Today's post by Mike Stern & Fred Jacobs
I have heard from many of you since the first of the year that JacoBLOG is off to a good start in 2022. Over the past six weeks, we've had some frank discussions about the importance of personalities, the erosion of the Alternative format, broadcast radio’s loosening grip on new music discovery, recruiting and retaining talent, the downsides of ignoring Gen Z any longer, radio’s diminishing presence in-car dashboard, and other critical issues that go to the heart of broadcast radio’s struggles at a time when so many other platforms and industries are enjoying the so-called “Audio Renaissance.”
In short, disruption – the word we now hear so often because it impacts virtually every corner of our society, our careers and businesses, and our lives.
Public radio is enduring struggles of its own, mostly based on its news coverage, its diversity, and the state of its often turbulent newsrooms. Ascertaining the values of international and national news coverage – typically delivered via networks like NPR and the BBC – versus local coverage that often goes underexposed. And of course, the diversity issue, and the challenge of providing content and attention for underserved local communities.
Public radio programmers are beginning to experiment with new formats, like the much talked about Urban Alternative, while traditionalists in Jazz and Classical are scrapping for new members and a younger audience.
In just a few weeks, we’ll be unveiling key findings from Techsurvey 2022. The field work concluded last week, and a healthy 30,000 respondents weighed in, letting us know how radio is holding up, as well as the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
And we are on the precipice of industry conferences that will be addressing some of these issues in meaningful ways. The All Access Audio Summit and the NAB will be convening in just a couple months, while Morning Show Boot Camp and the Public Radio Program Directors conference are set for the summer.
If Jacobs Media has done any work for you throughout the last four decades, then you hopefully know that we relish solving problems rather than just identifying them. These days, that isn't as easy as it sounds. All of the issues listed in our opening paragraph are complicated and even gnarly. Many have been ignored for years, and the effects of this neglect are now being felt.
As they say, you can’t boil the ocean. So, let’s attack a rather narrow issue head-on and in a focused manner – and that’s the impending demise of Alternative – at least on the commercial radio airwaves. Now before you start pushing back, it is clear by the numbers the format is on its heels.
To accomplish this, I’ve collaborated with our Alternative expert, Mike Stern. In the format, he has both been there and done that, programming stations in Dayton, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Denver. He consults our Alternative portfolio, and is very much in touch with the format, its history, and its trajectory.
Traditionally, Alternative stations that were closer to the Pacific have had a tendency to be the winners – stations like KROQ, 91X, KNDD, KNRK, and KITS among others. Their East Coast counterparts have enjoyed some success, but have generally struggled in important markets like New York, Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, and many others.
A few weeks ago, we talked about what happens when a format loses its flagship – and in an oversimplified way, that's been the KROQ story. But the format's travails go beyond one station in a single market. To once again find its “true north,” it might be time for Alternative stations to look to The Atlantic… the publication that is, not the ocean.
In a recent article by Emily Goligoski, the executive director of audience research for the magazine, we can benefit from their findings after two years spent studying the needs of The Atlantic's consumers. She explains her team is “deeply committed to knowing what readers and listeners seek from The Atlantic, as well as learning where they are served by other media.” That sounds a lot like what we investigate in our Techsurveys – in other words, what are they doing, where are they, and which gadgets are they using when they're not listening to broadcast radio?
Is Alternative radio a lot like The Atlantic's readership? Probably not. But Goligoski's regimen includes many of the protocols we would advise in investigating a radio station – or an entire format. The Atlantic's research process includes talking to people who love the publication along with those who aren’t necessarily fans and don’t regularly spend time with their reporting. When it comes to current readers, Goligoski says it's especially important to survey those who interact infrequently. Understanding their needs gets to the heart of two key questions:
- Why do people seek out The Atlantic?
- What do they get out of the time they spend with the publication?
And perhaps there's a third question, too – one that goes to the heart of consumers having an abundance of media choices. We believe this one needs to be addressed, too:
3. What is it about The Atlantic that sets it apart from similar outlets?
One advantage Goligoski's researchers have over most of us in broadcast radio is user data – and we're not just talking circulation and pass-along readership, data that is the equivalent to the limited cume and quarter-hour information we get from the ratings. In addition to interviews with what radio would call P1, P2 and P3 listeners, Goligoski’s team also received information from their data science, customer care, and audience teams which enables them to meld data and analytics with actual reader comments. For a radio station that would be like focus groups and a perceptual study… and a music test too.
The result of synthesizing all this input is a set of five “Reader & listener needs,” that Goligoski says have remained surprisingly consistent over time and across audiences. In the article several editors attest to keeping the list prominently displayed right by their computer keyboards to help with content decisions, story composition and other challenges. Here are the key pillars of performance for The Atlantic:
Help Me Discover New Ideas
Give me deeper clarity and context
Challenge my assumptions
Introduce me to writers at the top of their craft
Let me take a meaningful break
To us, this list could be the new guiding principles for successfully redefining (or relaunching?) Alternative radio stations.
Let’s look at each one in more detail:
Help Me Discover New Ideas: Goligoski says her team has a collection of stories from consumers about how The Atlantic has turned people on to unexpected new interests through their reporting. The most obvious comparison for Alternative is helping listeners discover new music. Despite another of our recent posts that broke down the growing strength of catalog music compared to new releases, there are still people who want to discover exciting new artists and Alternative stations need to use all their assets – on air, on-site and online – to deliver.
The question is, who are they?
And perhaps, this goes to the heart of Alternative's existential dilemma: Is the format better suited for 25-54 year-olds or 18-34s? And until programmers can clearly make that distinction, the format may inevitably drift, straddling both sides of the chronological spectrum. If the answer is the former, then the age-old idea of an Alternative Gold format – focusing perhaps on some '80s, mostly '90s and the aughts might be ready for a pilot test.
Our other post about the efficacy of targeting Gen Z's is also worth rereading in this light. Alternative made its initial impact with teens. And while a lot has changed since Rick Carroll (pictured) launched KROQ in the late '70s, the teenage brain is wired to embrace discovery, a yen that subsides as we age. Until Alternative makes this important call, it will be buffeted by being caught in between generations.
Give me deeper clarity and context: In study after study, Atlantic readers and listeners say that after they interact with the publication they feel “not just informed, but knowledgeable.” Alternative listeners crave that same knowledge about their music albeit in a more casual, entertaining way. Beyond exposing new songs and artists it’s important to put the music into context.
Elements including artist interviews, special performances and social media interaction with artists can help listeners get more connected to the brand because they come away more knowledgeable about the music.
And now, radio stations have the platforms in which to deploy this information. A 20-minute interview with Eddie Vedder about his new album, Earthling, doesn't have to be broadcast. Instead short clips can reach the airwaves, while the entire interview can live on the station's website, its social channels, and even on Alexa. Or it can be part of an ongoing “discovery” podcast.
Challenge my assumptions: Atlantic readers say there's one thing that makes the publication unique: it doesn't exist to represent just one perspective. The fact that some readers swear The Atlantic is liberal while others will say exactly the opposite is something the editors actively cultivate. That “tension” is intentional.
Alternative stations should be willing to step out musically. There needs to be a common, familiar musical thread to help listeners engage and drive ratings but that shouldn’t preclude a great song that doesn’t “fit the sound” from getting on the air.
Nor is it a bad thing when shows musically differ by host – a healthy state of affairs for a radio station that is about music and doesn't want to sound preprogrammed and packaged. It is more than OK that a morning talent loves reggae, the midday personality appreciates Indie, while the afternoon team is into punk.
Introduce me to writers at the top of their craft: Many Atlantic readers have made it clear they connect with the publication’s writers and columnists, and their particular ways of expressing ideas. From our research, we know the same is true of radio talent. According to the 2021 Jacobs Media Techsurvey, one of the top reasons people use radio is the hosts. That, however, is less the case for Alternative fans where “DJs, shows, and hosts” trends lower than the other formats by a substantial margin.
This lack of focus on personality that has emphasized voicetracking and generic hosts runs counter to the ways in which listeners have traditionally connected with a favorite station. And unfortunately, the entire industry – not just Alternative radio – has been cutting back on its investment in talent. And while the problem is systemic, this trend is more detrimental to Alternative radio where listeners want to discover new music, come away with a deeper context, and have their assumptions challenged more so than in other radio spaces.
It is not uncommon for journalists to have a beat: a coverage specialty that defines the best writers on the staff. The Alternative format could feature talent with the same idea in mind – one host who goes to every concert in town, another who perhaps is a musician into the technical side of the music who loves breaking the music down, a discovery expert who monitors streaming services, TikTok, and what's happening in other countries, a community activist who engages with good causes in the area. When every talent has a “superpower,” it provides the hooks that engender loyalty and connection.
Until the industry looks to talent as a key element in Alternative radio's redefinition, the format will continue to devolve into a depersonalized jukebox where “personalities” – and the music – are interchangeably dull. An emphasis on talent is a key part of the format's “fix.”
Let me take a meaningful break: According to Goligoski, Atlantic readers know where to go for “schlock and ‘guilty habit’ reads.” When they come to The Atlantic, they are looking for novel approaches to big picture topics. Alternative listeners can get the easy stuff other places – both in music and content. Giving listeners a meaningful break means talking about topics of interest that aren’t the obvious prep-sheet fare. It means being active in supporting the community and of course it means challenging them with new, unique music.
But there's more….
We took a look at other aspects of Alternative that perhaps aren't so analogous with a national publication. If Emily Goligoski will excuse us, we'd like to add other legs to the Alternative stool:
Where am I? It is impractical for a national (or global) magazine to provide local context to their journalism. But in Alternative radio, the one thing that separates stations is their location, and the different parameters that separate Houston from San Francisco from Chicago from Salt Lake City. When Alternative stations sound the same in all these places, something important is lost in the homogenization.
While some formats can be successfully hubbed and networked featuring common “safe lists” and voicetracked DJs, Alternative has stubbornly proved – time and time again – it isn't one of them. The more local, the better. And that opens the doors to supporting and championing the new music scene in Austin, San Diego, or Seattle. A commitment to local is a critical piece of bringing this format back.
Surprise me: We know this has become a key driver in many formats, when talent brings something different to the table. This has always been a staple in Alternative – the elements of surprise and delight. The very definition of the format is to be an alternative to other radio stations.
Too often in focus and L.A.B. groups, we hear core listeners talk about the station in question like this:
“They call themselves ‘alternative,” but they really aren't.”
“There's nothing really ‘alternative' about their music.”
“What does ‘alternative' or ‘ALT' mean anyway?”
So what does that look like? How often can you make it happen?
It starts with the recognition the station needs to be regularly different, that “planned spontaneity” the great programmers of the '70s and '80s regularly brought to the rock radio airwaves. Today, the glut of competition from podcasts, digital streaming services, and even personal musical collections demands that Alternative radio live up to its billing.
Give the audience a voice: We were surprised to discovery this “pillar” was not included in The Atlantic's new pathway to relevance. For Alternative stations, it is a prerequisite to success at this moment in time. Listeners don't just want to listen – they want to be participants.
There are myriad ways to do this that can help radio transcend its competitors that relegate the audience to spectators in the stands. Building communities and social media groups is the easiest way to tap into the audience – thought-leaders, passives, evangelists, and those who simply wish to engage.
Finally, The Atlantic has spent two years minimum conducting research among their readership. We don't know what that's comprised of, but it would not surprise us if it isn't a combination of qualitative and quantitative – focus groups, perceptual research, readership stratification studies – to get to this point.
In the meantime, most Alternative stations are methodically testing music, doing callout, and asking “Which station is the concert authority?” None of that activity will advance the great mission, or address a station's specific problems and challenges.
Last week, Spanish Broadcasting Systems bought two of Apollo's FMs in Tampa – former Cox Media Group stations. One of them in 97X, an Alternative station our company was instrumental is signing on, and working closely with during its formative years. Of course, SBS hasn't announced its format plans for the station (or the other property, Power 95.3), but the smart money is for 97X to go in a different format direction.
As broadcasters continue to scrutinize and evaluate their holdings as we traverse through another roller coaster year in radio, Alternative stations will need to prove their mettle as viable players in a changing broadcast radio industry.
We hope that holding stations up to these Atlantic principles and our other suggestions is a start.
After all, what's the alternative?
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