Not In The Mood For Formats?

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It was only an FM translator, but it was a long-overdue move. A few weeks ago, iHeart Media’s Panama City, Fla., cluster put iHeart Radio’s “Real Fun Beach Radio” format on FM. I could explain here that “Beach Radio” was a mix of oldies, pop, and country that spans from Kenny Chesney and Florida Georgia Line to Jimmy Buffett and Ziggy Marley to LMFAO, but chances are good that you figured it out from the name or that you’d get it from the slugline, “Songs for the Summertime.”

Listeners figured it out as well. “This music really puts you in the ‘beach mode.’ Great selection of tunes,” posted one. “You’ve got to love a little bit of everything to get you through the day,” wrote another. There was “I love the mix of genres,” “I love the country music that’s thrown in there,” and, to be fair, a few who complained about the country, or added, “You’re really stretching the concept a bit.”

Mood service as a format isn’t entirely new to North America. Five years ago, CIUP (Up! 99.3) Edmonton, Alberta, launched a format that was essentially “adult hits” of the Jack/Bob variety, but positioned more around usage. CHUP (Up! 97.7) Calgary followed shortly thereafter. At that time, broadcast radio’s competition was Pandora, and broadcasters were only grudgingly acknowledging its significance.

But since then we’ve seen:

  • The launch of today’s version of Songza, which as I write this afternoon is offering me playlists for “making dinner” or “having friends over.” Even before it was absorbed by Google, Songza had become the service that Canadian friends were most likely to mention, especially since it got a head start on Spotify or Pandora.
  • The increasing inroads made by Spotify, whose “browse” screen increasingly emphasizes usage and mood service over its initial music-collection-replacement utility. “The weekend starts now!” declares my home screen, offering me such choices as “TGIF,” “Dance Workout,” and “Fresh Friday.”
  • The unveiling of iHeart Radio’s “Perfect For” feature, with many of iHR’s non-FM choices grouped by usage (currently including “Father’s Day,” “A Road Trip,” “Having a Laugh,” “Working Out” and “Video Gaming.” Many of the offerings within those groupings are more traditionally formatted stations, but there is “50 Minute Workout” and its “wide mix of rap, pop, EDM, and R&B” as well as other unique stations.
  • Even Pandora, whose skip button and artist/song-driven playlists were disruptive enough in 2010, has sent me an e-mail today recommending summer playlists, including “Laid Back Beach Music,” “Cali Reggae,” “Tropical House,” and “Beach Bar Lounge.”

Broadcast radio always had listeners’ usage as subtext. CJEZ (EZ 97.3) Toronto positioned as “My Music at Work.” Up! 99.3 was the Hot AC slogan “the station that picks you up and makes you feel good” boiled down into a station name. CHR has generally done best when it could offer tempo. But usage usually drove programmers into narrower, more obviously defined musical places, not broader ones. The PD most focused on usage was also the one most likely to remind you that nobody goes to McDonald’s for pizza.

But just as Pandora has trained some listeners to expect more-but-shorter commercial breaks, listeners increasingly understand mood service. And in the day and age when “I listen to a little of everything” is a more sincere description, and not merely aspirational, we may be heading into a time when mood service is easier to describe than a genre-based format.

Consider country. At this moment, there are few adult country radio listeners who don’t have their own sense of what the format represents, but I still haven’t figured out a good way to explain it to my 12-year-old daughter, especially now that “it’s the type of music that Taylor Swift makes” is no longer an option. Consider mainstream AC, whose musical focus is shifting faster than ever, and whose intended usage (“unobtrusive, but less so than before”) is hard to distill into a positioner.

It also helps that music has sometimes converged in a way that doesn’t align with label priorities as artists and trends inform each other. A decade ago, radio’s few attempts at “chillout” stations had to depend on music that existed nowhere near the radio, and maybe some of the more ethereal classic rock titles. Today, you could find examples of that sound in most genres. Fans of that era’s “downtempo electronica” would undoubtedly bridle at hearing “Style” by Taylor Swift described that way, but of course it would fit sonically on a “chillout” station. So would the alternative hit “My Type” by Saint Motel, even though that song and “Style” won’t play on the same CHRs for at least three more month.

So how would broadcasters get back into the mood service game? Online services have a head-start and more real estate to work with, especially since listeners have a lot of different moods to service. The idea of devoting HD subchannels entirely to usage-based channels is tempting, although broadcasters are currently busy using those to feed FM translators that often just overpopulate existing formats. But there is still that struggling station somewhere on FM for whom mood-service would be a better, more distinctive choice than being the third CHR.

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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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