Real estate is a funny thing. Even though there are agreed-upon values depending on location and size, value is very much in the eye – and the mind – of the beholder.
That's especially true with vacant lots. Less imaginative people see eyesores or wasted space. But creative, opportunistic types are able to perceive genuine value – even though it may take a lot of time and money to maximize a plan.
Clever builders and crafty developers might conceptualize a vacation property, a shopping center, or a park. Again, it's all a matter of what you envision, and what the market will allow. The truly bright planners and schemers do their homework – their research – before breaking ground.
Most radio companies haven't exactly thought about the “big picture” in the planning of their acquisitions and their sales over the last 25 years. Like smart stewards of their corporations who must answer to their investors, they have all made moves designed to best help and position their companies. There's nothing wrong with that.
But many have followed a very similar playbook, bulking up in key markets, while liquidating in others where they'd rather not compete. Cluster strategies in any given market are focused on that specific territory – not on its potential impact to the radio broadcasting industry as a whole.
Thus, nearly all are focused on vanquishing their in-market radio competition – in ratings, sales, and securing the best employees. In the meantime, digital competitors from Facebook to Spotify to Google to SiriusXM have swooped in to take much of what was once considered primary real estate – not to mention local ad dollars.
In order to win the radio wars, ownership has relinquished turf it once owned outright. Talk about “cancel culture.” In the format battles, the industry has totally “cancelled” Soft AC, Jazz, Classical, and Oldies – abandoning radio genres that once gave the medium diversity and variety, all because none can effectively compete for a respectable share of 25-54 year-old adults.
And you know where those formats and genres went? To Spotify, Pandora, and SiriusXM – platforms glad to have the revenue they generate because of the subscribers willing to pay for this music. Public radio also continues to support both Jazz and Classical, formats it has traditionally embraced.
On the chopping block in the next 3-5 years is Classic Rock and Alternative, two very different formats facing oblivion for very different reasons. For the former, it's the much-discussed “demographic cliff.” Classic Rock has actually demonstrated amazing appeal under 50, but still, the format will continue to skew older, well beyond the “55 Year-Old Line of Radio Death.”
For Alternative, the death spiral looks a little different. (Same with CHR, by the way.) The easy excuse for the format's ultimate demise is that there's not enough good new music to play. The fact is, there IS quality new music across all formats. Embracing and showcasing it with the same force, support, and emphasis in which radio supported new music and emerging bands in older decades, however, would result in strong appeal from younger listeners, with resultant decreases among those over the age of 25. For most radio owners, that's not an acceptable risk : reward relationship.
Alternative isn't a victim of a dearth of new music to expose. Instead, by doing so, Alternative will not be able to compete in the coveted 25-54 arena. Game, set, match.
The wheels are in motion. Some of radio's biggest companies have tacitly turned their backs on Alternative, hubbing-and-spoking a format that instead thrives on cultivating local roots, not by listening to personalities that don't matter to people where they live, work, and hang out.
When you ask radio's leadership about what it might mean to lose another format, or worse – “the new music hill” – you're likely to get a lot of shrugs. “It was inevitable,” is the off the record response. “After all, young people have been gravitating away from radio for some time now, opting instead for digital streaming platforms.” They might add, “My kids don't even know what a radio is” to strengthen the argument that investing in new music “real estate” is a fool's errand.
But is it?
As we know only too well from our own personal real estate dealings, one's woman's trash is another's treasure. Isn't that what antique collecting is all about? There's a saying that I just love:
“Nothing haunts us like the antique we didn't buy.”
And as most antique collectors agree, “You just never know” what could end up being valuable.
The sad part is that “new music” is a treasure that broadcast radio owned – for decades and decades. But these days, it's been cast off to a garage sale with other formats no longer desirable.
In our conversation about radio, and the broader discussion about the changing world of digital media, we're seeing big brands from all corners coalescing around similar portfolios. Whether you're The New York Times, NPR, Spotify, SirisuXM, iHeartMedia, Amazon or WTOP, you're working hard toward building multi-media holdings that encompass broad arrays of content: Streaming, news and information, podcasts, diverse music formats (curated and playlists), video, newsletters, etc.
They all may have been very different brands a mere five years ago, but their efforts are converging in these areas. And they're making substantial investments in research, people, infrastructure, and marketing to achieve their goal of being true multimedia one-stop shops that offer a wide array of marketing tools.
But what about local news, a topic I blogged about last month? As mentioned in that post, brands like Axios now have their designs on disrupting the long-time hometown holdings of newspapers, TV stations, news/talk radio, and NPR. Because of neglect and/or disinterest on the part of legacy media players, the Axios brain trust thinks they can take this local news turf.
And that's why the new music question isn't a moot one.
Ask most radio operators, and they'll tell you they don't think losing the “new music hill” is much of an issue. But a look across the way to other media regions reveals there's more than idle interest in first stealing, and then cultivating new music's valuable real estate. Alex Tear is a very able, clever, and strategic former broadcast radio programmer whose intellect and energy now belongs to SiriusXM and Pandora. Last week, he posted this on his Twitter account, heralding the “Future 5,” a new SiriusXM feature:
I'm thinking that if you buy this space on Times Square, you want the whole world to know about your commitment to new music discovery. They also put out a press release to be sure the music community, the media, and their shareholders know the company is making a serious investment in new music. By investing in music's future – and not its past – SiriusXM (and Pandora) are also reaching out to younger generations of listeners.
Not to be outdone, The New York Times stepped up as well. You know, “The Old Gray Lady,” where it's about “All the news that's fit to print.” The ultra-traditional Times has made the transition to digital, and is now busting moves in the new music arena. Last summer, music critic Jon Pareles got the green light to start a new feature called “5 Songs to Listen to Right Now.” Here's one of the new entries posted a few days ago:
Interesting that both of these radio competitors chose the quantity of 5 – for songs and artists – for these features.
The Times also supports the feature on its website, archiving the songs it showcases on “5STLTN.” Interestingly, it could even be better. Missing are artist bios and discographies – simple features to make it easy for users to learn more about these artists. Instead, I had to leave their site and navigate to Google to learn more about Raveena and the other artists featured in “5 Songs.”
So, is owning new music and new artist discovery “real estate” trash or a treasure that will pay off in the future? Is it something valuable broadcast radio operators are ceding to digital competitors or is it something they'd just as soon give up?
Every year in Techsurvey, we ask our mostly core radio listeners to tell us the main reasons they're still listening. With each passing year, new music discovery is less and less of a radio driver. I snuck a peak at the 2022 survey over the weekend, and I can tell you this trend continues to head down.
By doing very little to claim this turf, broadcast radio is losing it to its competition who apparently want it more.
The hills are indeed alive with the sound of new music.
But on the radio, not so much.
- What Today's Radio Personalities Can Learn From Wolfman Jack - June 2, 2023
- Why The Edge Was Our Biggest Failure (And One Of Our Biggest Successes) - June 1, 2023
- Is There “Bedrock” Down There? - May 31, 2023
dave in the cave says
I do shows on Funtowerradio.com and, living in Austin, new artists are a veritable well spring around here, and it is my great pleasure to feature them. And when I do, I try to make it a big deal. We play a Klaxxon alarm, and have the characters on the shows incorporate the artist and title into their silly fun intros. It is my opinion that if you play a new artist, you have to make a big ta doo about it. You gotta set properly the bait if you want the fish.
Fred Jacobs says
I think you’re right. What’s the difference between when Spotify presents something new and radio does? The fact you’re curated and selected the song/artist needs to stand out, along with why this is worth a listener’s time and attention. Thanks for the cocmment.
Bryan Dean says
It’s the unfortunate result of the corporate takeovers. When it was mostly private ownership, even corporate had to take a chance to win the ears of the community by making the music landscape fresh everyday. Now, it’s all bottomline, carefully controlled with a curated and concise format the tests well, no matter where it goes, and doesn’t offend mom, dad, and the under 9 kiddos. And the sad story we see playing out is the result. Bland, lifeless choices in new music on air, but more exciting on satellite and online – because their business model is more fluid by nature. It would be great if corporate boards would realize their error in assuming control of music and entertainment can be quantified the same as marketing and selling widgets, just because it’s worked “so far”. They are coming ever closer to the end of their journey, before they go “too far”, or fail completely because they’re not willing to go “far enough”.
John Covell says
The corporate world even has a word for what you’re describing, Bryan: looting.
Picture a storefront with a broken window and debris scattered around the sidewalk. That’s what too many radio stations are today.
Fred Jacobs says
John, that analogy makes my “vacant lot” look almost attractive.
Fred Jacobs says
In some ways, Bryan, it was too easy. When you’re looking at 40%-50% margins, the case in the 80’s and into the 90’s, the goals keep getting ratcheted up higher by Wall Street and investors who can’t get enough. And when you’re in a competitive vacuum as radio was all those years, you can understand how these things happen. In retrospect, some amazing brands were sullied and abused. Some went completely away. And now we’re left in a tough dilemma to compete head-to-head with companies bigger, richer, and smarter.
Carter Burger says
I’ve said for the last 20 years that radio can’t AFFORD to be different anymore. They have so much money in all these aquisitions, they now have to have a very fast turn around on their investments to pay off the debt.
The way they do that is race to the bottom in giving the listeners what they want. The attention span of milennials rivals that of a gnat. They hear something they don’t like and it’s off to the next source.
So everything is bland to keep from running people off.
And it sucks.
Paul Montoya says
“Wyoming Sounds” has been hosting a 50/50 mix of new music and older music but deeper cuts, for the last 5 years with great success. This is a AAA format with a 14,000 song library. Being in Wyoming we add a little more Americana to the mix. The idea that there is not enough “new music” out there is a myth. We typically add about 20 new songs each week. The lack of new music stations is only because of laziness and lack of real radio experience within larger broadcast companies. There is definitely a market for new music.
Fred Jacobs says
Good for you and your team, Paul. It reinforces that it can bee done. The “degree of difficulty” is no doubt higher than playing that 250 song safe list into the ground. Now, I wish there were more commercial stations commenting about their new music initiatives. Yes, it’s happening here and there, but not with enough “scale” (to use a common CEO term) to move the record labels or the audience. Thanks for chiming in.
Paul Montoya says
Lightning 100 in Nashville is a good example of a commercial station that is doing well with new music. AAA of course. But I really think AAA is the new CHR… I remember in a past blog you talking about radio not playing then new artist Billie Eilish. AAA radio was the only ones playing Billie Eilish (and Courtney Barnett and LP). Typically these artists may have not found a voice on AAA but I really think the format has opened up over the years. Doesn’t typically go as hard toward the Alternative side and not as left as Hip-hop but really solid in the middle (like CHR used to be).
Fred Jacobs says
I’ve always admired AAA, and have never had any designs on consulting there because I believe the degree of difficulty is so high. And that these stations should sound (very) different, market to market. Thanks for the note on Lightning 100.
Bob Bellin says
I disagree with the premise that Radio’s head honchos have been smart stewards who have made moves to best help and position their companies – quite the opposite. Look at the strategies that virtually all of their digital competitors have applied – starting with investing today for a return tomorrow…then examine the growth trends of each and decide who has best positioned their companies?
New music used to be a real money maker for radio. Sure, a lot of it was an investment that didn’t bring a return for several years and most in radio are more focused on making the next quarter. The question is why? They’re not saddled with the kind of debt they were 10 years ago and the cost of whatever debt they carry is way less than it was back then. It’s not as if the strategy the radio industry is using has worked for ANYONE facing increased competition in the digital arena. I wonder why there hasn’t been a shareholder revolt.
Young people haven’t been “gravitating” away from radio, they’ve been made to feel unwelcome and have been all but asked to leave. When a restaurant takes someone’s favorite dishes off their menu, they tend to go to other restaurants. And its not as if radio doesn’t have a cheap and easy tool for testing new formats, music and ideas. There’s a pretty deep well of translators in most markets where things could be tried out with little risk. Needing that .6 as the third or fourth entry into an existing format to bonus and bring buys in is a really sad excuse for not experimenting with frequencies most bought for $50-100K.
I’ve mentioned this before – there’s an old expression, “had the horse down to one grain of oats a day and the darned thing died”. The list of abandoned hills grows: Local personalities, local programming, many formats and new music – what’s left? Is automated/syndicated/tracked Country, CHR, Urban and AC radio’s near-term future? Is that smart stewardship? Spotify, Apple, Facebook, Sirius/Pandora and Google have employed a very different strategy.
Whose stock has performed better?
Fred Jacobs says
You’re going to like tomorrow’s post, Bob. I really like the restaurant analogy. Let’s “catch up” tomorrow.
Sean O'Mealy says
This is a sobering reality check for radio owners and programmers. It’s easy to say “my kids, 13 and 16, have no idea what radio is”, I say it all the time. Radio will never be part of their lives. Radio’s inability to evolve in how we connect and deliver content to those under 25 is at the heart of this problem. When you look at the success of non comm stations like KMCP and KEXP, both stations have several things in common: they’ve invested in their brands and they intimately understand who their listeners are and how to reach them. Nothing new here. We just don’t do it anymore.
Fred Jacobs says
Sean, thanks for weighing in on a theme that continues in today’s post. If the way radio has ignored the “teen problem” reminds you of the way the world has responded to the climate change crisis sounds familiar, it reaffirms we have a life-changing problem on our hands. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
Carter Burger says
The last time my daughter who’s now 23 listened to radio was when Radio Disney had an affiliate here.
Me working in the industry will never be “cool” to her.
Fred Jacobs says
Thanks for engaging on this one, Carter.