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Music Radio Is Far From Dead (Part One)


Theres been a lot of attention given to the spoken-word formats over the past year, with News/Talk stations migrating to the FM dial and Sports Talk networks being created by several companies. But music radio is far from dead. Consumers love listening to music, however and wherever they can get it. The only question is which format they love most. We asked industry programming experts to help us analyze the Country, Rock, AC, Urban, and Christian Contemporary formats. Today we focus on Country and Rock.

By Joel Raab
Country is on fire. Having witnessed the formats peaks and valleys since the 1970s, I have never seen the format hotter. First, a bit of history. In the 1970s, Glen Campbell, John Denver, and Anne Murray crossed over, becoming major stars and sparking a rash of new Country stations. In the 1980s, the Urban Cowboy  music from Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee was arguably just a fad, yet country gained legions of new fans and radio stations from it. In the 90s, Garth Brooks brought rock theatrics to country, thus appealing to a whole new generation. New traditional stars like Clint Black and Alan Jackson simultaneously brought Country back to its roots and gained wide popularity. Country stations sprang up everywhere.

By 2006, Taylor Swift hit the scene. Do not underestimate her role in the growth of todays widespread appeal for Country. While her music is younger and pop-leaning, she introduced a whole new generation to Country music. My teenage daughter, Gillian, is a great example. She claims to hate Country music, but loves Taylor Swift. The same is true of her friends. And guess what? Many of her friends now like Country music.

Since 2010, Country has been everywhere, having become more mainstream. TV reality singing-competition shows must have Country contestants, judges, or both. The new generation of Country stars exhibits true variety within the format. Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Lady Antebellum cover the pop side. New Country stars with a rock edge include Jason Aldean, Eric Church, and Luke Bryan. Mainstream superstars Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and Tim McGraw continue to be more than relevant. Tradition (evidenced by a little bit of twang) is upheld by Chris Young, Justin Moore, and others.

Fast-forward to late 2012. Arbitrons 2012 Radio Today reports the highest national share for Country (14.1) since it began reporting data. Its 0.8 share gain year-to-year was tops among all formats. Country is far and away the leading format in both diary and non-metro counties, and ranks No. 4 in PPM metros. In major Northern markets, where Country used to struggle to make the top 10, many stations are well into the top five in key demos. Country now competes well with CHR in the battle for younger women. For example, five of our top 30-market client stations are up an average of 43.4 percent in women 18-34 from October 2011 to October 2012, while maintaining solid positions in 35-54 adults.

Whats next? Newly minted Country stations will adapt CHR rotations and formatics. Its already happening in Minneapolis, with KMNB, and at KILT/Houston (just rebranded as The Bull). More stations will rebrand, and others will be launched, in an effort to capture whats hot about Country: new artists, new music, and a new attitude.

One of our formats biggest challenges is finding the talent to keep up with the growth. Thats why were currently recruiting programming and air talent from contemporary formats. There are no more C students. In fact, B students need not apply. In all-sized markets, we need people to bring their A games. Another challenge: establishing new female artists. For some reason, they are struggling. Some lay the blame on PPM methodology, which has not always been friendly to female ballads. Personally, I think the format needs more gender balance.

Finally, America is learning what we Country fans have always known: Country is not only great music, but a mindset and a lifestyle representing honest values. It is an ever-growing club that people want to join, and Country radio is proud to accept their membership.

Joel Raab is a Country radio and media consultant and can be reached at

By Fred Jacobs
Rock radio has become something of a dysfunctional family. If you think about it as essentially three kids Classic Rock (the oldest), Alternative (the youngest), and Mainstream/Active (the middle child), theyre all going through some challenging times. For Classic Rock (and its cousin, Classic Hits), the format continues to retain its strength in most markets by virtue of a large but aging constituency that continues to be passionate about this music. Bolstered by an on-again-off-again infusion of younger listeners who have discovered the music, the ratings for these stations continue to be very competitive.

The challenge is the demographic cliff, and Congress cant solve that one. As more and more format fans turn 55, sales departments will be harder-pressed to maximize the ratings, while programmers look for ways to energize their stations.

So the opportunity here is to keep Classic Rock sounding fresh, and pop culture has been helpful there. Most recently, the 12/12/12 concert was another sign that when the nation (or the world) needs to come together for a cause, its the Mount Rushmore of Rock that comes through every time. The music remains very powerful.

For Alternative, its been on a nice roll, with different flavors of music and new artists driving audience passion and interest. Songs that dont easily cross over to Mainstream Rock combined with PPM measurement have helped Alternative stand out in a number of major markets around the U.S.

And then theres Mainstream/Active Rock. Musically, this continues to be the format that has had to do the biggest pivot of the three. Thats based primarily on a drought that has lasted more than a decade. And given the financial returns from genres like Country, Pop, and even Alternative, the labels will continue to fish well, you know the rest of the story.

Thats forced Mainstream/Active into perhaps the toughest place, but ultimately into a corner that might be most productive: personality- and lifestyle-focused. These stations are all about guys, and while music provides the backdrop of their activities, they have lots of interests and pursuits: night life, comedy, sports, food and drink, gaming, and other activities, including the local scene.

These guys want to be entertained, and brands that work hard to be more than a collection of songs might end up better off than radio stations that are well-tested, hit-oriented music machines. This is harder radio to produce and maintain, but its how the cards have been dealt. So play them. In an environment where Spotify, Pandora, and your iPod provide a consistently bland soundtrack, Rock radios lifestyle component becomes even more critical to a local stations success. And from the standpoint of a brand that can deliver results for advertisers and long-term loyalty for broadcasters, a robust personality component not just in mornings becomes the foundation of success in 2013 and beyond.

For all three children, it is essential to stand for something and not emulate how Bob Pittman describes Pandora: song collections. Thats smart thinking not just for Rock-formatted stations, but for any broadcast radio brand trying to stand apart on the FM band in cars, on mobile phones, and on the desktops of computers and tablets. That means looking deep inside each brand, identifying what it truly means to consumers (renegade, party dude, family guy, etc.), and building from there.

With Mainstream/Active in particular, the music will only get you so far, and has unfortunately become, in many cases, a transitional element that takes you from one event, personality, program, or promotion to another. Music still matters, but it is no longer a strong enough component to provide the format with a consistent foundation. We actually saw this in the numbers in Techsurvey8, as Active/Mainstream fans told us they listen to these stations as much for personality as they do the music. And we hear this in focus and LAB groups all the time, where fans struggle to name a new band or song that has motivated them to part with music or concert dollars. That should send an important message. So, for Alternative, its the hope that the music continues to roll out and be a differentiator.

For Classic Rock, its keeping it fresh, current, and vital. And for Mainstream/Active, its investing and nurturing personality, local involvement, and lifestyle beyond the music.

Fred Jacobs is President of Jacobs Media and can be reached at

Tommmorrow, Skip Dillard of WBLS will give us an update on the Urban format and Bob Augsburg, President of WAY Media, will update us on the Christian Contemporary format.

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