The Spirit of Radio

A long time ago, radio was one of those intimate mediums where you not only connected with the music, but also the DJ.  Gone are those days when brand loyalty to a radio station comes from the fact that those who were in charge of programming (the DJs included) had their pulse on the communities they served.  Nowadays, it’s about trying to balance the demands of the listeners (more music!) with the realities of the marketplace:  smaller playlists and playing songs that are deemed safe.  The combination has stripped any kind of innovation out of radio. The songs that are played have a high rotation rate, and so if you like pop music, you’ll probably hear the same song every two hours.  Adult Contemporary radio and classic rock tend of have larger playlists, but they will also burn out older songs by playing them for far too long.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Pandora and trying out MOG as well.  Both have the advantage of catering to your personal taste, but the disadvantage is something that radio stations (well, the good ones) used to excel in:  being taste makers.  That means having a staff people who are music fans and know a good song when they hear it.  But it’s not only knowing a good song when hearing it, it’s having the courage to play the song and tell people why a particular tune is worth hearing.  Some stations still do that, but it’s not nearly as pervasive as it used to be, and consequently music radio is more of a conservative medium.  That is to say, they are just trying to hold on to their audience and not doing as much as they can to bring in new fans of what they are playing.

Now, will Pandora, MOG, or whatever other streaming service kill terrestrial radio?  Probably not, but will they make a sizable dent in the audience? Well, they already have, and it’s going to get worse as Internet radio (for lack of a better term) becomes more pervasive. Why? Well, the Internet — for all its world wide worldliness — is actually a fairly provincial place.  People tend to visit sites that they are comfortable with, and that they’ve developed a kind of brand loyalty. With music services where you program the music to your tastes (and what better way to develop brand loyalty, when it’s all about you), the playlists (despite the claim that some have millions of songs) will revolve around a group of core artists that repeat with enough regularity that it becomes as conservative as radio is.  But you might not notice since, well, you’re the programmer. If you don’t like it, you’re free to create a new station. Terrestrial radio doesn’t have that ability to create a kind of iRadio like Internet radio does. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to hear songs out of your comfort zone.

Now, Pandora allows you “add variety” to stations you’ve set up.  That’s nice when you’re grooving to a particular vibe, and you just need a little jolt of something else.  However, say you’re listening to the Van Halen station, and you just heard that some artist has died.  You think to yourself “Hey, I’d like to hear some of his/her songs,” so you add it to the Van Halen station.  Now, let’s say that the recently deceased artist made his/her fortune in Soul.  How’s that going to sound next to a rock song?  In radio, we often call those pairing “train wrecks” because, well, the transition is so jarring that is sounds like a huge accident on the air.

You may be saying “Big deal.  So what if Van Halen and Boyz II Men play back to back. I’m an adult. I can take it.”  Fair enough, but it gets to something radio (and mobile DJs) can do very well:  they know how to mix a set of songs so the flow and tempo of a mix are more pleasing and less jarring to the ears.  You can’t really get that from Pandora.  A human with years of experience can provide that to an audience. And that experience comes when someone learns how to read a crowd, or knowing their audience.  But, I have to say that I think we as a culture have grown numb to the art of mixing.  iPods, Pandora, and other services that allow you to assemble a playlist without much thought of what song goes well with another, has spilled over to radio where music programmers are, at times, encouraged to make more jarring transition in their music mixes because, as the reasoning goes, if people are used it it on their iPods, they’ll want it on the radio.  Plus, with listening habits changing (people, on average, are tuning into the radio stations every 10 minutes or so), programmers who go for mass appeal are trying to be all things to all people.  So, you’ll hear a mixture of rock, pop, soul, adult contemporary, and the like in any given hour.  That kind of “variety” makes it difficult to form brand loyalty to a particular radio station — or so it seems to me.

So, what’s the alternative?  For me, I think since the Internet has been a place where innovative ideas can be tried (and many fail, and fail miserably), someone ought to try and replicate the “radio as tastemaker model” of music.  That would mean hiring people (not creating computer algorithms) who create playlists that mix well, and introduce their audience to songs that might not have ever heard, but will most likely love.  If I were an enterprising kind of guy, I would try and pitch that to the venture capitalists out there.  Hell, if they’ve just thrown millions at Twitter  — who hasn’t been able to successfully monetize their microblogging service — maybe they would throw money at a business model that had great success in the past.

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