Radio Ga-Ga

By Steve Meyer, Inside Music Media™ Contributor
We watch the shows - we watch the stars,
On videos for hours and hours,
We hardly need to use our ears,
How music changes through the years

Let's hope you never leave old friend,
Like all good things on you we depend,
So stick around cos we might miss you,
When we grow tired of all this visual,
You had your time you had the power,
You've yet to have your finest hour,

-- Roger Taylor (QUEEN), 'Radio Ga-Ga'
The above lyrics from one of Queen's best records, are more potent today than when the song first was released twenty three years ago.

How many of you listen to the radio to hear music anymore?

More importantly, how many people do you know, young or old, that are listening to local stations to hear their favorite songs? All you need do is talk to anyone ages 12+ and you'll find out real fast.

They are not "tuned in" to radio.

They have no affinity for listening to it at all.

Oh sure, they hear it on their school bus on the way to and from school (if the driver has one on), might hear it while at school someplace, but they don't turn it on like previous generations. No, they get home, flip on their computers. They are online chatting and/or downloading songs their friends recommend, or they're listening to the CDs they burned as they surf the Internet.

But most of them (and we're talking large numbers) are not listening.

Unless of course they find out there's a free concert being put on by a local station and they want to get tickets. Ditto for any contest that offers something they want (tickets to a major concert, cash, prizes) at that particular moment.

But somebody must be listening, right?

I mean Clear Channel, and other media monoliths do have profits. Those profits are generated by ratings that reflect numbers of audience listening, so where's the logic? Simple. Much of music radio has become a media largely dependent on a great number of on-air promotions to drive (inflate?) real audience numbers.

Radio always was promotion oriented and always went big time promotion during sweeps months. But, first and foremost, people listened to hear their favorite music. And they listened for long periods of time to their favorite stations.

Who's doing that now?

Ask anybody you know, then ask their children -- high-school or college age. Radio is incidental to them at best and many admit the only reason they listen is to get "the free stuff."

So while there are profits, radio (like the record labels) should undertake the task to closely examine where it's going. Because while Nero is fiddling (in this case Clear Channel, et al), Rome (the audience out there) is burning and seeking "shelter" in alternative media.

Radio should remember the way it was at network TV a decade ago.

Big hits equaled big profits. Then two years ago cable viewing beat the big three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC) for the first time ever in total viewer ship. 'Madison Avenue' had to adjust those media plans they set for clients and all of a sudden (for the first time ever) a 30 or 60 second spot on a Top 10 or 20 show wasn't as expensive as it used to be. (Exclusive of events driven programming like the SuperBowl, the Oscars, or the season finale 'Friends', which NBC has created sidebar programming for - the two-hour DATELINE for example - to exploit every available revenue stream).

The TV landscape changed forever as more and more channels became available to the audience and they had other options, other choices, they could make. A Top-10 show two decades ago used to mean a buy from Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler because so many people were watching. That guarantee is no longer there. The number of viewers for a Top 10 show today (again, exclusive of events driven programming) is not the same as it was before viewers had alternate choices.

So that's why smart network folks now use events-driven programming during all sweeps so they can maximize ratings and increase advertising rates and hence revenues. That's why you're bombarded with promos to promote these events. So much rests with the ratings that without these events and promotions, profitability of a network can be jeopardized radically. (Witness Disney's ABC-TV) But the fact is, whether its events driven programs or the networks regular schedule, they want to sustain and increase their audience by entertaining them.

So now, back to radio.

As Madison Avenue has forever adjusted media planning strategies on the TV side, they are also examining radio more than ever for clients. This week I spoke to a media buyer that represents an agency that spends hundreds of millions a year on TV and radio...and she told me: " Radio now is still a must buy for too many of our clients...but what we're seeing is a shift in listening habits of teens, 18-24s, and even upper demos from focus groups we do. If these shifts continue, it's going to be difficult for stations to keep existing ad rates because at some point, we'll be able to make segmented buys in print, on cable, online, for the same or even less if we do it right, and still be able to deliver audience for clients. The big shift of course is clients wanting creative online campaigns."

I've said for a long time now that the music industry is not going to go away. It's just going to exist in a different model.

I've also said that the industry's survival depends on having music people run the companies because they are the salvation. I believe the same holds true for music radio. The music is the most important product music radio offers the public. Not the contests, free concerts, or traffic reports.

At some point (and that time is closer than you think), music radio will have to adjust to what's happening out here in the world they live in. Satellite radio now has twelve million plus subscribers. That’s twelve million willing to pay for something more than what’s available on terrestrial radio today.

Radio does indeed have the power to be such a potent force. It can create a relationship with its audience so strong (as it does today with many syndicated shows like Howard Stern, Limbaugh, et al) that it can create audience as big as that of any Top 20 network TV show. I hope radio indeed has yet to have its "finest hour" as it says in those song lyrics. But I have my doubts. The clock is ticking; the audience at-large is looking for new music as I write this. And millions of them aren't turning the dial on their radio to find it.

Steve Meyer is one of the music industry's top professionals and publisher of the new media newsletter DISC & DAT.