Over the decades, a lot has changed in radio. The industry's technology has exploded – “software” has moved from albums to CDs to hard drives. Music is scheduled by computers, not with index cards. Air personalities routinely connect with listeners via social media sites, not just at remotes. And now, consumers can access radio stations on phones, tablets, and smart speakers. Radio time is now sold programmatically. And on-demand has become a fact of life, spurring a flurry of podcast activity.
That's a lot of change over the years, forcing radio veterans to adapt to changing technologies – new content and distribution outlets. Yet, there's one aspect of the radio broadcasting industry that hasn't changed one iota:
Radio's addiction to the 25-54 year-old demographic.
The age-old excuse – “That's what advertisers want” – has become a mantra that virtually every broadcast radio programmer faces. Bonuses are based on this target audience, research has become focused on this 30-year age span, and wins and losses are measured by where stations rank on its yardstick. For the 35 years I've been consuslting stations in the “rock family” – Classic Rock, Mainstream/Active, and Alternative – in diary and later PPM markets, the 25-54 ratings are for all intents and purposes, the only demo that matters.
That “logical leap” to 35-64 that many have theorized about over th years has never happened, despite the fact that as Baby Boomers aged, their spending on homes, cars, medical, and travel has only accelerated. And as a result, broadcast radio surrendered its Soft AC, Smooth Jazz, and Oldies stations to SiriusXM and streaming pure-plays.
Despite it all, Classic Rock and Classic Hits have had banner ratings results these past 5 years – designated as the “formats of the summer” by Nielsen – both are on the “endangered formats” list because of their organic, unstoppable appeal to those 55+, and therefore useless to radio marketers and sellers.
But enough about aging Boomers who are now card-carrying members of AARP. Let's take a look at their grandchildren. Here are Nielsen's latest population estimates, broken out generationally:
This powerful chart from radio's ratings company of record clearly shows just how powerful a force Millennials have become. In just the blink of an eye, they will outnumber Baby Boomers. And by the way, isn't it time to stop thinking about Millennials as “kids?” Defined as 22-38 years-old, they now sit at the base of radio's core 25-54 demographic. If your format doesn't have solid appeal to Millennials, your ability to hit Top 5 status in the most desirable demographic is strongly impeded. For years now, most radio companies have paid scant attention to these young consumers, as they first got iPods, then smartphones, and later Spotify and YouTube accounts to suit their music needs.
But let's look past Millennials to the truly remarkable, but inconvenient truth about this chart:
These consumers – 3-21 year-olds – are already the largest generational group of them all. At 71 million strong, they are an up and coming, formidable consumer spending force. They're a big reason why companies from many industries are already talking, planning, and brainstorming both strategies and tactics designed to win them over.
Radio for Gen Z? That oft-claimed “93% reach” number isn't even close. Many kids simply don't know what a radio is. And by the time they're old enough to drive, that SUV in the driveway will pair their phones, providing them access to media and entertainment from the Internet (or satellite) service of their choice – platforms they're comfortable with and have grown up with.
Amazon gets it. Their colorful Echo Dot for Kids product is designed to teach kids the “Alexa language.” As toddlers learn how to access content on the platform, they will become fluent in a second language – Alexa-ese making it seamless for them to make purchases and access entertainment as they grow up. It's a brilliant strategy that's future focused. Yes, Amazon is trying to make its Q4 numbers, but they're also focused on 2020, 2025, and beyond. By the way, this Amazon Echo Dot For Kids product retails for the not-so low low price of around $70- more than twice the price of the comparable Dot being marketed to the rest of us.
So what does research tell us about Gen Z and how they listen to music? To gain perspective on where music is being consumed in America, we have to go “across the pond” to check in with AudienceNet, a UK-based research company. Their new scan of media habits in the USA is a beautifully presented 35 page report containing multiple stories on every chart. They sampled 3,000 Americans with online access, ages 16+ this past July.
This chart shows how to visualize the box radio has put itself in largely because of its 25-54 myopia:
The 16-24 year-old demographic tells the story, where only 12% of music consumption is to AM/FM radio (note that brodcast radio streaming for music is in the single digits in every cell, not really making a big difference). And when you isolate 16-19 year-olds – a demographic that radio hasn't even thought about since the 70s – their use of on-demand streaming platforms for music is almost 5x over broadcast radio listening. The chart also indicates that even among that first 10-year group in the coveted “money demo” – 25-34s – music streaming services are now in the lead.
So what does all this portend for the future, especially as established broadcast radio formats like Classic Hits, Classic Rock, and even Country hit that “demographic cliff” at age 55?
It strongly suggests the hundreds of broadcasters talking about data, Alexa, dashboards, and podcasting here at the Radio Show in Orlando might want to devote some think time to this demographic perfect storm that's been brewing for years.
Maybe it's a good time to make some choices – either broadcast radio will finally have to justify and support stations that skew 35-64 to a stubborn ad community. Or the industry will finally have to start getting serious about appealing to Millennials, as well as their younger brothers and sisters. Radio has a serious Next Gens(s) problem that isn't going to magically resolve itself when today's teens become adults.
Public radio is at least cognizant of the problem – and actively trying to do something about researching and understanding young consumers. While they, too, are often judged by their 25-54 performance in diary and metered markets, many on the network and local levels are actively thinking about future generations and how to serve them. Studies like “The Millennial Research Project” we conducted in partnership with PRPD and a group of curious public radio stations are indicative of the thought process occurring inside public radio conference rooms as I write this blog post.
Erica Farber is running around the Radio Show, talking to her “community” of radio owners, managers, and sellers. This is her opportunity amidst hundreds of her members, to gain a better sense of their concerns and priorities. Maybe a few of us should pull her and the RAB team aside and have that inconvenient generational conversation.
Until the radio industry makes generational diversity a priority, broadcasters will continue to go their merry way, killing a format or two every few years, and mindlessly chasing a 25-54 year-old demographic no longer interested in its offerings.
Radio has a choice – find a way to make aging Baby Boomers a vital, viable, and marketable demographic. Or begin a serious focus on Generation Z, and its future.
Why not do both?
You can access the AudienceNet report here.
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Jackson Weaver says
Recently at a house warming, I introduced myself to a young (28?) man who worked for Expedia. After finding out a little bit of his history and career he asked me what I did. I told him I ran radio stations. His reply stunned me.
“I didn’t know there were radio stations anymore. I thought they’d all gone away…”
Fred Jacobs says
And he’s a Millennial. Imagine Gen Z. Thanks, JDW.
Fred Jacobs says
Wow, I thought I’d heard it all.
Steve Smith says
So the answer is…………
Bill Montgomery says
Fred, while this data is extremely compelling, it is the agencies that are driving the narrative of the 25-54 demo. Virtually every avail we get at the station is for Adults 25-54. What is a programmer to do when the majority of buys are for the 25-54 demo?
Fred Jacobs says
Bill, the point I hoped I made in the post is that radio – as RADIO – needs to start working the agencies, advertisers, and clients. If WE don’t make the case for 35-64 (or 18-34 for that matter), they’re not just going to wake up one morning and figure it out. It’s called SALES. Thanks for the comment.
Scott Jameson says
I chuckled at Jackson Weaver’s statement above. I recall a similar conversation with my 16-year old son. One day, not too long ago I came home and noticed the car radio from my son’s car was removed and sitting on top of the re-cycle bin in the garage.
Me: “Hey Leo, did you take the car radio out of the Camry”?
Me: “Why did you do that”?
Leo: “I don’t need it anymore Dad”
Those reading this with teenagers get it. While most adults get in the car, turn the ignition and flip on the car radio, his generation gets in the car, turns the ignition and connects a Bluetooth device and hears what he wants, when he wants, with no commercials ever.
However, I did add one line to our brief conversation that day in the garage.
Me: “You do realize radio helped buy your $300 snowboard, right?
Leo: “Whatever, Dad”.
Jackson Weaver says
Bite the hand that feeds you Scott. That’s a great story!
Fred Jacobs says
Oy, Scott. The harsh realities of Gen Z right in your own home. Thanks (I guess). Reality bites.
Marty Bender says
We may finally be seeing some traction here.
This week I was dealing with a smaller agency who reps a client with a product that is used by a wide demograpic.
However the younger end use the product for different reasons than the upper edge.
And the client knows the 25-year old income level is much lower than someone who is 54.
So, instead of a 25-54 pitch, the agency sought out an 18-34 buy as well as a seperate placement with 35+.
They MET with the client.
They TALKED with the client.
They ASKED the client who spefically they want in the store.
Do that, and the correct answer is always just sitting there at the top of the bell curve.
Neilen has given us all the software to direct hit the target.
Just running 25-54 is lazy and selling everyone short.
Fred Jacobs says
Now we just have to spread the plan around. When agencies are truly serving their clients, they’ll go through this process. Thanks much, Marty.
Jerry Dean says
I’ll give you a geat Gen Z story Fred. I’m in the car with my 11 yr old grandson. Both myself and his Father are on different radio ststions here in Las Vegas. I said to him, ” you should tell your friends at school that both your Dad and Grandpa are on the radio”..he said, “I did, no one cared”!! Wow, that brought me back to reality. Jerry Dean
Fred Jacobs says
Jerry, these annecdotal stories keep happening. The data also reflects a basic lack of knowleddge about radio. The medium cannot afford to lose this generation.
Howard "HK" Kessler says
Fred, great data and insights here. And, a conversation that MUST continue to take place. Here’s the type of conversation a Millennial or Gen Z regularly has with me…Them: “I’ve been to your website and love your show where can I hear it”? Me: “I’m syndicated all over the country, Check out your local Top 40 and Hot AC station’s website, there’s a good chance you can get it”. Them: “Are you on Sirius/XM or do you have a podcast”? My takeaway from this is very simple. I’m very proud to be in radio, I went to school for broadcasting and wanted to do it my whole life. I’m also proud of what we have achieved with our independently produced and syndicated show In The Mix with HK™. But this is no time for radio to stick it’s head in the sand. Change with the times or become an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.
Fred Jacobs says
Good points all, HK. Thanks for weighing in.
Doug Elliott says
We aren’t experiencing a generation gap but a generation canyon. I believe the 12-34 demo is much more important for our long term growth as an industry over the 55-64’s who are already there.
Aside from CHR’s, I am not aware of any stations catering to the younger demo except maybe BBC who chase 15-29 and do very well across the board.
Possibly, the 50 year old model that we drive everyday isn’t connecting with the Gen Z cause we’re selling our comfort zone to people who don’t have our perspective. Most programmers have a fair amount of grey. On a related note, who is the 25 year old hot shot programmer changing everything. Maybe time for evolution of the medium?
Fred Jacobs says
Doug, good questions all. And I don’t have any answers. Thanks for continuing this important conversation.
Eddie Husak says
I am 56, retired from a 35+ year-long worklife which included 25+ years in radio. I was a jock and an engineer. I find a few things inherently wrong with radio today that I’m not really sure how to fix.
First, long, ear-piercing stopsets. Yeah, I know, “it’s a business”.
Second, horribly stale playlists aimed at advertisers and not listeners. Why is it music playlists at the supermarket are vastly deeper? That is *THEE* shopping environment, and they’re playing everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Maroon 5. Why does radio continue to stick with those hyper-burned outTop 5 songs? You hardly ever hear a song on radio that charted under #10.
Third… Mils and GenZ are tired of the pureed garbage that comprises most of a Top 40 chart nowdays. So is everyone else. Out of 40 songs, there might be five that have any level of actual talent. These younger people are found digging crates of old vinyl and CDs in search of something actually worth listening to. How about saying “screw the paradigm” and program one of your cluster’s stations toward a “Discovery” format, playing all those songs which are never heard on American radio anymore, including good “stiffs” (Traffic’s 1974 song “Walking in the Wnd” is one that comes to mind), stuff that did good worldwide but was ignored by US programmers, deep LP tracks, etc? Label it “Radio for Music Lovers”. THIS is something that just might bridge the younger demographics with the older.
Last but not least, WHY do we have to hear the exact same spot twice (or more) in the same stopset?
Just a few things that I think are making it harder for radio to compete effectively. I’m probably crazy, after all, I *did* work in radio for 25+ years!
Fred Jacobs says
Not so crazy, Eddie. Everyone’s worlds are being rocked. And as a non-Millennial, your comments are interesting. I know some people who program those “supermarket channels” and I’m sure they’ll smile when they read your comment. Thanks for chiming in.
The Legacy says
In 2007 we started off as an internet radio station only. Many folks enjoyed are album Rock format which consists of very deep tracks and deep artist such as Rush, Yes, traffic, Max Webster, Kim Mitchell, Honeymoon suite, Coney Hatch The Move, and so much more.
Later we set up a part 15 Section 219 compliant AM C quam AM stereo station on 1640 kilohertz in Deltaville Virginia.
The folks who have some tech savvy or a little common sense skills and a strong car radio can pick us up about 1.4 miles from the transmitter in each Direction. Many folks who can receive our station in AM stereo love our station and would tell us how great it is that we are doing something different then the other commercial radio stations.
The reason that we started getting a barrage of Canadian listeners on the internet was because we were playing stuff that other commercial stations wouldn’t play even ones in Canada. We played great album Rock artists from Canada simply because they were good artists and never thought that we would get a plethora of listeners from Canada or an endorsement from a Rock band like Goddo but Greg Goddovitz himself has posted on our page as well as told his friends and fans about our station and how we have helped the Rock scene that’s still enjoys good album oriented Rock not just classic hits like the commercial stations do.
There is something to be learned about this because though we do this for fun and don’t expect to get rich from it we have learned that it’s the uniqueness of the format and the fact that there is an interaction with the Audience by myself when I’m able to do a live show and actually announce and take suggestions from the album oriented Rock Community which is a very Niche Genre.
There is a major lesson to be learned about this. One interesting lesson is the fact that many broadcast engineers have thrown away the idea of c-quam AM stereo saying that there’s not many radios out there that receive it so why broadcast in it?
There are stations that are successful using this format such as WION in Ionia Michigan. They continue to broadcast in c-quam AM stereo and even have the listeners that makes suggestions and comment about how good of a job they’re doing because they can receive the stereo signal.
This brings me up to another point instead of all the AM broadcasters trying to flock to FM and overcrowding the already crowded band why not urge the FCC to mandate stricter quality control for the receivers that have both AM and FM whereas it must have the ability to decode C-Quam AM stereo. And have the sensitivity of 0.9 to 1 mivrovolt no excuses because if a Blaupunkt tube radio from 1967 can have a better sensitivity then a radio made in 2018 there’s something wrong and people are blatantly being ripped off it’s time to put a stop to that.
Next if commercial stations 102 FM with their translators let there be a mandate or a proposal that would allow hobby broadcasters a small portion of the am band such as 1620 to 1700 KHz and 10 Watts TPO into a antenna up to 20 Ft length? And if certain broadcasters are worried about Hobby broadcasters taking away the listeners instead of shutting them why not offer them some air time with open arms this way they will bring you listeners and they might not even want to charge you that much or anything at all to do it because some like to do it just for the fun of it.
I hope these suggestions might hit home somewhere but you should really click on the Legacy up the top of this post and here why there is a sudden Buzz about the radio station.
Fred Jacobs says
I will check out the Legacy & thanks for taking the time to comment.
Bruce Carter says
Interesting how my 3 year old reacts to radio. I introduced her to a radio and demonstrated how to change the dial to different stations. After going up and down the dial a couple of times, she went back to her favorite media distribution form – a junk iPhone that I had. She now streams exactly the music she wants from a multitude of different outlets – skewing strongly to oldies from the 50’s and 60’s with little prompting from me. If she is typical of generation Z, radio better re-examine existing dogma about certain “obsolete” formats. She is not the only really kid around streaming – a growing number have iPads and old smart phones that tend to keep them occupied for long periods of time. I have heard some interesting things from other parents. A whole lot of little kids that like the simplicity of the oldies and listen along with nursury rhymes. But also some picking classical. I don’t hear from a single parent or grandparent whose little kid chooses hip-hop or current top-40, even if their parents listen. It may not be a scientific poll, but the one size fits all dogma is showing some signs of failing. Streaming broke the monopoly of local radio, and now that all formats are available – what the audience wants is exactly what they will listen to, instead of what local broadcasters want them to listen too. Radio had its warning – when kids turned into DX’ers when local stations banned black artists. All of the sudden nighttime listening of distant top-40 stations became commonplace. I remember well in Midland, TX, when nighttime you could hear KOMA coming from every dashboard, even WLS because the black artists were good and the kids didn’t want to be censored by local KCRS. Multiply this by thousands of small towns, and you get an inkling that even in the 60’s, the kids were the ones driving the trend – NOT local radio stations. The message was clear: give us what we want or we will go elsewhere. They did then, and they are doing it now. So what in Houston’s radio dial turned off my 3 YO? Foreign, talk, new country, bad “classic rock” from the 80’s, bland legally safe top-40, hip-hop, etc. Pretty much the formats radio likes to promote in all markets. Only kids aren’t having it – they are streaming. What will be her delivery method when she starts driving in a little over a decade? Wideband internet streaming, of exactly what she wants. What will over the air broadcast be providing? Lawyer and focus group approved foreign, talk, hip-hop, top-40 designed for the lowest common denominator masses. Instead of taking a chance at creating something locally that has the potential to excite audiences. Radio has had clues all along – fanatical audiences for WABC top-40 in Houston. Fanatical audiences for KZEW – a lot raw around the edges and irreverent. Fanatical audiences for midnight import rock, mellow soul, heavy jazz. Why? Because they weren’t cookie cutter. They were GOOD, and fun to listen to. But they did things that today would make lawyers and corporate cringe, but these were the very things the audiences craved. Radio in many respects never learned its lesson from the “cover artist” era.
Tom Gallagher says
Your updated segmentation (Gen Z et al) is very helpful. But it doesn’t speak to the relative spending of each segment. As an advertiser, I am interested in the “wallet” of each segment–specifically how much and where they spend. Large segments, per se, are not interesting unless they are affluent enough to support accessing them through specific media.
Consumption typically declines with age. The rest just becomes math.
Fred Jacobs says
Tom, I agree that while “size matters,” it’s about spending. That’s why the lack of advertiser intereset for 55-64 year-olds still mystifies me. The data supports focusing on this demo, but ad dollars gravitate much younger. Thanks for the comment.
Luis Vazquez says
I work with Millennials and one thing is true, a song is not a hit until they hear it on radio, other wise is just a viral song. There is a difference. Another thing is that researchers underestimate the power of “undermining” which is something every generation does to the next. Therefore basing our conclusions on someones “opinion” might render erroneous ideas. As I’ve come to find out, many young adults tune to radio for credible information, be it on music or news. They just won’t tell you about it.
Fred Jacobs says
Thanks for the comment, Luis.