I've had this conversation with my friend Garrett many times now, but I thought I'd put it out there on this blog to see what you all think? The issue is this: What's the future of radio?
With iPods, CD players, and satellite radio, it seems like traditional, commercial, terrestrial radio is facing much more competition these days. And that goes for TV and newspapers/magazines and all other ad-supported media. This forces radio stations to ask themselves why anyone would listen to the radio when they could instead just plug in their iPod and listen to their own music instead of being forced to bear ads, annoying songs, and even worse DJs.
Garrett thinks that radio stations need to switch to having more niche playlists that attract people who wouldn't otherwise listen to mainstream radio (i.e. hipsters). He has a point, people who listen to bands like TV on the Radio and Radiohead aren't likely to listen to typical stations that play popular artists such as the Foo Fighters and Linkin Park. What Garrett would prefer is for radio to adopt a Indie 103.1 type of model.
Indie 103.1 was a radio station down in LA that began as a typical rock station with a typical, corporate playlist. About five years ago though, the station switched to playing more indie music that wasn't found on any other station. It was unique and innovative, and people thought it would be the future of radio. Then on January 15, 2009, Indie 103.1 went off the air. Their business model had failed. The guys who operated the station failed to realize and respect the power of corporate music and radio. And whenever I make that argument, Garrett points out that I am clearly the business student between us, and not much of an idealist as he is.
Here's Indie 103's farewell message:
This is an important message for the Indie 103.1 Radio Audience - Indie 103.1 will cease broadcasting over this frequency effective immediately. Because of changes in the radio industry and the way radio audiences are measured, stations in this market are being forced to play too much Britney, Puffy and alternative music that is neither new nor cutting edge. Due to these challenges, Indie 103.1 was recently faced with only one option --- to play the corporate radio game. We have decided not to play that game any longer. Rather than changing the sound, spirit, and soul of what has made Indie 103.1 great Indie 103.1 will bid farewell to the terrestrial airwaves and take an alternative course. This could only be done on the Internet, a place where rules do not apply and where new music thrives; be it grunge, punk, or alternative simply put, only the best music. For those of you with a computer at home or at work, log on to www.indie1031.com and listen to the new Indie 103.1 - which is really the old Indie 103.1, not the version of Indie 103.1 we are removing from the broadcast airwaves. We thank our listeners and advertisers for their support of the greatest radio station ever conceived, and look forward to continuing to deliver the famed Indie 103.1 music and spirit over the Internet to passionate music listeners around the world.Basically, simply catering to one small niche was not a successful business model. Instead, appealing to the largest possible audience will bring in more listeners. So, playing artists that can still sell platinum records like Lil' Wayne and Coldplay and Taylor Swift seems to be a great business model for the moment. That's why some of the best artists like Atmosphere, dredg, and Lucky Boys Confusion rarely end up on the radio. Even though many people agree that Flo Rida and Soulja Boy are trash, they still sell hundreds of thousands of albums and singles. And in this economy and technological age, that is absoltely impressive. So, think about it? What makes good business sense? Playing an artist that can sell 400,000 albums total or an artist that can still sell that in a week? That's why TV on the Radio isn't on radio, but Coldplay and U2 will be played every other song.
And while I don't particularly like some of the artists on my favorite station back home, Live 105, I will usually listen to it whenever I'm home just because I still like most of the artists they play. But someone more fickle than myself might immediately change the station when they hear a band they dislike. And with more options than ever, any wrong move by a radio station might jeopardize their ratings. Radio needs to find a way to continuing introducing good artists to the world. It's difficult with myspace and other music sites on the internet, but radio could still play the role of a legitimate filter on all the nonsense on the internet. For instance, any band can put their songs on the internet, but what radio needs to do is to find the ones that are actually good and play them. I still look to Live 105 for artists that I've never heard before. Recently, I discovered bands like Anberlin, Pendulum, Far, Airborne Toxic Event, and Iglu & Hartly on Live 105. They aren't necessarily that good, but they are decent and deserve a listen.
But another thing that Live 105 does that other stations should replicate is to have a show that focuses on lesser-known artists. Instead of going overboard and playing only indie artists like Indie 103 did, radio should find a middle ground and adhere to the popular, Top 40 type of music that their parent media conglomerates demand, while also having a show like Soundcheck that plays "indie, punk, local, imports, and new music." Every Sunday from 7-10 PM, the music director at Live 105, Aaron Axelsen, plays artists that normally don't get to be played on commercial radio. So, while the normal playlist on Live 105 contains Papa Roach and Incubus, Soundcheck plays artists like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MC Rut, Morissey, and Lady Sovereign (and those are the ones I've heard of). By having a show that premieres smaller bands, radio stations can gauge the aduience's responses to these new sounds and move these artists to the regular playlist. Basically Soundcheck is something of a compromise between purely corporate radio and fully independent indie/pirate radio. Interestingly, both of these extremes are incredibly alienating, so hopefully the compromise of these two proves to be a successful business plan for radio. Otherwise, I honestly don't know what will become of radio.
What radio needs to offer is something that people can't do for themselves. That is the basic definition of a service. If I can listen to that leaked Jay-Z track before it even gets to the radio (and without ads!), why subject myself to radio? I have the ability to listen to a mashup followed by hip-hop followed by classic rock. There is no radio station that can offer that. But that's why DJs still matter. That personal touch is quintessential for radio. People wonder why Rush Limbaugh is the most popular person on the radio? How/why does he get over 14 million listeners each week? Because he does something for people that they can't do for themselves, he gives them opinions that they want to hear. Radio needs to keep me from switching to my iPod. It needs to keep me engaged. It needs to provide a service that I can't provide for myself.
The most successful radio stations in America are either the ones that offer something no others can with their DJs or exlcusives (Power 106, KROQ, Hot 97) or that cater to the older audiences. The most successful radio stations in America are adult contemporary stations that play artists like Eddie Money and Enya. Adults, the ones who don't regularly download music and update their iPods and refuse to listen to any new music of the past decade, are the ones that still listen to the radio. For that reason, instead of keeping playlists modern and innovative with new artists that may even be unsigned, it appears that a more successful business model is to stick to the oldies and proven artists that have large, older, faithful fan bases.
So where does that leave college radio? It helps being subsidized by a major university as something of an educational experience, but we surely don't get the listenership that warrants us being on the radio. I don't know what will happen, but I suspect as more media ends up on the internet, more and more radio stations will be forced onto the internet as well over time. This does alienate radio's largest listeners, people in cars, but it's a sacrifice radio will have to make. We are at a point in history where all media must reexamine its business model to figure out in which direction it wants to head. Something innovative must occur, otherwise audiences will continue finding ways around advertising. And while TV has found something of a replacement for ads through product placement, this is something radio and newspapers/magazines can't really do.