“It’s Not My Radio Station.” Or Is It?

I was lucky to have a great consultant on my first programming job. It could have been awkward. The late Chicago R&B radio veteran Richard Pegue was a former PD on my station’s frequency. He had also applied for the PD job himself. What he would have done at the helm would have undoubtedly sounded different. And yet, he enthusiastically helped me execute my own vision of the radio station.

Okay, mostly enthusiastically. It was from Richard that I first heard the phrase, “It’s not my radio station.” Sometimes, I think he said “… our station” and was saying it to commiserate with me after a tough day. Sometimes, I’m sure he meant, “Okay, if you insist.” With more time around radio stations, I came to understand this as the thing that a lot of radio people said after a tough day. The phrase “s—t happens” was just becoming popular around then. “It is what it is” was years away from its current usage. So if you meant, “I don’t like it, but I can’t change it,” you said, “It’s not my radio station.”

The intervening years gave broadcasters a lot of chances to feel that way. In 1995, when I started to hear “it’s not my radio station,” it might sometimes be amended with a cheerful “it’s the audience’s radio station, and I do what they want.” As often, the second half of the sentence was “it’s the owner’s radio station.” It wasn’t much longer until the sentence ended with “… it’s Wall Street’s radio station.” And that was if you were lucky enough to still be in a radio station, because many weren’t.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of great projects over the last 15 years or so, usually helping other people flesh out their vision for a broadcast property. Occasionally, somebody will ask the question, “So what would you do if it was your radio station?” I can always answer that, but I know that the right answer for most owners and programmers depends on the life they’re willing to live, and what they feel they can correctly execute. Country’s 2-to-3-share New York niche wasn’t right for many major groups; Cumulus was comfortable with the format and looking for a flagship.

Consultants and researchers have a reputation for being didactic. Over the years, I’ve come to understand how it might happen. A decade or so ago, a station’s consultant and I both left a medium market thinking we had a clear game plan, then watched a PD (with major-market experience and no small level of his own accomplishment) put on something that in no way resembled what we had discussed. The consultant in question was and remains one of the industry’s most respected. He wasn’t the type of consultant you’ve heard about who badgers, or comes to the station and sits at the client’s desk, or plays other mind games. But at that moment, I would have understood if he’d wanted to.

In that case, the PD heard a station in his head, but it was the wrong one, and it didn’t last very long. As often, the issue is that the PD doesn’t hear any ideal station. Today’s cluster strategies have also ensured that somebody will be programming two, three, four or more radio stations. Inevitably, one of them will be a format that the PD does not personally like, or understand. While we like to think that a good programmer can program anything, it’s hard to camouflage not liking a certain format. After a while of trying your best tricks from the format you do like, you still have to have a considered opinion on the music that you schedule, and it’s hard if you don’t like the songs.

Sometimes, liking the songs has been my job. Sometimes there’s somebody else in the programming department who brings the passion for the format that the PD doesn’t have. But not always. It’s an equally old saying that a station is an extension of a PD’s personality, but some stations sound more like a composite playlist of other stations. Or a music test in search of a radio station. And having somebody over four radio stations even saps the energy for the format the programmer does like.

In other words, somebody has to say “it is my radio station.” And mean it. Because these days, listeners effectively have the ability to program their own station. Right now, that station will be an unhosted collection of records somewhere online or on their desktop. But give Alexa time. Rather than provide the second-best approximation of the listener’s personal playlist, it’s okay to offer your own. That doesn’t mean don’t play the hits. Think of it as putting on music for company. You want to play something they’ll like; you want to make your own statement.

“It is my radio station” doesn’t have to just come from one person. Recently, I helped somebody sign on a unique radio station. It was the owner’s vision, but I’ve had a wide latitude to help fill that in. I’ve been gratified both by how happy he is with what he’s hearing, and with the reported response in the market. Paradoxically, because I know how much trust I have, I’m particularly interested in the owner’s thoughts and tweaks. In other words, we’ve reached the best place. It is our radio station.



“It’s Not My Radio Station.” Or Is It?

What AC And Hot AC Must Do Now

I feel a little better about the music in play at Top 40 radio these days. The superstar-laden beginning of fourth quarter had been upstaged, for a few years, by April/May releases jockeying to be Song of Summer, but this fall, it’s definitely a more inspiring group of songs than we were staring at four months ago, to the point where one programmer told me recently that, for the first time in recent memory, he had more worthwhile potential adds than he could accommodate in a given week.

Portugal, The Man’s “Feel It Still” has changed the timbre of the format, now rapidly adapted by the same CHR PDs who let Fitz & the Tantrums songs stay on their side of the CHR/Hot AC divide. There is excitement about Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5. There is universal acclaim for Sam Smith—not a record that fixes the tempo issue, but a quality song that everybody seems to love.

Then there’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” The “Taylor Swift, right or wrong” fans are guarded in their assessments. The detractors aren’t guarded at all. And yet CHR radio has made “Look What You Made Me Do” top 5 while they figure out whether it’s a hit or just an event record—perhaps a meaningless distinction now anyway. I don’t mind. It’s a three-minute energy jolt that has gotten CHR running again, even if it’s running on vitriol.

These apparent format rebounds are always fragile. They hinge on a few records and they don’t always pan out. I remember writing a “hey, look at all these hits” column in early 1992, a few months later, we were plunged into CHR’s worst doldrums ever. And even if “Feel It Still” actually breaks the grip of 85 b.p.m. EDM ballads, the major labels still have six months’ worth of those songs, and loping midtempo tropical pop, to move through the system before anything can really change.

Either way, what Hot AC and Adult Contemporary radio must do is clear now. It wasn’t a great thing for CHR, Adult Top 40/Hot AC, and AC to be jammed so close together even when the music was good. The PPM moment when it seemed to work for everybody to play the same hits was short-lived (and at a time when any actual changes in formats’ fortunes may have been obscured by Voltair anyway). Eventually, fewer differences meant fewer reasons to listen to any station for a sustained period.

Now, it is possible to listen to Hot AC and hear that format and Mainstream AC struggling to digest CHR’s leftovers. I had that experience a few weeks ago with an Adult CHR that was still heavily invested in nine-month-old to two-year-old CHR hits, particularly EDM ballads. Some were undeniable hits on the “Don’t Let Me Down” magnitude. Some were the next tier of the genre—“Sit Still, Look Pretty” followed by “Starving” a few songs later.

AC doesn’t usually get to the second tier of songs. But its present model for current music is a six-to-nine month ratification of CHR hits. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” becomes not the Song of Summer 2016, but winter 2017. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” a song that ignited at CHR immediately upon its release on Jan. 6, goes 2-1 AC this week.

Sometimes the lag has worked in Mainstream AC’s favor. Earlier this year, when Top 40 was at its sludgiest, AC still had “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Cake By The Ocean” in current rotation. An AC client remarked that his had become the station in the market for tempo, and he was correct. But now, AC is going to be processing “Say You Won’t Let Go” and “Stay” for a while, if the pattern holds.

Mainstream AC has another issue to contend with. Over the past six months, a lot of the late ‘00s pop music has started to look shaky in AC music testing. It often looks very different from station to station—it might be a single artist or several. Even if I didn’t want you to do your own research, I would warn against any across-the-board response to that statement.

But the concept of the “millennial AC,” so exciting a few years ago, is challenged now by a simultaneous softening of the current product, and weakness in the library titles that PDs were so depending on. It’s not necessarily the fault of those songs, as much as the way we’ve handled them. They didn’t get a chance to go away and come back a few years later. Instead, AC had to take in “Firework” and “Hey, Soul Sister” when they had 40% burn at CHR. And unlike the ‘80s category, it was a relatively small handful of artists and music styles.

Hot AC programmers have the easiest remedies, beginning with better use of their gold library. There was never any law that “’90s to Now” had to mean “but mostly now.” There are a few Adult Top 40s—WKRQ (Q102) Cincinnati, WQAL (Q104) Cleveland, WWMX (Mix 106.5) Baltimore—that are successfully operating as the current hit music stations in their markets. For most others, the franchise is being the relief button from CHR, at least until Top 40 gets consistently better.

There are also Hot AC programmers who see an opportunity to delve back into pop/alternative titles again. For most, that means more attention to a relative few titles—Portugal, Judah & the Lion, the Revivalists, the next Imagine Dragons—but the idea of a Modern AC comeback now is intriguing. And Sinclair Communications, which has tried an Alternative/CHR hybrid in the past, is doing so again, this time on former CHR KSXY (the 101) Santa Rosa, Calif. 

The notion of taking control of current product will be daunting for many Hot AC and especially AC PDs. Adult formats have gotten used to being handed viable product from Mainstream CHR. Even as the pipeline began to clog this spring, they were more excited to play songs that had been ratified by CHR, even if they weren’t a perfect fit, than to help develop a “Million Reasons” or “Play That Song.”

For many programmers now, the reaction could be relying even more heavily on the exact recurrents that have been making CHR less exciting for the last year. It’s a natural instinct, like turning down the radio after a near miss on the highway. But I’m not sure what the benefit is in “play mediocre records more and hold on to them longer.” And it hasn’t helped Country or Alternative much. For AC and Hot AC, the answer is going to be going both older and newer, and recognizing the dearth of music from the last 18 months for what it is.

What AC And Hot AC Must Do Now

The Early Days of Station Streaming

By Sean Ross

I can make no claims to being a digital native, but I did figure out this morning that I’ve been streaming broadcast radio for more than half of my adult life. It was almost exactly twenty years ago, early June 1997, that streaming became the primary way that I listened to the radio.

At that point, streaming had finally burgeoned past a handful of early experiments (going back to late 1994). The previous year, I’d gone to a friend’s place and he’d proudly shown me that he could stream Capital FM London. It sputtered. It buffered. It was listenable for about one song. (This one.)

I can’t remember why it took me another six months, but when I did start streaming Capital FM for myself, they became my P1 radio station within days, wresting me away from WHTZ (Z100) New York. And since Z100 was pretty terrific in summer 1997—during the full flower of CHR’s comeback, and its own—that took some doing.

I often joke that streaming allowed me to get married. When I met my wife in October 1997, she never had to know that my idea of fun used to be going on radio road trips; she may have figured it out though, because when we did drive somewhere with the radio playing, she had to get used to talking during the music, not the jock break, the opposite of what most people would have done. But to my friend who used to have to tape the BBC Radio 1 countdown for me in the early ‘90s, shhhh!

Streaming didn’t eliminate the need for the radio road trip, or “listen lines” (hearing a station over the phone on the private number given to consultants and group heads) right away. For the first few years, the stations that were available were the novelties, not the rule. Streaming was only starting to reach ubiquity in the early ‘00s when AFTRA royalty issues forced some stations offline again for several more years.

So at that point, one listened to what was available—not to a fantasy dial of all of one’s favorites. There were usually a few stations playing contemporary music from any given country, and not always from the obvious markets. The other choices for the U.K. were Key 103 Manchester, which quickly became a favorite, and Broadlands 102 (now Heart FM Norwich). The best choice for Sweden was Hit FM Malmo (now Mix Megapol). Some were as focused as American CHRs, but the European model of broad-based Hot ACs with lots of odd oldies was still prevalent at the time (and hasn’t entirely disappeared today).

The same randomness applied to who was available in North America. CKZZ (Z95.3) Vancouver was the first station that gave me my long-desired regular access to Canadian radio, and a monster CHR at that time. I don’t remember as much about who was available from the U.S., but I did end up listening to KBCQ Roswell, N.M., because it was there. The domestic station that I remember streaming most, a year later, was Country KPLX Dallas, when it became The Wolf, effectively becoming my New York Country station, since none could be received at my Billboard desk in Times Square.

Just because a station was streaming, you couldn’t count on actually hearing it. The player might not launch. The stream might not launch. The stream would appear to launch, but only silence was heard. Streaming should have been a conversation piece with co-workers, but usually the buffering was so bad I had to turn stations down when colleagues came in the office. One co-worker remembers me gesturing to the player, as if to a toddler, and saying “c’mon . . .  buffer for daddy!”

Five years before the advent of iTunes, the problems were worse if you were on a Mac. Stations tended to design their streaming player for Windows first. (It was often the Windows Media Player on which they were streaming.) The Mac version was done last, and sometimes would get done right before a station upgraded its Windows player, rendering the Mac version unusable within weeks or days of its launch. I remember somebody in charge of station streaming explaining to me, also as if to a toddler, that nobody was on Macs, as I tried in vain to explain that my entire industry already was.

Being able to stream the world made me seem particularly prescient about music. Not every European hit would surface here, but you only needed one “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia for the early warning system to make you look smart. I learned to tune into NRJ Berlin’s afternoon countdown (at 9 a.m. my time) after “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega was pushed out of No. 1 by “Blue” by Eiffel 65, thus giving me two great tips for my American A&R friends in a row.

The challenge, of course, was trying to figure out what those songs were, especially those not in English, in the days before most players listed title and artist. In the pre-Shazam era, trying to identify a song still meant a call to a busy station request line, or to a crotchety station receptionist who immediately wanted to shunt you off to a busy station request line. I finally figured out a song I heard on Rix FM years later by humming it for a Swedish consultant in the lobby of the NAB Radio Show.

I can disclose this level of geekery now because streaming radio (broadcast or online only) has become a mass-appeal activity, despite roadblocks old and new.The first few years of streaming were beset by multiple problems, but not by those stopset substitution challenges that arose in the mid-‘00s, issues that many American stations have yet to fully work through more than a decade later. That doesn’t mean that streaming was a better experience back then. For years, it was strictly for the determined. But it doesn’t mean that stations can stop striving now.

The Early Days of Station Streaming