Phylis Johnson. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C. Sickels. Volume 2: Popular Music. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
Millions of Americans listen to radio when they wake up in the morning, perhaps with a song serving as their alarm on their digital clock. Others depend on radio to entertain them in cars as they head for work. They scan the radio dial, with a large number of drivers seeking out stations with more music, less talk, occasionally allowing for a minute or two of headline news. Satellite radio services offer competing options with a plethora of music genres not previously available to drivers. The daily soundscape of music listening is being redefined at home, at work, and on the road. Many listeners choose to tune to favorite Internet stations off their laptops or music downloaded into their MP3 players. Radio, as a concept, is no longer confined to the AM/FM dial. That should not be so surprising given that radio, as a medium, has historically been in a state of transition as new technologies improved listeners’ experiences. Such experiences have usually centered on listening to live music performances and recorded renditions from popular singers. Technological changes have moved radio out of the house to the streets and into the factories and offices, as well as across the world through the Internet.
Radio Today (2007) reports that radio is doing well even among fierce competition for audience attention: Well over 90% of all consumers 12 years and over listen to the radio each week—a higher penetration than television, magazines, newspapers or the Internet. Radio reaches people everywhere they are: at home, at work, in the car, in stores, restaurants and online—and, more recently, via cell phones. Regardless of age, time of day or geography, radio is America’s true media companion.
From the radio industry’s vantage point, the business is doing well. Radio executives acknowledge that the impact of competing technologies and music services cannot be ignored. The chipping away at radio’s audience has made a number of companies proactive in their approaches to maintaining listenership. In a 2007 panel that I moderated as part of my university’s alumni celebrations, Clear Channel Radio executives stated that they are closely analyzing the listening trends among young consumers, particularly within the 7- to 10-year-old age range, to determine future directions for radio and music listening. On the other hand, college students and young adults increasingly voice complaints that AM/FM radio stations have outlived their usefulness to their lifestyles, given the availability of new satellite services and the growth of Web radio. To some, it is a matter of time before these new technologies completely capture younger demographics, while older audiences cling on to familiar technologies. The question then, is this: How will these new technologies change the definition of radio for the consumer in terms of their listening to music?
With the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) continual relaxation of radio regulation and the subsequent growth of already super-sized corporate media entities, it is timely to consider the expectations of radio audiences, especially with regards to the wants and interests of music listeners given consolidation trends in entertainment industries in general. Moreover, one needs to consider the impact of these expectations on commercial radio stations that have historically generated audience and revenue primarily from music airplay and promotion. Particularly of concern are three relevant themes that appear to dominate industry discussions on the business of radio: (1) how to define radio culturally and technically in the digital Disney era, which began in the late 1990s with the launch of Disney radio marketed to young children and tweens on terrestrial stations and over the Internet; (2) the personalization of radio—the impact of customized online playlists on listening trends; (3) and the transformation of music technologies into viable global social platforms that promote lifestyles as well as songs. Online communities such as Last.fm and Second Life give us a glimpse of future listening and perhaps threaten to complicate the relationship between radio, record industries, and the listener (as a digital consumer).
The Concept behind Hit Radio
Since its inception, U.S. radio quickly assumed its role as an information and music provider. Music provided an inexpensive way to fill massive amounts of radio time. When live performances filled the airwaves, radio complemented the recording industry. When it began to merely play songs freely over the airwaves, the industry became concerned whether listeners would buy songs or albums. Radio’s relationship with the recording industry became particularly acrimonious when tape-recording technologies became available to consumers. When the listener was able to tape their favorite songs or popular song countdowns, the record industry would once again think long and hard about its association with radio and what role radio should have in helping to launch recording artists. The record industry historically has been the primary music supplier for the majority of commercial broadcast stations, and as such it still fuels the radio industry, although mainly with new releases and songs encompassing the past 50 years.
In the United States, programming among music stations, in particular, offers little differentiation from one another, aside from falling into the mainstream formats and playlists tracked on the weekly charts of Radio & Records and Billboard Magazine. These publications are leading voices among several of the trade magazines shaping the sound of radio—be it online, satellite, or terrestrial. Radio & Records, the weekly radio industry trade publication, represents the symbiotic relationship between the two industries. Radio & Records reports on everything from the promotion of label executive and radio program directors to weekly station playlists representing every major radio format, from new age to urban to rock and everything in between. Stations report on the number of times a particular new artist is played weekly, and some stations take the lead in determining future hits. In contrast, Billboard Magazine reports on the number of records sold weekly in the consumer market.
When Internet radio began to stream music, the radio industry rushed toward buying into its share of the Web market. The idea was to brand radio onto the Web. Prior to this point, the major record labels had a fairly strong and consistent business relationship with AM/FM radio. In fact, station personnel depended on record labels to provide the promotional materials to market new records and artists. Record labels, in turn, counted on radio to add these new artists into its music rotation. Radio has traditionally been a major player in determining what songs would become hits, at least until recent years. Music Television, of course, has been a strong player since the 1980s. But record labels sell songs, not necessarily videos. Radio disc jockeys promoted songs on the air, and listeners would run down to the local record stores. To some extent, consumers were prompted to shop for music when hearing a song on the radio. At the record store, they might pick up a weekly playlist from the number one Top 40 station to help them find new releases. As listeners began to tap into new songs on Web stations and increasingly subscribe to download sites, they began to recognize the convenience of purchasing music online. One could listen to a song, and then buy and download it. Others downloaded music illegally from a number of online services, many of which are now legitimate (e.g., Napster).
Today consumers create their playlists using iTunes or the like, then archive them online, and download their selections onto personal digital players. They can create their own personal radio stations using Winamp or Windows Media Player. They can compose and download playlists in several ways and bypass radio completely. The mystery and science behind the playlist is not as relevant in a consumer-driven marketplace. Whereas the radio industry was once dependent on the talents of program directors who could pick future hits, a number of competing services challenge these traditional methods. Consumers make their voices heard not by calling into radio stations on request lines, but by the downloading decisions that they make online while listening to online stations or services.
The broadcast industry is dependent on a large song database for its daily airplay, with popular music being the primary product of many stations. In return, the radio stations comply with royalty fee structures established within the recording industry, primarily by contracting with performing rights organizations such as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Musicians Incorporated (BMI). Such agencies assist in the tracking of airplay and the payment of such services on behalf of record labels and recording artists. Given that most radio stations, not just AM/FM, air songs by artists represented by established record labels, this system seemed to work fairly well, until recently when new technologies became readily available to consumers through online and satellite services and triggered an industry of digital music bootleggers. Some AM/FM stations began to stream their programming online to their listeners from their Web sites.
Add to that, payola scandals have made headlines in news media, with a number of radio personnel at the corporate level accepting promotional gifts and monies for excessively favorable promotion of new artists over broadcast airwaves. Independent labels and artists who have traditionally struggled for airplay on radio complain that major corporate radio stations and record labels ultimately restrict access into the music entertainment industry to those outside the mainstream. Many of these independent labels and artists have sought opportunities on Web radio, which has not only been perceived as a threat to the recording industry but an increasing challenge to terrestrial broadcasters who are restricted by tower transmission. Web and satellite radio and download services continue to wrestle with the record industry in determining appropriate licensing fee structures for use of copyrighted music. Listeners now have more access to recorded music (although not necessarily legally) than at any other time in the history of recording technology.
The Generational Gap: Defining Radio through Younger Ears
The Disney Corporation probably presents the best example of where radio is headed, at least from the perspective of younger generations and those companies that market toward their interests. With the rise of teen stars such as Hanna Montana, Disney radio has demonstrated the buying power of this maturing demographic, and it reaches its audience through a variety of technologies. Disney Radio is available as a format on 54 radio stations, with nearly all of them being AM frequencies. Disney has managed to capitalize on AM technology for a particular audience more interested in content than quality. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the bulk of radio audience transitioned to the FM dial, which was marketed as offering a quality listening experience. AM station managers sought formats such as news and talk that could generate new audiences, and by the mid-1980s even news/talk moved to FM. Meanwhile, Disney did some background research and found that children were hungry for content, regardless of its quality. Their first radios were often bought in stores’ toy departments, and these receivers had stronger AM than FM signals. When Disney Radio was launched in 1999, nearly all of the host stations transmitted across the AM dial. Nearly a decade later, Disney Radio remains strong across America, with most of its programming played on AM stations. Disney radio is also available on XM and Sirius satellite radio, online through iTunes, and through Mobile Radio via certain phone services.
The popularity of highly compressed digital technologies such as MP3 players, which offer mobility en lieu of sound quality, gives evidence toward a new generation interested in content and convenience. MP3 players are digital recorders and players that allow the listener to download their music from their computer and play hours of songs on personal portable listening devices. Music played back on these devices has the clarity of compact discs but not the sound quality. MP3 songs typically exist within a narrow bandwidth, similar to the digital music played on satellite and Web radio.
Defining radio used to be quite simple because it was the only game in town. Children have listened to radio since its early arrival, alongside parents and friends as well as alone in their bedrooms. Advertisers have only learned how to tap effectively into this market over the past two decades. Actually, the evolution toward children’s radio as a market force is not a new idea. Exceptional shows in the days of early radio generated family audiences. A generation of listeners has grown up experiencing radio as more than AM/FM and listens to Web radio or readily available downloads. Redefining radio has been a gradual process that has occurred over the past decade and can be linked to the growth of technology and the children who were part of radio’s transition on to the Internet.
Since the mid-1950s, very little programming specifically targeted the youth market (particularly ages 11 and under) until 1990, aside from some occasional children’s shows that were aired on public radio in the United States, such as the popular PickleBerry, a weekly half-hour music program syndicated to 55 stations. In addition, this show airs on satellite and 300 cable outlets, as well as on the Radio Reading Service for the Blind. It is also streamed across the Internet. It can be heard in New York and New Jersey on Networks Companion Radio, a service for Convalescent Hospitals and Retirement Homes, as well as in four Children’s Hospitals in North California. Radio Lollipop offers a similar cable service that is broadcast in children’s hospital wards in the United Kingdom. Some producers have moved their efforts toward the Internet, believing that National Public Radio did little to support kids’ radio since the late 1980s.
In 2000, Nickelodeon partnered with the Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children’s Television Workshop) to create Noggin, a network aimed toward 2 to 14 year olds complete with an interactive Web site for toddlers to teens. Noggin Radio soon became available to preschoolers via the Internet. Radio producers and programmers were eager to change the way American children listened to music and sought alternative programming on air and online in an attempt to capture a share of the youth market. The genesis of kids’ radio, a trend toward the broadcast of children’s programming on both commercial and noncommercial radio stations, as well as across the Internet, led to a rethinking of radio’s role. Scholarly research with regards to the phenomenal rise of children’s programming on radio and the Internet is virtually nonexistent. For the past decade, only one or two organizations, such as Children Now, have attempted to address the availability and quality of children’s programming on radio. The Internet is home to numerous children’s shows, some of which can also be heard on public and community radio stations.
Until 2000, commercial radio—in general—had generally positioned itself away from younger demographics as a marketing strategy and instead targeted the 18 and older audiences. Christopher T. Dahl, single parent of two sons and founder of Children’s Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), has been credited with changing all that with the launch of Radio AAHS—a.k.a., kids’ radio. At its peak, Radio AAHS had 32 affiliates in the United States, with a 40 percent audience share of American households. By 1998, Radio Disney had launched a successful competing network. The CBC went silent on January 30, 1998. In 1994, Arbitron, the largest radio research company, released the results of its study on children’s radio listening habits and reported that radio reached 91 percent of children, aged 2 to 11 years old, who spend an average of seven hours a week listening to radio.
Of all the radio shows available to children, many are linked to Web sites, and at least one-third offer programming via the Internet. Children and teens comprise the two largest growth sectors on the Internet. Music is its largest product. In 1992, Fox Broadcasting Network was one of the first companies to seek such opportunities, and in doing so, a radio version of its Fox’s Kids’ Countdown was born—indeed a 3-hour advertisement broadcast on contemporary hit radio stations across the United States. Decidedly, this move on the part of Fox management acknowledged radio’s ability to attract young listeners—8 to 17 year olds. Kids’ radio also offered investors another way to tap into the future consumers of America. At its launch, the airplay and marketing of “teen” superstars created huge teen markets: Radio Disney “plays heaping helpings of teen-appeal acts, such as Britney Spears, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera [and] seasoned with film and TV-soundtrack hits.” The children who once listened to early Disney radio are now teens, and Disney radio has established itself as a music market force beyond the AM dial.
Commercial radio has historically attracted the attention of the youth market. It is only recently, however, that researchers have acknowledged the role of radio in the lives of youth and adolescents. Little research exists on radio’s presence and impact in the lives of children and teens, with the majority of media research focused primarily on television. Paul Guillifor states, “Adolescence is a time to rebel against the authority, and radio may help legitimize that rebellion.” Topics include drugs, politics, teen fads, and others, many of which are “most often mentioned on youth-oriented radio stations by disc jockeys, and through the lyrics of popular music.” In the November 6, 1999, Testimony of the American Academy of Pediatrics on the Social Impact of Music Violence, Frank Palumbo, MD, stated that music is “crucial” to the identity of teens, and issued a general warning to the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring, and The District of Columbia: “As a society, however, we have to acknowledge the responsibility parents, the music industry, and others have in helping foster the nation’s children.”
One reason why radio may have escaped much of the attention of media researchers and advocacy groups for children’s rights is because offensive lyrics have been typically blamed on the musicians and the recording industry. Yet, the radio industry, like cable and television, has aggressively pushed content limits over the past decade. Indecent language has filtered through the airwaves and has boosted, in several cases, record sales and airplay for some musicians. The Christian music industry flourished as a result of the backlash from teens and parents seeking Top 40 radio alternatives—pop songs with a positive message. Fox Kid’s Countdown, the “biggest nonDisney” syndicated program, as well as Disney Radio, in contrast, did not seek to provide moral alternatives to today’s popular music, rather its strategies were primarily concerned with ways in which songs capitalize on the teen market.
Radio as a Personal Medium
Certain music formats, such as rhythmic contemporary hit radio, contemporary Christian, active rock, and alternative, have strongly established in-car listening audiences. Some of these formats do equally well with other mobile technologies, such as portable digital players. AM/FM Radio has served not only as a personal medium but also a social medium, as it has traditionally brought people together to share in music and culture. Black/urban radio has particularly reached out to help its listeners in times of great strife, for example, during the civil rights era and the Los Angeles riots of the late 1960s and again in the early 1990s. A number of New Orleans broadcasters came together to provide continuous coverage during Hurricane Katrina and subsequent relief efforts. Music, however, was not at the core of these experiences as stations transformed into news/talk operations for the duration of the crisis. Radio has particularly brought people together in times of celebration and crisis. However, listening is increasingly becoming a private experience. Disgruntled listeners tired of worn-out music rotations seek options that are less dependent on rigid corporate formats and polices. Format fragmentation during the 1990s was as much about radio stations’ finding their identity among 50 or so stations in the top radio markets as it was about offering consumers what appeared to be a choice among music genres. Listeners soon became weary of stations with marketing hype, cookie-cutter formats, and tight music rotations in which the same songs played over and over throughout the day.
On the other hand, MTV has led the youth music movement since its inception in 1981, boasting a high percentage of male viewers 12-24 years old. It presents a mainstream approach comparable to radio with its limited playlist. In 2004, MTV decided to cater to its young male audience segment, which was determined as the “network’s most loyal audience,” through MTV2. This channel builds upon its audience’s niche interests in sports, video games, and cars and connects its viewers to content beyond a primarily musical emphasis. MTV seemed to realize that this audience wanted something beyond the music, although that was still important to their lifestyle. Radio managers are waking up to the fact that they must offer content beyond music in order to remain attractive to listeners who can get their music elsewhere. Interestingly, MTV Network Radio is one of the latest additions to the company’s media offerings. Radio is ubiquitous and is present in our listening soundscapes where we shop, work, and live, and some argue that it will remain viable in years to come. Its owners and programmers cannot easily overlook the challenges of Internet and digital radio as competing market forces and perhaps as evolutionary technologies. The record and radio industry, as a whole, have struggled toward a modern-day definition of radio not bound by transmission in the face of a consumer-driven market. MediaWeek reporter Katy Bachman states, “Today’s listeners can text or e-mail the station, compose playlists, chat with each other and on-air personalities, enter contests and buy music. Technology has allowed them to become truly involved in a station’s programming and advertising.” Bachman reports on how radio has been historically “limited by its license,” citing David Goodman, president of marketing for CBS Radio: “Now radio can be more. If you want to listen, that’s great. If you want to interact with the station using another device, you can. If you want to watch radio, you can.”
Arbitron research clearly indicates that over the past decade radio’s national audience has remained strong. Yet, broadcast practices that worked five years ago are becoming obsolete in the wake of portable digital devices such as MP3 players and iPods. The challenge for the radio industry is to find a way to stay relevant to young consumers 12-17 years old and 18-24 years old, who enjoy a variety of listening options and segue between technologies effortlessly. For some companies, such as Clear Channel Radio, that means a strategic plan that envisions radio as more than AM/FM transmission. More than 50 percent of 12 to 17 year olds own a digital audio unit for personal music recording and playback. Arbitron reported in 2001 that radio had a strong role among preteens and younger audiences, and these listeners were more likely to be loyal toward a particular AM/FM station than other demographic groups. Other research indicates older teens and young adults are more likely to listen to their favorite tunes on an MP3 player or other digital media, citing reasons such as mobility and playback convenience. In doing so, these listeners tend to edit out commercials and nonmusic programming.
Satellite users merely expand their listening options to include a variety of genres, without chatter or commercials. Subscribers tend to be in the upper middle class and represent annual household incomes of at least $100,000. The availability of satellite as an option to the general public is well known, with Howard Stern’s well-publicized move to Sirius Satellite Radio on January 9, 2006, underscoring its viability as a strong market force. The uncensored Stern is a signal to consumers, provoking them to embrace the new freedom—in speech and music—offered by satellite radio. As new cars come fully loaded with satellite services, FM stations will have to ensure their place on the dashboard. BMW promises that new cars in the near future will stream music and video content, and the company’s emphasis is currently on finding a content provider and working out licensing arrangements. A mini satellite dish would be placed on the roof of the car, and content would be downloaded for playback while on the road.
As for the immediate future, online stations continue to supplement or replace radio for at-work listening in those settings where the listener sits in front of a computer during most of the day. Many online stations are available commercial free, as well as nearly talk-free, and provide an environment that does not interrupt workflow. Acoustic stations or new age stations offer background music and light vocals that do not distract from the workplace. A seemingly endless stream of genres offers advantage to listeners seeking variety and a break from mainstream radio that relies on very structured formats—country, Top 40, rock, and adult contemporary.
The good news for AM/FM radio is that the growth rate for online listening has slowed somewhat to 11 percent of U.S. listeners, down 1 percent from 2006. As online stations become more reliable in streaming capabilities and develop consistency, listening rates might increase substantially. Of the 18-34 demographic, 16 percent listen to online radio weekly, and 14 percent of those 18-49 years old tune online for programming, mostly music.
A Global Radio Culture
Music is one way to define social identity individually and collectively, especially in terms of creating a youth culture. Both personal and group identities appear shaped by music. With trends toward music globalization, the potential for a worldwide youth identity moves toward reality. This trend provides social and political challenges for some Asian countries as their youth begin to reevaluate their beliefs, values, and preferences against a growing World MTV egocentrism that invites, unites, or acculturates (some would say assimilates) them into a world culture. Music trends have been typically determined through record sales, but adolescent and college students increasingly have sought music from alternative sources, such as pirated downloads off the Internet, which made headlines in the late 1990s at many universities. Growth in the world music market has indicated an increase of $33 billion, from $4 billion in 1985 to nearly $37 billion over an approximate period of 15 years.
In September 2000, several Asian regional radio stations in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia united to create the first Global Chinese Pop Chart to “truly represent a ‘Pan-Asian outlook’” on music. The Internet became the impetus for the launch of an Asian hit music chart because listeners had immediate access now to music artists in other countries. Genres such as hip-hop and rhythm & blues readily became radio favorites in the Asian market. These genres were also among the top 10 U.S. formats, according to record sales in 2002 and consistently in subsequent years. The boundaries are fading, as a larger soundscape and definition of radio articulates listenership in the United States and the world than at any other time in modern history.
The Big Radio Picture
Since the late 1990s, the FCC has paved the way for additional consolidation among the largest media companies, despite public clamor and increasing opposition. Its latest round of deregulation comes at a time when “several of the largest radio conglomerates in America—the corporate owners of FM radio stations across the nation—are within the scope of the FCC probe” into what appears to be a modern-day payola scandal, reminiscent of the pay-for-play that occurred within the industry in the 1950s. Instead of radio deejays at the receiving end, “the money goes to the bottom line of the radio stations and the conglomerates that own them,” according to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. As industry reporter Eric Boehlert writes:
Radio is an entity unique to the music industry. It’s an independent force that, much to the industry’s chagrin, represents the one tried-and-true way record companies know to sell their product. Small wonder that the industry for decades has used money in various ways to influence what radio stations play. The days are long gone when a DJ made an impulse decision about what song to spin. … Indeed, say many industry observers, very little of what we hear on today’s radio stations isn’t bought, one way or another.
Although the record industry acknowledges radio’s traditionally strong role in promoting music artists, it is also aware of how radio is being redefined through the Internet, as is the music business. On June 26, 2007, Web radio stations and channels in North America participated in the Day of Silence in an attempt to rally publicly against royalty fees that would shut down some operations. The rates did increase and a number of small- to mid-size services went dark. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides the record industry the opportunity to reevaluate its royalty rates for song play for Internet radio, broadcasters, and other services every five years. Corporate radio—be it Web, AM/FM, or satellite—has weathered the escalating rates, while smaller competitors have been forced out of the industry. In December 2007, XM Satellite Radio settled with Universal Music Group over a copyright infringement lawsuit involving its sale of a portable music player that made it possible for consumers to “make digital copies of music.”
Arbritron’s latest research indicates that Clear Channel Radio’s online stations are the only ones that have made steady and significant gains in listeners. Part of the reason might be attributed to its launch of highdefinition radio and a variety of formats offered on its digital subchannels. These stations are also available as Web streams. Pride radio is a new format that targets homosexual audiences with music and information. Other subchannel formats include opera, independent music, future country, extreme hip-hop, and eclectic coffee house formats. Under its division Clear Channel Music Group, several live sessions of various artists recorded in its studios are archived and accessible online through the company Web site. Listeners can tune to new music releases on demand and buy CDs through http://Amazon.com. They can also listen to their favorite artists in-concert via the site or watch streams of their music videos.
Clear Channel Communications is branding its formats based on its ability to deliver content through terrestrial and online radio. As the largest radio company in the world (with markets in Australia, Mexico, and New Zealand), it has access and money to take the lead in redefining listeners’ radio experiences and positioning itself for the future—with technical quality, format diversity, and a cultural and technological expansion of radio at the forefront of its marketing campaign. Clear Channel’s 10-year programming agreement with XM Satellite Radio expires in 2008, about the time of the anticipated merger between the two largest radio satellite services in North America. Sirius Satellite Radio stockholders voted on November 13, 2007, to proceed with the acquisition of XM Satellite Radio pending FCC approval. Given Clear Channel’s strength in the overall “radio” marketplace, it will be a formidable rival to satellite radio. The radio industry will be dominated by two major radio powerhouses, and the music industry will have to contend for its place among the corporate giants.
Future of Radio Listening
Radio listening in the United States has been tracked by noting gains and losses in AM/FM radio formats, which have tripled over the last 30 years. Small and medium radio markets tend to have less format fragmentation than large metropolitan areas. Arbitron tracked 50 formats in 2006, and gains were reported for adult hits, contemporary Christian, country, Spanish, and urban adult contemporary. Among the new formats reported is children’s radio. Formats that remain consistently strong are adult contemporary, rock, classical, easy listening, contemporary smooth jazz, oldies (urban, Spanish, and pop), and nostalgia. Not surprisingly, the largest gains in time spent listening are among those 65 years and older, and listening for those younger than 18 was down 9 percent from 2003 to 2006.
Behind the multitude of radio formats is station access to the classic hits and songs from the recent past, with the quality of much older songs being a limiting factor in airplay. Record companies fuel the music libraries of stations by granting permission to a variety of songs, repackaged as radio formats through licensing and royalty fees. Over the past several decades, the volume of music produced has grown substantially and so has the number of radio formats—first supplying AM/FM stations and now Internet radio stations. Last.fm began as an Internet radio station and music subscription service in the United Kingdom, and it may provide a glimpse of where radio is headed on a general scale as the social and technical aspects of radio are reconceptualized online. Founded in 2002, Last.fm has become the “social music platform with over 20 million active users based in more than 232 countries.” The service keeps track of user profiles and adjusts their music choices into a weekly playlist, and in fact, in early 2007, it released the Worldwide Music Chart based on customer selections. Through their subscription, customers are given access to an extensive music database from which they can listen to or download songs. System users can connect to each other through their profile spaces, and that appears to have led to the success of the service. CBS bought the company in 2007.
Children, adolescents, and young adults are moving toward technologies that allow them to create personal music libraries. FM stations provide a way to listen together, for now, collectively with other listeners. Traditional radio stations in local markets unite a group of listeners who seek out concert events and promotional information regarding a new artist or a release. With services such as Last.fm that allow listeners of like music interests to socialize online, and as the means of social communication is redefined by the Internet, traditional radio stations will need to reconsider both their social and technical roles in an increasingly global and computer-driven world. http://MySpace.com and its competitors provide additional evidence of such trends. Corporate radio continues to shrink the number of AM/FM stations, and a number of the smaller companies in large and small local markets cannot compete against national dollars.
Simultaneously, with the FCC’s call for another round of low-power licenses, community-based radio stations might offer alternative, localized, ways to socialize based on music interests, particularly those representing small labels and niche formats. Radio corporations represent one aspect of media consolidation, but the existence of such conglomerates should not be reminiscent of the rise and fall of networks in the early days of radio. Consolidation is not a trend; it is a way of business in modern economy. Successful small entrepreneurs with innovative ideas will be merely bought out like Last.fm. For those willing to challenge the radio powerhouses, they might find themselves outspent by corporations that command incredible resources and audiences. Over the past decade, smaller community stations have banded together and incorporated assets collectively to compete against larger players, and the issue of whether that strategy is effective over the long run will be settled in time.
As opportunities abound across the Internet and through other technologies, the radio and music industries will remain in flux, and corporations will be forced to follow consumers as they move and experiment with platforms. For the most part, changes in listening patterns will evolve slowly as people attempt to manage new technologies into their lifestyles and budgets. Second Life (SL), a virtual community owned and operated by Linden Labs since 2003, offers its more than one million residents space to build and design houses and buildings, own businesses, and interact with each other online. Second Life also hosts a teen grid. In both communities, residents (as avatars) can stream music and video into their virtual properties—personal and public—and anyone flying over these spaces can hear any one of a number of Internet radio streams. Some dance clubs in SL are dependent on these streams, and the issue of royalty fees has not been addressed as of yet. Some record company executives have taken a wait-and-see approach, refraining from imposing restrictions on emerging communities. Second Life attracts college students who are required to participate in the grid for university classes and activities, as well as those who tend to be middle-aged, college-educated, and more computer literate than the general public. To the listener, radio is a service that provides music, regardless of its transmission means. The traditional radio industry has been attempting to play catch-up to some of these listeners, who demand much more from their listening experience. The move toward greater consolidation—if you cannot beat them, own them—seems to be the solution for corporate radio executives who realize that the Internet offers social and technical opportunities that compete with their services. The goal then for the radio industry is to not let the public redefine their business but move proactively among the various listening options to market it uniquely to the consumer while being extremely cognizant of the reasons why listeners tune online or to satellite services. Kurt Hanson, in his column for RAIN: Radio and Internet Newsletter, also points out Internet radio stations need to consider the best way to use the Web that is unique from traditional AM/FM and satellite broadcasters:
Webcasters who take advantage of the characteristics of the new medium—e.g., LAUNCHcast, Pandora, etc.—are, I believe, going to be the ones that see the greatest success in this medium. And right now, the Internet efforts of traditional radio broadcasters (AM/FM broadcast groups, satellite radio companies, etc.) are not playing in that game.
Further Implications and Conclusions
Radio’s relationship with the music industry has been in transition from the first broadcast of a song to its expanded role on Internet radio, and its future can no longer be bound to terminology and concepts centered on a particular source of transmission. From an industry point of view, satellite radio, streaming media, and terrestrial stations are competitive players for the attention of listeners. From the listeners’ vantage point, radio in all its forms is part of the larger soundscape in their life. Listeners hear a multitude of songs in the car, at home and work, and in restaurants and stores. The Radio Ink Convergence 2008 conference has become one way to bring traditional and new media broadcasters into the same venue to discuss the future of radio as it relates to streaming, blogging, podcasting, social networking, mobilecasting, and more familiar forms of transmission. Such discussions are needed within the radio industry, for even with all its consolidation, it is confronting an endless stream of new technologies that are changing the ways Americans and the world are listening and socializing.
Nevertheless, the radio industry has been a dominant player in determining what popular music will reach the public. This exposure is invaluable to the music industry. To some listeners, the convenience of tuning into a radio station and learning about a new artist is a significant part of a filtering process that assists them in choices amidst family and work priorities. When the radio industry launched the Jack FM format in 2000, it was based on the rise of the download culture. MP3 listeners had become accustomed to listening to their favorite songs randomly and did not seem to mind when their favorite country song played after a classic metal tune. This sort of listening defies the programming logic long held dear to the radio industry. Jack FM offered a mix of music that tapped into the MP3 way of listening and attempted to make it a viable format. The format developed, in part, as a result of an American Internet radio station by Bob Perry, a radio station manager, who relocated to Connecticut to live near his wife’s aging parents. The positioning statement for Jack FM sprung from the theme “playing what we want” and was introduced to the listening public as “You Don’t Know Jack.” Some media headlines, such as in Variety, exclaimed that “radio’s future sounds a lot like the past.” The format is syndicated across traditional radio outlets throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom and serves its audience with hits from the 1960s through the 1990s, adding some contemporary favorites into the mix. Variations of the brand are Bob, Joe, and Frank, and the format was launched in the United States in 2004, with Canadian stations first airing Jack in 2002. Jack FM and its off-brands, although garnering more than 8 million listeners in the United States and Canada, have not commanded strong and consistent ratings across major markets compared to traditional radio formats. The format, as a niche, also cannot compete over the long term against the hundreds of thousands of personal mp3 playlists, the combination of which is mind-boggling and fairly impossible to replicate across formatted radio. Radio’s advantage over MP3s and iPods, according to industry analysts, is the deejay, and many of the Jack formats have eliminated personality in favor of music:
No particular order. Bigger playlist than most commercial stations, but just hits. Heard worse. Take it or leave it. Someone else’s iPod … Jack doesn’t bother naming the tune or the singers of the songs—unless you want to go to the Web site. Jack is much too cool for that. Just music, commercials, PSAs and those one-and two-liners spoken by the anonymous man. … An op-ed writer in The New York Times said: “Jack has attitude but no soul.” A Newsday writer described the march of Jackism as “another step toward the McDonaldization of radio.”
At this juncture in media history, the radio industry is best advised to emphasize what it does best—provide information, particularly as in the exposure of music from up and coming artists and established ones. To simply assume that average consumers will find their way through the millions of songs available without any sort of guidance is absurd. Add to that, the record industry works best when new songs and albums are promoted to the public as scheduled releases that can be properly hyped. When deciding which of the six to eight motion pictures to watch showing weekly at the local theater, moviegoers seek guidance from a host of reviewers. Might radio audiences seek similar information with regards to music? As social music communities grow audiences online, such information might be shared in more effective ways than is commonly the case and challenge the need for a radio personality.
Why should the radio industry anticipate that music listeners, in general, will be eager to wade through a litany of new artists and new songs without any sort of professional filtering process? The radio and record industries have always been confronted with complaints against their mainstreaming of music, but then again, the majority of listeners remain interested in pop music culture. Online radio stations, for the time being, might build upon AM/FM radio’s emphasis on music and culture and/or differentiate their offerings by developing unique ways of presenting songs and artists that involve less hype and pure music listening. They can provide streams of new music to online subscribers, in addition to their mainstream formats. The end process is the consumer’s ability to purchase music online in an effort to develop personal music collections. No doubt that is why the radio industry has aggressively pursued consolidation of its traditional broadcasting opportunities with those of major online media companies. Convenience will always be at the heart of consumer choices because many listeners do not have the time to sort through new music (and if they do not want to be stuck in a time warp they will turn to popular sites that offer them guidance—radio and online—about new artists and new music).
High-definition radio presents the issue of whether the resultant further fragmentation on the radio dial with the availability of digital subchannels will serve the radio industry well in the long run. These subchannels, such as pride radio and urban radio, might cater to diverse populations and underserved audiences, but only to a point. Only the top songs of a particular genre are played by radio stations, simply because most listeners only listen to radio a portion of the day. A multitude of choices online for any genre can be overwhelming without any sort of guidance. The classic hits of yesterday long determined through radio are now increasingly archived into music libraries, which are available to traditional and Web broadcasters alike.
Radio has helped to define what music will become popular, even in the age of pay-for-play. Some public clamor has centered on how Clear Channel Radio and other large conglomerates have controlled music playlists in collusion with record executives and in effect how these mega companies have made it impossible for the entrance of other artists. Clear Channel has responded to such arguments with the addition of new music forums on its Web site. With a dip in listening to some online services and as well as some declines in traditional radio listening, all that can be really said about the near future is that consumers will continue to enjoy the ability to move between listening media—and as such will continue to divide their time between the available options. As of 2008, traditional radio listening on the AM/FM dial is still strong with most Americans tuned in daily or at least weekly. These radio stations remain key to the launch of new music and to the preservation of older tunes and lifestyles, although they are no longer the only means to determine what songs will become part of American popular culture.