A new study from two very credible radio organizations – Edison Research and NPR – ought to heat up a few strategic discussions in industry boardrooms this quarter. As CEOs and CFOs wrap up the often painful budgeting process for 2024, they might ask themselves why the industry continues to be fixated on the same finite radio formats.
When was the last time a truly new format debuted in radio? Jack-FM – or Variety Hits – and versions of classic Hip-Hop and Alternative come to mind. But most of these essentially reshuffle the musical deck and are devoid of new music.
I recently read a study that most people are “new averse” – that is, they shy away from new things: restaurants, routes to work, or even listening to music. It's a OnePoll research effort on behalf of Funjet Vacations that appeared in a recent Study Finds article. (Wouldn't you know it – respondents are more likely to discover new things while on vacation.)
Overall, a majority of respondents (55%) define themselves as “creatures of habit,” indicating that “they like what they like.” If you think about what's available on the AM and FM bands in even the biggest markets, the radio industry appears to be programming to the “usual suspects.”
I would be remiss if I didn't mention two notable exceptions. iHeart's Black Information Network (BIN) is now on the air in more than 30 markets. And Hubbard's Federal News Radio is a shining example of catering to a unique population – in this case, government workers in the nation's capitol.
I have long wondered why an automotive themed station couldn't work in Detroit, or one focused on the entertainment industry wouldn't thrive on the L.A. radio airwaves.
To that end, this Edison/NPR study – covered in yesterday's Inside Radio – reveals radio broadcasters may be leaving audience – and advertising revenue – on the table.
Most of the talk stations gracing the American radio airwaves are basic variations on the formats pictured at the top of this post. You may nitpick me that the All-News commercial radio format is not listed as one of the options. And my response is that it's truly available in only the biggest markets in the States. Most other talk stations fall conveniently into these four buckets.
No one knows precisely why this is, but conventional wisdom in radio is that these four spoken word formats are the only ones that “work” – that is, get ratings. Take what is often called “Liberal Talk,” the variant Air America launched in 2004 and shut down a mere six-years later.
Despite featuring Rachel Maddow and Al Franken (pre-Senator) in their lineup, Air America didn't make it. Based on that attempt, conventional wisdom in radio is that “liberal talk” is a non-starter. (This, in spite of its success on MSNBC.)
At Talk Show Boot Camp in 2019, Randy Michaels was asked about this and said what is labeled as “talk radio” on commercial radio is all very red.
Michaels is credited with the creation of the right wing version of the format launched in Cincinnati on WLW. At the conference, he quipped that the reason why he went in the conservative direction was because he believed it was the best format option for the market and the times.
He went on to express his surprise over how many stations followed WLW's lead, rarely if ever considering a different path. And Randy suggested in the right market, a blue variation would likely find an audience.
But that option of spoken word is never on the table. Nor are other possible configurations of talk, despite having advantages over music stations. Yes, the format is personality intensive, but most talk stations carry more commercials while not being burdened by onerous music royalties.
Podcast Radio, the format launched in the UK by Gerry Edwards has now made its way across the pond, thanks to Beasley Media Group.
“Podjocks” include the irrepressible Gene “Bean” Baxter, ex-host of the Kevin & Bean Show at KROQ. The format is comprised of segments of podcasts scheduled throughout the day, like music.
Beasley brands it as Podcast Radio US, now carried on translators/HD2s in Detroit, Tampa, the Carolinas, and in the southwest Florida region. Kudos to them for taking a shot at “something a little different” for American ears.
But what about other versions of talk that simply aren't being tried, much less researched. Radio broadcasters have enjoyed success in spoken word going all the way back to “Tradio,” a format often in smaller markets where listeners could buy and sell things, much like classified ads in newspapers.
Others have had success with shows about restaurants, home repairs and remodeling, car repairs (remember Car Talk?), and even game and quiz shows. Given a recognition that “live & local” can be the foundation of a format, why wouldn't we see stations popping up in cities and metros across the U.S., focused on cities and regions?
But there was another line in Inside Radio's story about the Edison/NPR collab from their recently released “Spoken Word Audio Report.” In the last decade, their research shows a whopping 55% increase in listening to spoken word audio here in America by the 13+ audience.
Impressive, right? But then look at the youngest 13-34 year-old demographic, highlighted in orange. It reveals an eye-popping 150% increase in spoken word consumption over the past decade.
Now, I know what some of you naysayers are sayin':
“Fred, those young people you're talking about in the study are all listening to podcasts – not radio.”
And to that I say,
“You're right. Maybe that's because radio gives them very little spoken word content to listen to.”
Radio used to know how to do this. Back in the 1980s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer captivated America on Sexually Speaking. And in the same decade, Loveline got going on KROQ in Los Angeles, speaking to a young generation about issues and obstacles they cared about.
Think of the possibilities for spoken word radio now. Larry Rosin is quoted that 135 million Americans 13+ now listen to spoken word content every day.
But here's the line in the Inside Radio article that stopped me in my tracks: speaking of those 13-34s, the story refers to them as a demographic “still treasured by many advertisers.”
In what world does that refer to? Certainly not broadcast radio in the U.S. where much of that demographic doesn't merit consideration – or even measurement.
If there was a memo about the increased value of young demographics to American radio, I wasn't cc'd.
That's because no one in U.S. radio cares about those under the age of 25. And we'll wear those blinders until every last piece of furniture is burned. And of course by then, it'll be too late.
Throughout just about every other advertising and marketing channel, from television to social media to podcasts, younger demographics matter. They represent incredible amounts of revenue, an inside track to brand loyalty, and most importantly, new generations of media consumers. For most platforms, they are the future.
Except in radio.
So back to the lyrics of that remarkable old Harry Nilsson song:
“Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying.”
Welcome to 2024 American Radio.
- In Radio, Whatever Happened To “4 And Out The Door?” - December 7, 2023
- An Open (News)Letter To Radio - December 6, 2023
- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023