If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t listen to broadcast radio as much as you used to—or at all. Playlists are so tight these days that every time you get in your car and punch in your favorite country station, they are playing the same Carrie Underwood song that you were sick of the last 30 times you heard it. And interspersed with the 10 songs they play over and over are 3 or 4 minutes of loud car, jewelry or fast food commercials. No wonder so many people, especially younger ones, are abandoning radio for mp3 players, Pandora, and satellite radio.
Last week, representatives from country radio stations across the U.S. gathered in Nashville for the annual Country Radio Seminar. The record labels pull out all the stops to wine and dine the attendees, and to showcase their new artists and some established artists that could use more airplay. For most new singers, an appearance here could make or break their career. They give private concerts in hotel suites, sign autographs, record promos for hundreds of radio stations, and generally do anything they can to start some buzz, short of streaking through the lobby of the Sheraton.
Country music sales are down 50% in just the last four years, but radio remains the record labels’ primary means of breaking and promoting their artists. Unfortunately for them, the business of radio is not playing music—it’s selling advertising. Most radio stations are owned by big conglomerates, and programming decisions are made by consultants for dozens or hundreds of stations, based on “Which song can we play that will keep a listener from changing to another station?” This kind of thinking leads to music that’s not too dull, but also not too exciting or challenging, making it almost impossible to break new artists. The days of being able to call up a station and request a song that’s not on their playlist are long gone, along with most live disc jockeys. If a station does have a DJ, most likely he or she is not allowed to play anything that’s not approved by the company.
Attendees at last week’s country radio conference were generally upbeat about the future of their industry, at least in public. But they know their core listeners are generally older people, and the young demographic that is most desired by advertisers is getting their entertainment from other sources. Radio stations were given this advice:
- You will need smart phone apps. Both an alarm clock and something that plays the radio because a third of your consumers are waking up to a smart phone.
- Align your streaming offerings to combat Pandora, which will involve getting in touch with the values that consumers see in Pandora that they aren’t getting from our am/fm streams (such as exposing new music and identifying songs).
For hidebound industries that are used to doing things the way they always have, it’s a shocking thing to watch the new digital reality chop down one old business plan after another, from book and newspaper publishing to cd sales and now, broadcast radio.
And those who do not change with the times will get left behind.