Contemporary Commercial Radio

Hosted by
Everyone in the music business knows, that the most effective way to sell records in America, is consistent and considerable airplay on commercial radio. And yet, one of the biggest complaints I hear, is how dull commercial radio sounds. The same sound, same kind of music, on the same stations, town to town. Not at all what the radio from the 60-s, 70-s and 80-s was all about.

Back then the local radio station was a beacon of light for hit music, introducing new and local talent regularly into the mix. Music decisions were made by programmers on their gut feel, with their ear to the ground, surveying the live scene, and local record stores. DJ-s developed celebrity personalities of large stature in their market. Audiences remained very loyal to their favorite commercial stations. Bands who broke on local radio became hometown heros, and when they went on to sell millions, credited their early beginnings with that favorite station. The local radio station was the centerpoint of what was happening in town, with the print and television mediums falling second and third.

So what changed? In the mid 80-s, commercial radio became a hot purchase for investors. It was not uncommon for a radio station to be bought on a Monday, and make significant format changes on a Tuesday. Wall Street convinced radio station owners that familiarity bred listeners and listeners bred strong ratings. Since strong ratings brought more advertisers, programmers decided to forgo a lot of new and local programming in favor of a familiar hit sound. New owners wanted to be sure the programming was right, so they hired consultants to help them decide on the sound mix. The consultants tested the worthiness of songs on the radio with a market research system called "call out research". In call out research, market research companies call consumers and play them a small portion of the most significant hook of the song over the phone. If the song doesn-t get a strong response, and if there aren-t a lot of phone requests into the station for that song, the single is dropped immediately. Call out research remains the predominant system for programming in radio today.

With so many investing in radio, small conglomerates began to emerge. Though companies were not allowed to own more than one station in a particular market, they began to own chains of radio stations around the country. Many stations added an automated system, not unlike the music systems heard in elevators. Stations often lost their live djs, opting instead for precorded deejay breaks to be run later in the week. Major news events and emergencies couldn-t be a primary concern since there were few live deejays.

Then in 1996, the FCC decided to pull the cap on media ownership, allowing a single person or conglomerate to own multiple stations in a single market. A literal feeding frenzy ensued, and thousands of stations were bought and sold in the subsequent years. Station programmers relied more heavily on market research to find their perfect listener. Labels tried harder to win that new artist slot on radio, retaining expensive producers to spice up the hooks of songs to influence the call out research. Labels would also hire teams to kids to call radio stations to pad the radio request lines. The testing time became shorter and shorter to bring in a hit and songs rarely received a fair shot at radio. Proven hits were played much more, and usually songs that sounded like that last big hit were given a break first. Since record labels were releasing 10 times the number of records they had released in the 60-s, the competition for one of the 3 or 4 new add slots on radio became fierce competition each week. Stations began bartering with labels for which records would be added to the playlist. It-s standard practice for labels to offer live live performances of their biggest acts, in order to get a new band a slot on the radio. Local bands and independent labels can-t compete in this environment and the sound of radio has became more and more formatted and lifeless, with little diversity and vision.

We-ve forgotten what made commercial radio great for so many years and it-s a real injustice in my view. It-s the power of a new sound, coupled with the understanding of its significance, being given the forum to breathe on the air, with a sense of commitment and community those are the elements that make great radio. Music defines culture and radio is an important and powerful way to excite and inspire. Let-s not let our airwaves be dominated without that vision.