Who Really Controls Radio

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 surveys.

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

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