By: David Schultz
At the end of this year, Howard Stern, arguably the most significant figure in the history of commercial radio will be leaving the medium he reinvented to become the biggest star of the emerging technology known as satellite radio. Coming with Stern to SIRIUS Satellite Radio will be approximately two million listeners who will discover a radically different radio landscape. For many, it will be their first exposure to the multitude of intelligently programmed channels, efficiently segregated by musical genres, playing songs and artists rarely heard on commercial radio. In addition to finding a wider range of music, the newcomers Stern will bring with him to SIRIUS will find 60-plus channels wonderfully devoid of commercial interruption. The grim reaper may not have come for commercial radio just yet. However, he is sitting in the lobby calmly awaiting his 3:00 appointment.
The entrée into satellite radio entails a modest initial investment of a receiver. Although SIRIUS' competitor, XM Radio has a larger variety of less expensive portable radios which act as a handheld receiver, a receiver will set the listener back approximately $250 with a monthly subscription fee of $10 to $12. Downplaying the growing sales of satellite radios, devotees of commercial radio steadfastly cling to the belief that as long as music is available for free, terrestrial radio will continue to dominate the market. Infinity Broadcasting seems to feel as such, titling their Stern replacement programming FREE – FM. Such a belief is eerily reminiscent of those who thought that cable TV would never blossom because the majority of homeowners already received network TV channels for free. Viewers now demand much more than their MTV: they demand hundreds of channels, fork over hundreds of dollars a month for them and cannot fathom living without cable. Since Stern's announcement, SIRIUS' subscriptions have quadrupled from 600,000 to approximately 2.2 million. Once Stern becomes exclusive to SIRIUS, those numbers will only rise.
The most attractive aspect of satellite radio is the absence of commercials. Your average radio station interrupts the music every two or three songs to insert roughly three to seven minutes of commercials. While academic that commercial radio will have commercials, no listener exists that prefers ads to music. Satellite radio also offers a great number of stations, each devoting its airtime to a different genre of music. Although each commercial radio station defines itself by its genre, the play list of its satellite radio equivalent skews towards deeper cuts from a wider variety of artists, providing an aural treat to musical gourmands.
Clear Channel Communications' radio stations best illustrate commercial radio's self imposed limitations. Over the past decade, the Clear Channel conglomerate has gobbled up hundreds of stations nationwide, implementing their own programming standards and practices which devote the lion's share of airplay to established artists and current hits. Consequently, Clear Channel's programming, like that of most top-40 stations, is homogenized, uninspiring and uninventive. Even the classic rock and alternative rock formats are beset with similar problems. Classic rock radio typically hesitates to break any new artists while conversely, alternative rock stations ignores many older acts. Even with the specialty formats, long time listeners of any station become familiar with the limited number of songs they generally hear from any particular artist. While preparing for Jethro Tull's live reconstruction of Aqualung on XM, Ian Anderson touted the burgeoning network's classic rock stations as the place to hear "the other Led Zeppelin or Yes songs."
Commercial radio, especially top-40 radio, exerts no quality control with respect to their programming. There is sound logic in playing what listeners want to hear. In fact, it's smart business. However, playing what others have made popular, instead of playing music someone subjectively finds worthy leads to a Catch 22 of epic proportions. By playing only what mass marketing has determined the audience wants to hear, commercial radio consistently fails to give artists worth hearing an audience. Given the difficulties in establishing a hit or an artist on commercial radio before breaking them in elsewhere, it's not surprising that the Payola scandals that once rocked the industry in the 50's have once again resurfaced.
The failings of commercial radio rise entirely from the banal and predictable programming. If there is no reason to see what comes after the commercial, no one will. It's simply too easy to change the channel and find something worth listening too elsewhere. The relatively new JACK format attempts to rectify this problem. Marketed as the commercial radio equivalent of an iPOD shuffle, JACK's play list consists of hits from numerous genres of music. Under the slogan "playing what we want," JACK radio has no qualms following Springsteen's "Born To Run" with Rob Base's "It Takes Two." Rather than inventive, the format is as pedantic and patronizing as the canned radio banter played during song breaks. Although the format attempts to remedy the homogenization of commercial radio, acknowledging that listeners can be fans of numerous genres, JACK's fundamental problem comes when the listener decides that JACK's taste in music isn't as adventurous as the iPOD culture it's intended to attract.
Commercial radio is in trouble: given the choice between satellite radio's uninterrupted, creatively programmed selections or regimented, repetitive play lists with incessant commercial breaks, who is ever going to choose the latter? For commercial radio to hold their audience, it has to give people a reason to stick around through the end of the commercials. At the present time, once the advertisements start, listeners start fumbling around the dial looking for music.
Satellite radio has already surpassed commercial radio in regards to the number and sheer variety of available formats. As satellite radio becomes more affordable, commercial radio’s market share, once thought indomitable will slowly erode. For its own survival, commercial radio needs to differentiate itself and make radical changes to its on-air programming. Commercial radio should concede the battle of the formats to satellite radio and differentiate itself by eliminating the genre format altogether and bring back free-form radio.
Usually associated with the "left of the dial," free-form radio, when allowed time to develop, has attracted music enthusiasts in droves. When stations let a DJ cultivate a following, the show prospers. In New York, free-form radio had its heyday in the late 60's early, early 70's with old-school classic rock DJs like Scott Muni and Dave Herman turning on listeners to whatever new music caught their fancy. On the strength of their DJs, WNEW earned its reputation as THE classic rock radio station. Over the years the programming decisions were removed from the DJs and placed in the hands of less adventurous, more corporate minded programmers. Unsurprisingly, the ratings slowly slipped over the years and now the classic rock WNEW is no more.
In the 90s, Vin Scelsa's Idiot's Delight, commercial radio's last bastion of free-form in New York, aired on Sunday nights from 8:00 in the evening till whenever Scelsa tired after 2:00 a.m. Holding unilateral authority over the content of the show, Scelsa played music that caught his fancy, obeying the mantra of respecting the elders, embracing the new and encouraging the impractical and improbable, without bias. During his program, Scelsa would follow his own muse. In the absence of a rigorous format, Scelsa would mix songs from various genres, invite musicians into the studio for a live, intimate session, read from a novel or discuss whatever topics seemed relevant, be they musical or otherwise. Rather than play a song and move on, Idiot's Delight progressed at a slow, leisurely pace with Scelsa taking time to provide the background of certain songs and their artists. Scelsa didn't just play music: he introduced you to it. Removed from the groupthink approach that poisons most programs, Idiot's Delight possessed a creative, unique quality that by its very nature cannot be duplicated. Even though Scelsa made significant contributions to expanding the boundaries of commercial radio, he could not avoid becoming its victim. Since February of 2001, Scelsa and his listeners have found a home on public radio on Saturday nights. Like the Pied Piper, he led those who enjoyed his music with him. SIRIUS has noticed, since 2004 they have enlisted Vin to return to his old Sunday night timeslot on their adult alternative formatted station.
Over the years, free-form radio, essentially a relic of the classic rock, baby-boomer generation, has become associated with the adult alternative format. However, there is no need for free-form to be limited as such. The strength of the format comes from the creativity of the DJ. A heavy metal or hip-hop audience might not find Idiot's Delight to be their cup of tea, but surely there is Scelsa's equal who can appeal to that audience's sensibilities. Fans of music love being exposed to new things and the current state of radio fails to tap into that desire. Imagine the possibilities when a fan of Dream Theater becomes exposed to the duets of Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim, or vice versa, because an astute DJ recognizes similar musical patterns underlying both songs. Listeners will be attracted to a DJs musical sensibility and instead of searching for a familiar genre of music might seek a kindred musical spirit instead.
Musical diversity aside, commercial radio will always have commercials and it would be naïve to imagine a scenario where advertisements disappear from its airwaves. The reason radio stations play music they perceive as popular comes from the desire to attract listeners for their sponsor's ads. The more listeners they attract, the more they can charge for the commercials. Clearly, radio stations fear that free-form radio will not attract the core listeners of their current sponsors and as such, feel there is no place for it. Such shortsighted thinking ignores the possibilities presented by the audience free-form radio can attract. If each DJ develops and builds their own niche audience, advertisers targeting that demographic will surely purchase ad time. With the advertisements tailored to the listener base, a whole new sponsorship base could be opened up. While there will always be room for beer ads, there exists airtime for additional products.
If the programming is interesting, listeners will stick around to see what happens at the other end of the commercial break. Once listeners understand that they are listening to something unique, interesting and most importantly, only available on commercial radio, they not only will make certain radio shows "destination" programming but they will refrain from channel surfing during the commercials. Once that occurs, advertisers will be happy, programmers, station owners and DJs will be happy and most importantly, the listeners will be happy.
Vin Scelsa and other free-form DJs like San Francisco's Bonnie Simmons have proven that, given time, a DJ can grow and maintain a devoted following. Surprisingly, the music industry has not recognized the role a free-form DJ can play in the promotion process. What better way to interest someone in a song or an artist than by having it endorsed and played for them by someone they trust?
Come January of 2006, Howard Stern, the ultimate free-form DJ, will demonstrate the power one DJ can have on the radio industry. Since Stern's announcement that he will move to SIRIUS, the commercial radio industry has made ridiculous efforts to downplay his unparalleled significance to the medium. Instead of undercutting Stern's legacy, they should be figuring out how to save their industry when Stern takes the majority of their listener base to satellite radio and keeps them there.
Commercial radio has imprisoned the freedom and creativity that should be present on the airwaves for long enough. It is time for the right thing to be done, free radio by returning free-form to radio.