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The Best Mix Of Hits And Plausible Deniability posted on October 29th, 2014

Can Radio Create More Radio?

When we last visited my dentist, he had switched to classical WQXR New York from WLTW, his longtime office choice, after finally declaring Lite FM too current, too repetitious, and too edgy. Lite’s ongoing transition to brighter AC had worked for millions, but my dentist wanted, surprise, dentist office music.

That was exactly what was playing at my dentist’s office on my next visit. There was light classical that I first thought might still be WQXR. Then there was “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. Then there was what sounded like opera.

It was his newly created Andrea Bocelli channel on Pandora. And when I asked, he enthusiastically described his iPad/Bluetooth/Bose speaker set-up at length. I’m used to interviewing anybody about radio who gives me an opening, but my dentist talked about radio more than I’d heard him do in 15 years. And if a patient complained about Andrea Bocelli, he handed them the iPad and let them choose another channel.

I’ve seen my dentist as early as 8:30 and as late as 7 p.m. He’s almost always played WLTW or WPLJ, the latter being another station that had evolved away from his tastes. There was never a time when no radio was playing in his office or that of his hygienist. At a time when broadcasters are scrapping for a few more nine minute listening occasions, one man had just single-handedly taken 40 hours of weekly listening out of play.

Suggesting that radio play more Andrea Bocelli hardly seems like million dollar advice. Most broadcasters would identify Bocelli as exactly the artist that can’t be accommodated on mainstream broadcast radio. American radio didn’t find a place for him during his stretch as a Norah Jones-type phenomenon nearly 20 years ago. And most would agree that the people who want to hear Andrea Bocelli are the people they can’t serve. But this was a mainstream radio listener until six weeks ago.

The audience that wants something other than what mainstream broadcast radio can viably offer them has never seemed like a large group. When satellite radio launched, the willful depth and obscurity of the pre-Howard Stern days seemed like it was aimed only at mainstream radio refusniks. When initial adaptation was slow, broadcasters felt vindicated.

But now there are 26-million Sirius XM subscribers. In Edison Research’s spring Share of Ear survey, they accounted for 8% of all audio consumption. Satellite’s mainstream channels are still deeper than their broadcast counterparts, but they are no longer playing songs I’ve never heard of by artists you’ve never heard of. The depth is in the breadth of channel selections – Broadway, ‘00s Country, “Deep Cuts” Classic Rock. Satellite radio has a clear foothold now in providing the “other radio” that broadcast cannot. And they do so with channels that are often hosted and never sound as hastily assembled as comparable HD Radio broadcast sub-channels.

Then there’s the 6% share of ear that goes to Pandora. Despite its early eclecticism, Pandora has mostly played the hits for five years, if that’s what you ask them for. Enter a hit and with some occasional outliers (why do I keep hearing “My Girl” by Otis Redding?), you’ll get another hit as defined by years of broadcast radio’s research. But when you want Andrea Bocelli, he’s there. And we’ve had tangible evidence for more than a year that Pandora replaces both broadcast listening and music collection usage, despite radio’s talking points.

It’s been known for a while that in any extensive tier of audio, whether satellite radio, music services on cable TV or the DAB stations in England and Australia, that the mainstream choices are often the most popular. But whether it’s Pandora’s skip button or satellite’s niche channels, what seems to work for broadcast’s rival audio providers is playing the hits, but providing the plausible deniability of variety. Offering a reggae channel doesn’t just move that listening away from broadcast, it makes it possible for listening to more mainstream offerings to take place outside broadcast’s walls, too.

Listener demand for “the other radio” is, in other words, enough to be missed. If radio still controlled the combined 14% of audio consumption that goes to Pandora and satellite, radio would still be around two-thirds of all listening, instead of hanging in around the 50% mark.

Broadcasters had the opportunity with a decade of HD Radio efforts to create “the other radio.” Satellite radio was a simpler, more elegant solution than HD, as consumers made clear. But the net effect of creating hundreds of additional stations should have been to create an additional tier of “other radio” that was ready to flourish on IP, not merely on its own platform. Those channels have been hobbled by a lack of resources: broadcasters spending just enough money to waste it.

During that same decade, broadcasters continued to create demand for “the other radio” by turning once mainstream formats into “the other radio,” especially if it involved listeners over 45. Oldies almost disappeared from FM a decade ago. What is now called “Classic Hits” dominates some markets, but has never returned to others (or is starting to disappear again). Smooth Jazz did effectively disappear. Classic Rock is now under greater scrutiny. This even though 45-plus listeners, like my still youthful dentist, haven’t broken their lifelong ties to radio unless pushed.

With Pandora and Sirius XM redefining a reasonable spotload for many listeners, “the other radio” that broadcasters might offer is their own mainstream products with fewer interruptions. Journal Broadcasting Milwaukee’s Radio League app offers a dozen formats with lower spotloads. Some of those formats are mainstream. Some are creative, like the current Oktoberfest format, or the surprisingly cohesive mix of any act that played Milwaukee’s mammoth Summerfest, regardless of genre.

And then you have to consider iHeart Radio, which does offer channels beyond iHeart Media’s own broadcast stations, as well as Pandora-type customized listening. In early 2014, 9% of Infinite Dial respondents were monthly iHeart Radio users, although their first use was far and away to stream broadcast radio. Why hadn’t my dentist tried iHeart Radio for Andrea Bocelli? When I asked my dentist, he wasn’t aware of iHeart Radio, which may come as a shock to anybody who has heard it promoted so extensively on iHM’s own airwaves.

The magnitude of the task is daunting. Getting the attention of those who have already moved away from broadcast is especially scary: broadcast isn’t reaching those listeners, and theirs aren’t necessarily trusted brands. With everything broadcasters have to do to run their own stations day-to-day, it would be easy for them not to grapple with creating the other radio at all, and many do not. Yet, finding the irresistible package of hits and just enough variety is key to being able to service both moods for listeners going forward.