Why Commercial Radio is Scared

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Why Commercial Radio is Scared

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Last week, the LA Times ran a front page article claiming that commercial radio stations around the country were taking a conservative music programming approach in the wake of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's payola investigations. Mr. Spitzer's investigations have been focusing on ridding the airwaves of music added to radio stations on the basis of financial remuneration, professional muscle and other questionable programming practices. The article went on to surmise that radio programmers were consciously choosing to keep the airwaves as recognizable as possible, to keep above Mr. Spitzer's suspicions. Rather than draw attention to new programming choices that might spark an investigation, the Times reported that programmers are choosing to program familiar artists and familiar sounds.

I'm not buying it.

Commercial radio programmers have long depended on their star power to bring in audiences.

Instead of innovating with the times, these giants of big business have chosen to remain static, bland, unimaginative and unimpressive. Familiarity is their core merchandise and, driven by power and greed, they've relied on the public airwaves to claim their turf. It worked for a very long time. But audiences aren't the same as they were in the early 90s. Things have changed dramatically over the last decade, with technology expanding, and opportunities to find music exploding. Instead of seizing the opportunity to reinvent themselves, and lay the groundwork for innovation, excitement and their own cultural revolution, commercial radio stations are quick to point to Elliot Spitzer as the problem.

But a radio station is as good as its programmer. The problem with music on commercial radio is not Eliot Spitzer; it's the programmers who make the music choices every day.

This is not rocket science. Radio stations, whether local or national, on the Internet, a podcast or satellite, are connections directly into the hearts and minds of an interested audience.

If the programmer doesn't build an emotional alliance with them, the radio station becomes irrelevant.

So when radio stations took money and favors and played mediocre songs over and over, they turned off their own audience. Nothing could be more difficult to recover from. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

The listeners are moving on. They're not just moving to another radio station on the dial, they're exploring satellite, podcasting and online radio as well. Radio listeners want to be part of something innovative, not institutional.

In the old days, you were either part of the problem, or part of the solution. In today's world, if you don't innovate, you won't survive.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.