Radio Waves: October 1

How online services can help remake radio

Radio has always had trends, and one trend that always seems to periodically reappear is the idea of “narrowcasting” — generally thought of as limiting the various genres a station may play.

The idea is relatively sound in a programming research way: super-serve your audience by playing what they want to hear, and leaving out the songs that many cause tune-out. And over the years in its various cycles, the plan has worked, broken up by the sudden (and sometimes unexpected) resurgence of mass-appeal top-40 formats that broaden the playlist significantly.

One example harkens back to the late 1970s, in which many of the formerly top-rated Am top-40 stations were replaced by stations forcing on one style of music, be it rock, alternative, new wave, disco, or even country. But then stations like KIIS-FM went mainstream in the early 1980s and brought top-40 back into the limelight, blowing out the competition by playing a wide playlist once again.

It seems like this is the way it goes… stations get big playing a huge playlist, then others come in and steal listeners by going narrow. Indeed, KIIS-FM itself was temporarily knocked out  of the top spot by Power 106 in 1986, when Power focussed on dance music, though one could easily argue that KIIS reacted too much and started sounding too much like Power itself, sending listeners elsewhere.

More recently, it seems that narrowcasting has become the norm again, and longer than the typical cycle. Yet a recent article on PowerGold questions the wisdom of the trend in today’s competitive reality.

In the column, Sean Ross argues that with online music services — he specifically mentions SiriusXM, but the same argument could be applied to Apple Music, Spotify, and even many independent streaming services — doing the narrowcasting, is it truly a good idea for a broadcast station to maintain such a narrow playlist? Might it be better to expand?

In Ross’ opinion, yes. And he gives examples of stations that have expanded with great success. WISX/Philadelphia, WLTW/New York, WFEZ/Miami as a few examples, and the resurgence of a format known as Active Rock, a format I’ve been pushing to get in Los Angeles for years. 

Ross’ examples are mostly related to light-rock and adult contemporary formats, and he is on the money. One reason that KOST (103.5 FM) and My FM (KBIG, 104.3 FM) beat sister KIIS-FM (102.7) — at one time the music leader of all music stations in the country — is that KOST and My FM tend to play more styles of music … exactly what KIIS-FM used to do when KOST and KBIG stayed tight with only light hits and oldies.

If you were not paying that close attention, you might even say that My FM, especially, sounds much KIIS-FM of the 1980s. And like KIIS-FM of the 1980s, My FM is one of the dominant music stations in town.

The problem with narrowcasting is that it works … but only for a while. Eventually, people tire of the same sound. That’s what happened with KROQ (106.7 FM), KLOS (95.5 FM), to a lesser degree Alt 98.7, and why KRTH (101.1 FM) and KOLA (99.9 FM) have thrived by adding more recent but still older songs and leaving behind what many consider true oldies, the songs from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

KLOS figured it out … the playlist has been expanded (though still not as much as I’d like), and the ratings have rebounded. I think the time is ripe for an Active Rock station — one playing a wider variety of rock and roll — to make an appearance, perhaps at KROQ, a station that once defined the format. Active Rock plays literally anything, and can adapt with the times. You aren’t stuck with songs from Twenty One Pilots.

And it must be noted that KIIS-FM is even expanding somewhat, such that you can once again hear songs that don’t sound like all the rest.

So while it may be an accident, and many successful business decisions and creative ideas are, stations that stop trying to program against online services are going to be the next big thing. You’re already seeing it … broadcast radio’s future may indeed be bright.

Morning Woody

While there are numerous morning shows I enjoy, The Woody Show on Alt 98.7 is still my favorite. The primary reason is that the team — Woody, Ravey, Greg Gory, and Menace — are all friends, and more importantly fun. Listening lately, I have realized that Ravey is my favorite because she constantly says things that just crack me up. Is it the sarcasm or the dark humor? I’m not sure. Probably both.

The show has been among the most popular shows in town since shortly after it arrived in April, 2014. If you have not checked it out, tune in to Alt from 5 to 10 a.m., though be aware: they rebroadcast earlier segments in the final hours … something I detest …

What are your favorite morning DJs and hosts? Do you prefer music? News? Shows like Woody? Let me know what you like and why … send me a note and I’ll put your favorites together for a future column so that we can all find something to suit our tastes.