In the July/August issue of Grammy Magazine, a limited-circulation
publication distributed to members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and
Sciences (the professional group that presents the Grammy Awards each
year), contributing writer Chris Gennusa writes about music radio
programming, attempting to identify just who controls it.
He examines the roles of record labels (their free promotional content is
pretty much all the radio stations have to go with, since radio is not about to
spend large chunks of money on purchasing albums when they get so much for
free), national radio consultants (they consolidate trends and audience
data for program directors), program directors (they're supposed to be
the ones in control, after all), or "listeners" as reflected in audience
Gennusa finally throws up his hands at the end, maintaining: "there are
a half-dozen people of varying clout fighting over [the playlist] -- and
sometimes it's like trying to tie a shoelace by committee." But this just
dances around the central point without finally making it: It is the mass market
revenue structure itself that controls content on music radio. All of
these people are slaves to the market system, which is ultimately
most clearly defined as the delivery of demographic target markets to radio
advertisers en masse, as measured by radio station listener surveys
such as Arbitron Radio.
Markets versus Individuals
Everyone knows (or should know) that individual tastes run far wider than the
averages of a market demographic containing those individuals. To the extent
that audience performance is measured by a mass average, it is guaranteed to
remain moderate and homogeneous. If any particular cut is so powerful as to
evoke a positive passion in many listeners, it must also evoke negative passions
in many others, enough to measurably reduce listenership, given today's
sophisticated measurement techniques.
Music that is moderate enough will be more generally tolerable, causing less
listeners to flip the channel. Muzak learned this with their "scientific" music
design many years ago, and similar techniques are now routinely applied to radio
programming, whether by consultants, programmers, record labels (trying to outguess
the demographics), or anyone else, whether intentionally or subconsciously. In the
press to maximize ad revenue by maximizing ratings (number of listeners), any
content that threatens the maximum audience (on average) will not survive.
Niche Formats versus Custom Channels
There is a familiar argument made by radio people these days that nobody
wants to listen to an extremely narrow format (one flippant name for this
given at a recent music industry conference was "Bolivian nose flute
music"). They argue that trying to target narrower and narrower
demographics by narrowing the content in the program format leads to less
listeners, and thus is financially counterproductive. What they don't
acknowledge is that genuine individual customization is not a matter of
narrowing down to an individual's single favorite tune and playing it
incessantly, but that an individual has a much wider range of taste
than what is simultaneously acceptable to all members of any demographic
market, no matter how one defines that market.
The very concept of high-rotation formats is tailored to address
listeners as groups and not as individuals, and no amount of tweaking
any system based on this paradigm will ever be capable of completely (or
perhaps even largely) satisfying the desires of a single individual listener.
This is where the custom-casting ideas expressed in our article
A Modest Proposal: Audio Programming From Online Catalogs
and beginning to be implemented by Spinner.com and
Imagine Radio address this issue in a
direct and potentially productive manner.
Format-based radio will
probably endure indefinitely, because there will always be some room at
the top of the heap for celebrities and hits and megastars. However we
may be at the beginning of a road to where this becomes the exception
rather than the status quo, and broadcast radio further adjusts its
balance away from music and more towards talk/news programming, to take
advantage of the immediacy of the live human voice that it handles better
than any other technology.
As long as the average taste of markets rules culture, rather than
individual choice (as one hopes might occur increasingly on the customizable Internet),
music radio must reflect that constraint in its commercially successful content.
- Dan Krimm, 7/98