As we go to work this morning to start the stretch run of 2017, there are many questions revolving around the radio industry. But the one that continued to resonate last week involved the slew of Alternative stations that debuted in the last month.
It started in Madison of all places when Midwest Family launched The Resistance. Then Entercom closed its deal with CBS Radio, and in rapid fire action, launched Alt stations in New York City and Dallas. And just days later, iHeart flipped its Detroit Variety Hits stations to Alternative as well.
Four new Alternative stations in just a few weeks. That hasn’t happened since Grunge exploded on the scene in the early ’90s, igniting a run of format flips – many of which are still on the air today.
And coincidentally last week, I ran across a throwback story on Twitter from Radio & Records, dredged up by an industrious radio scavenger known as @RadioRewinder. It was written by “New Rock” editor, Shawn Alexander (now with AllAccess). And while we both had more and darker hair, the inset story talks about how Paul and I worked on both the programming and sales sides of the format to turn those newfound ratings into revenue. In many ways, things have changed – and yet, not so much.
The feature story catalogued the meteoric rise of one of our early Edge® stations dating back 25 years ago this week. KEDG signed on in Las Vegas way back in 1992, and had a great run in Sin City. Back then, the format was very much struggling for respectability.
Turning the clocks forward to this month, and Alternative is experiencing an exciting – and perhaps unexpected – run. And yet, the ratings haven’t been spectacularly great this year, causing many in radio to ask:
Why Alternative? And why now?
To address those nagging questions, we went to some major voices in the Alt space – programmers, managers, pundits, DJs, label execs, and even a guru or two – to get the inside scoop on whether we can expect even more Alternative startups before Santa starts delivering all those Echo’s and Dot’s next month. So what are the “Alternative Facts?”
Leslie Scott – PD, KNDD/Seattle
Millennials constantly seek out new music discovery from various platforms. It only makes sense that radio be there to support this largest generation in America, since radio has done new music discovery so well and for so long.
Gary Gorman – Senior VP Alternative Promotion, Capitol Records
Certainly, the sudden resurgence of major market Alternative stations is nothing new. This format ebbs and flows through cycles & has been doing this for years! I think what we are seeing now is a combination of several key elements including an enduring lifestyle, a researching brand, and songs that are becoming bigger than just the Alternative radio space.
To that end, we just saw two alternative bands topping the pop chart in back to back weeks. All signs pointing to a robust year for ALT in 2018.
Dave Farra – Mornings, KXTE/Las Vegas
Alternative music has gone through some nice healthy growth cycles these past few years with chart toppers like Imagine Dragons, The Killers, and Bastille crossing over and showing that they have real staying power not just in pop, but also on alternative radio.
The format also dates back to 1991, and is now over 25 years old. Many of the listeners that we encounter are loyal fans of the format and station and aren’t kids anymore. Most have disposable income, and families of their own, making them an attractive demographic for station owners and advertisers alike.
Dave Beasing – (Most recently) PD, KSWD/Los Angeles
I consulted Alternative Rock stations for Jacobs Media during the Limp Bizkit years, so I know what a music drought feels like, and I remember the first feelings of excitement when it ended. Is Alternative music on another upswing? As in all investments, those who jump in near the bottom of the cycle stand to gain the most.
With Hip Hop becoming formulaic, today’s musical “R&D” is elsewhere. Give a listen to Entercom’s very successful (and inexpensively operated) KKDO/Sacramento, and you’ll realize this is not your older brother’s Alternative. Their playlist utilizes as many keyboards as guitars. New artists like A.J.R. and Sofitukker are fresh and different, “alternative” in the truest sense.
The biggest reason for Alternative flips in markets like New York, Dallas and Detroit? Simple. That’s where the format holes are – and the revenue. Even if the ratings don’t improve a lot, not all 3-shares are created equal. Better to be #1 in a format than #2 or #3.
Rob Goldklang – SVP Alternative Promotion/Warner Bros.
Honestly, I wouldn’t call it a resurgence.
I always feel there’s been an interest in the format and the music.
I do feel awareness and passion is at a high. Between the culture of the festivals, the amount of records we have crossed to other formats, the amount of massive hits produce this year, and the core artist That continue to deliver strong music we are just getting started!
Mark Hamilton – PD, KNRK/Portland
I don’t think Alternative has any noticeable momentum all of a sudden, I think it’s more of a case of smart people realizing ‘there isn’t (enough) an Italian restaurant(s) in this town and our research shows people are craving Italian food here. So guess what, we’ll open an Italian restaurant !!!
Richard Sands – Editor/Publisher, The Sands Report
Not to be Negative Nellie, and regardless of however wonderful it is as a boon for me and The Sands Report, I think at this point it’s possibly all “inside baseball” stuff, and not necessarily indicative of anything deeper.
David Field sees the value of having a full complement of Alt stations to round out Entercom’s already super impressive group with the addition of New York and Dallas. Further, David is a fan. iHeart going into Detroit might be a blocking maneuver. Other individual stations have their own strategic reasons for adopting this format.
Interesting theory posited by some (and not necessarily mine): capital types personally like the Alt format, making it a smart pick for the Wall Street gang since they now have a New York station of “their own” to listen to.
All that said, it is great news for Alternative as a whole, and a happy trend.
Now if we could only see more stations slashing their spot load, following The End’s “2 Minute Promise.”
Garrett Capone – VP/Promotion & Head of Rock Formats/Crush Music
Frankly, “Alternative” music/lifestyle has always had a tremendous amount of audience clamoring to consume it. Looks like radio execs have discovered new confidence they can effectively reach that audience, then leverage the reach/relationship with advertisers.
Let’s keep this arms race going!
Trip Reeb – VP/Market Manager, Hubbard Radio/Phoenix
First and foremost, the format did not exist in any of the markets where a change has occurred. You would think a college town like Madison would be receptive to an Alternative station. Detroit may be a case of just trying to find something that didn’t exist for a frequency that has struggled since its significant country years. Additionally, iHeart has just bolstered its Alternative brain trust with the very talented and connected Lisa Worden.
Both New York and Dallas have been missing the format for a while, and Alternative is thought to be a favorite of upper management at the new consolidated company who has some successful stations in the format.
The radio landscape is crowded everywhere. A few big crossover records elevated Alternative’s reach this summer. These are as good a shot as any.
Phil Kukawinski – PD, WFUZ/Scranton-Wilkes Barre
I love seeing the explosion of Alternative stations popping up! There is a huge appeal for what the format can provide, and this really shows that the demand is there.
Alternative is still breaking new artists constantly, and I think it’s important that there are new outlets that can really connect with younger listeners who have so many ways they can discover new music. The format is growing and these new additions in New York, Dallas, Detroit, etc. prove that listeners crave Alternative music!
Robbie Lloyd – National Alternative Promotion/Interscope Geffen A&M
It seems like there has been a sudden interest in Alternative Radio, especially with new stations popping up in New York, Dallas and Detroit. That interest has been a result of an ecosystem that has been (re)building over the past 4-5 years. A lot of trees have been quietly growing in the Alternative forest.
The good-to-great radio stations have figured out how to play a lot of the right great new music, put on a lot of events with that music, localize and socialize. The good-to-great labels have figured out how to feed this beast with young, hungry bands that want to be part of and invest in this process.
Why the interest in Alternative? Because it’s working.
Todd Nuk’Em – PD, KXRK/Salt Lake City
You can’t deny that Alternative propelled a litany of superstar artists into the mainstream. Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots, Coldplay, Fall Out Boy, and others started on Alternative radio. Other artists like Blink-182, Green Day, and Muse that haven’t crossed into Top 40 are still capable of filling large venues and generating huge download and streaming numbers.
In markets without an Alternative station, it would be wise to try it—especially if programmers are wise to not jettison Alternative bands that achieve mainstream success.
Max Tolkoff – Alternative overlord (& the guy who taught me the format)
OMG, Fred! Whenever you ask me these things it’s like putting the bloody ice picks back into my eye sockets. Very painful, and you have no sympathy.
Alt is safe now. Guys in sales suits have been exposed to the format for years so it’s a known entity. It’s not the dangerous upstart that had the villagers locking their doors at night. In fact, if you tally up all the stations that Nielsen counts as “reporters” in the rock universe there is now only a tiny crack of light that separates Active/Mainstream from Alt.
So I believe that when researchers and management types sit around the conference table trying to figure out what to flip their ailing ______(fill in the blank) station in ______(fill in the blank), they look at the rock options and go , “Meh, we don’t see much difference anymore between Alt and Active/Mainstream; just pick one.”
And honestly, we’ve known this for years. Frankly, those who advocated for flipping to Alt twenty five years ago should be enshrined in the radio hall of fame as daredevil pioneers.
Every format flip is obviously a money move. Do we really think there is some visionary GM somewhere saying, “Dammit! I want to do something really different in this market; cuz I love 21 Pilots.”
So when you ask what’s up with all these flips to alt (and by “all these” we’re talking about what, four stations?) it’s not really about the format itself. It’s strictly about the numbers.
And finally, if you want to see what the alt format should be doing now to really stand out; watch 30 minutes of the Viceland channel.
So, there you have it. A myriad of opinions about whether this Alt surge revolves around the music, opportunistic broadcasters, a certain CEO known to like the format – or something entirely different. I’m expecting to hear from many of you who are in and around the Alternative space to offer your two cents as well.
From my vantage point, it may be parts of all those things. But also perhaps a growing realization that if radio is to have any relevancy among Millennials and Gen Z teens, it will need to do more than play the latest Country, CHR, or Hip Hop hits.
The true facts behind why things happen in radio are only known to those making the decisions and actually pulling the levers, whether they’re in Madison or Manhattan. But one thing’s for sure – there’s are lots of people in the industry hoping or a movement that will Make Alternative Great Again.
And that’s a fact.
Thanks to Mike Stern and Chris Firmage for their work over the holiday weekend.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.