The Week Radio Got Moving

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It’s easy to be cynical about broadcast radio. If you’re predisposed to being down on radio, there’s a lot of ammo, much of it discharged by broadcasters into their own foot. Even if you love radio, there’s often a feeling that broadcasters – overwhelmed by their day-to-day challenges – are standing by as new media’s days of miracle and wonder take place without them.

But I feel really good about radio this week, and it was a few small headlines that did it. Each reported a minor development that was quickly swept away in a flurry of other news, but all were encouraging in the aggregate.

  • CBS Radio retooled the HD-2 station of alternative KITS (Live 105) San Francisco from classic alternative to “Indie 105,” a station into which they have audibly put more care and feeding than the average side channel.
  • iHeart Radio, which had previously launched an online only themed station built around Panama City, Fla.,, brought “Real Fun Beach Radio” to the broadcast dial in that market through an FM translator. Like WKAZ (Tailgate Radio) Charleston, W. Va.,  “Real Fun Beach Radio” is a mix (although a significantly different one) of uptempo party songs that can be “Island Girl” by Elton John or “Pirate Ship” by Kenny Chesney or “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root.
  • iHeart used its Minneapolis translator to launch a throwback hip-hop and R&B station. Digity used a FM translator to return mainstream urban radio to West Palm Beach. I have gone on the record in this column against the use of translators for the sole purpose of hurting a competitor; I’m happier when they’re used to bring a unique service to a market.
  • Emmis Communications unveiled the mobile app “Where Hip Hop Lives,”  that featured (at its paid level) commercial free streams of KPWR (Power 106) Los Angeles, WQHT (Hot 97) New York, and a channel built around the successful “New at 2” feature. In doing so, Emmis acknowledged that broadcasters might need to offer lower-spotload versions of their products online to compete with online radio. There was also the tacit acknowledgement that no matter how many listeners might be repatriated by an FM chip in smartphones that some listeners will prefer to stream and should be acknowledged.

What the efforts had in common was that they all acknowledged the need for radio to offer more choice and “more radio.”  The Panama City station is also the sort of mood service-based channel that radio has thus far left largely to Spotify and Songza. I am not naïve about the potential impact of one extra audio side-channel here or there. I have not stopped worrying that anything broadcasters do to offer programming choice or saner spotloads will be too little, too late. But a steady stream of creativity is better than the alternative, and if no “magic bullet” is in evidence here, it is the kind of atmosphere in which “Uber for Radio” might emerge.

I would prefer to think of the last week as “the week radio got moving again.” And all they have to do now is do it again this week, and next week.

One reason radio needs to keep up the momentum is that this might also be remembered as the week that iTunes Radio got moving, sort of. The new Apple Music has already been amply dumped on. The forthcoming Beats 1 radio was quickly dismissed as “a terrible executive vanity project.”  Broadcasters decided within hours of the original iTunes Radio’s September 2013 launch that they could stop paying attention, and nothing thus far is likely to change their mind.

But Beats 1 doesn’t have to be the next iPhone to have an impact. It only has to be as big as SiriusXM Hits 1 or the Spotify channels that feature new releases to have a footprint. Even the disappointment that was the original iTunes Radio helped break Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” Spotify, Sirius and Shazam quietly have become America’s music directors, and even a modestly successful Beats 1 will have enough cume to join them. The biggest wild card now is whether the new channel will follow BBC Radio 1 as an adventurous CHR, or whether it is only copying the service’s most eclectic “specialist” programs.

Apple was also attacked for launching anything as analog, or anodyne, as a hosted, real-time radio station.

But there are still a lot of people who like radio as an entertainment package. It has been to broadcast radio’s advantage that none of its rivals have seen an opportunity in offering more than music. If Beats 1 any good, the only problem will be that there’s only one such channel while satellite radio, say, offers more than 150 choices. Broadcast radio, meanwhile, has had trouble coming up with as elegant or simple a national platform as its rivals. But any week that it shows a conscious effort to create content—its strength—is a good week.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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