Where Have All the Alternative Fans Gone?

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip June 15, 2004

Years ago there was a movie called Logan’s Run. In this science fiction future, nobody is permitted to live past 30. Coincidentally, that’s the age that Alternative fans generally expire from the format and go to…where? Does an Alternative fan, especially the male variety, wake up at 30 and decide that Hot AC is a better fit? Or that Mainstream or Classic Rock is his new favorite mix? Does a guy who grew up on the cutting edge now limit his musical choices to the past with “Classic Alternative”? Does he tune in to AAA (if there’s one around), or does that format contain too much Summer-of-Love music and mean too many things (usually un-tested things) to interest him?

The Roots of Alternative and AAA

From the Talking Heads to the White Stripes, Alternative and its older cousin AAA are sounds that spring from the colleges. “Smart Rock” at its core. Sometimes this music breaks out to the mainstream as it did during the Grunge era and we launch a zillion Alternative stations. Sometimes it doesn’t and a zillion Alternative stations become “Active Rock.” Some markets have deep pockets of Alternative and AAA fans. Most don’t.

For a format to win, it doesn’t just need to be well executed, it also needs to have a pool of available fans who will love it. There needs to be a “perfect storm” of ingredients for Alternative and AAA, and those ingredients are missing in most markets. We look to stations like 91X and KFOG and imagine that if they can do it, so can we. But despite our zeal to roll out our format and marketing concepts from one market to the next, we ignore the truth: All markets are not the same. Not even close.

The Alternative/AAA “Perfect Storm”

What is this “Perfect Storm”? Well, talk to the programmers and they’ll tell you there are at least three characteristics of an Alternative/AAA fan: 1) They are more likely to have a college education (remember, this is music that was born in colleges), 2) They are attracted to markets that index high on nightlife and culture, 3) They contain an unusually high proportion of designers, artists, musicians, authors, actors, and other creative professionals. Find the areas that fit these criteria and you’ve found markets where there’s likely to be an opportunity for Alternative and some form of AAA.

Naturally, I’ve done this work for you. When I consider markets from the top 50 that rank in the top 20 on all three criteria, I come up with ones like these: Boston, San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Dallas, Chicago, San Diego, and Portland (Washington and Honolulu almost make the list, but not quite). And in what top 50 markets would I NOT have high expectations for pure Alternative (not “Active Rock”) and AAA? How about Louisville, Buffalo, Dayton, San Antonio, Birmingham, Charlotte, West Palm Beach, and Indianapolis. Everything else is somewhere in between.

What Format Can Logan Run To?

In the top 50, 26% of persons have a bachelor’s degree or higher on average. In Denver, it’s 35% (and in Boulder, 67%). In San Francisco county, it’s 45% (and in Berkely, 61%). In Chicago, it’s “only” 29%, but in DuPage county it’s 42%. Maybe you are noticing that most of the “Perfect Storm” markets I mentioned have strong Alternative stations and healthy AAA ones. Where they don’t you can consider that an opportunity worth investigating further. After all, just because conditions are right for a “Perfect Storm” doesn’t mean one already exists.

So if you’re in a market where the Alternative station has never had to skew Active Rock and remains successful anyway, ask yourself this question: What format should Logan run to?

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