February 05, 2003
Demographically appropriate music

When I'm in my car, I generally listen to what I call "demographically appropriate" music on the radio. Basically, what that means is that there are only two radio stations that play stuff that I generally like - the All-80s station and the Classic Rock station. I'll sometimes flip to the Oldies station or the mostly-metalhead Album-Oriented Rock station if the other two are both playing commercials, but that's pretty much it. It's the music I'm familiar with, after all.

There are other choices in Houston, as this recent article notes. Some of them are likely to appeal to others in my demographic group. You could look at the variety of different formats on the dial and conclude that corporate radio domination isn't such a bad thing after all:

Since the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996 eased restrictions on station ownership, a corporation may own as many as eight stations in a single market. With multiple stations, owners are increasingly carving out a unique identity for each one.

"They don't want their stations competing with each other," says Robert Musburger, associate professor in the University of Houston School of Communication. "They'd rather find another niche someone else isn't doing."

The graying of baby boomers also has shaken up what is heard on the radio as stations target adults with jazz and oldies formats.

"(Radio stations) have ignored us old farts for the past 10 years," says Musburger, 67. "Suddenly they realize that we do have money. We're very careful how we spend it, but when we spend it, we spend it on big things."

The problem that I have with radio nowadays is not that I can't find stations that play music I like. The problem I have is that all of the stations that do play music I like play the same damn music over and over and over again.

Not that this is a surprise, since after all I listen to stations that say up front that they only play certain types of music from certain time frames. But after listening to these types of stations for a decade now, I can honestly say that I pretty much have their entire playlists memorized. I'm bored out of my mind with them.

When KIKK flipped to KHJZ, Cox Radio spotted an opening. It changed its Hot 97.1 format, which aimed hip-hop and pop tunes at teens and young adults, to a "country legends" format geared to an audience over 30.

Now Country Legends 97.1 picks from a playlist of 600 songs recorded before 1989 by country greats such as Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

Early response has been better than the station expected, says Chris Wegmann, vice president and general manager of Cox Radio Houston.

"We average 100 e-mails a day from people saying it's great. It has brought a lot of people back to radio, because there was no place they could hear that music," Wegmann says. "The passion that people have for this format is incredible."

I'm very happy for them. It was the same reaction that I had when 106.9 became the All-80s station The Point. They started playing stuff I hadn't heard in years, and it was great fun. But a year or so later, it's dry as dust. I don't know if they've narrowed their playlist (it sure feels like it to me) or if the life span of such a station is that limited, but I guarantee that the novelty will wear off. In fact, unless there's a typo in this section, it'll wear off quickly. I mean, 600 songs? That's 50 or 60 CDs. If a radio station plays 50 minutes of music per hour and the average song is about four minutes long, they'll go through their entire collection in two days. Will you still love "Ring of Fire" and "You Ain't Woman Enough" after you've heard them every day for nineteen straight days?

Formats today are just too restrictive. We all know there's plenty of people like me who enjoy Classic Rock. Isn't it likely that what we're enjoying is a style of music rather than a fixed set or bands or a fuzzy reminder of our youth? Why not expand the Classic Rock format to include songs by more recent bands that are similar in nature to the ones that we're already known to like? For example, why wouldn't a Classic Rock station play songs off of Carlos Santana's Supernatural album? It's not like "Smooth" would offend someone who's only heard "Evil Ways" and "Oye Como Va" before. And once you've crossed that line, why not play stuff by newer artists that you think we'll like?

But they don't, and a reason they don't is a fear that they'll cannibalize their own audience. You want variety, you must listen to our Mix station, even if that means sitting through Celine Dion and Ja Rule as well as Barenaked Ladies and Matchbox 20. Segmented markets lead to consumer loyalty, as there's no other choice. Perhaps if there were some real competition, it would be different.

There used to be radio stations like this - 102.7 WNEW in New York was a good example back in the day. Another good example is the best radio station I've encountered in recent years, 100.3 The Q! in Vancouver. Tiffany and I spent hours listening to this station as we were driving around the Pacific Northwest last summer. Here's what they're playing now as I type this:

What's on The Q! right now:
10:44:45 am - Sheryl Crow, Steve McQueen

What's coming up next:
10:51:21 am - Scott James, The Q's New Music Lab -- Juliana Theory (2002)


and what's played recently:
10:03:11 am - Zwan, Honestly (2003)
10:06:51 am - Stevie Ray Vaughan, The House Is Rockin'
10:11:23 am - Coldplay, Clocks (2002)
10:16:31 am - Queen, We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions
10:21:27 am - Shivaree, Goodnight Moon (2000)
10:25:30 am - Crash Test Dummies, Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
10:32:21 am - Tragically Hip, The Darkest One (2002)
10:36:42 am - Moist, Underground
10:40:57 am - Gin Blossoms, Hey Jealousy

Stuff I know and like, plus stuff that I don't know but might like if I heard it, and very little (if any) stuff that I surely won't like. What's so outrageous about that? I can tell you their batting average was pretty darned good for the time we were listening.

Which leads me to wonder if tightly formatted radio isn't a factor in the dropoff of new CD sales. I don't ever get exposed to new music on the radio, so how in the world can I know what's out there that I might like? There's no effort to reach me.

So forgive me if I'm not impressed by the "variety" of local radio stations. It still looks like the same old same old to me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 05, 2003 to Music | TrackBack

I agree with you completely. I miss radio stations with wide formats. One person's WTF is another person's favorite song that they haven't heard in years.

Also, thanks for the newspaper. Sorry I missed you yesterday.

Posted by: Leisa on February 5, 2003 2:31 PM

Uh Oh, they just started playing "Tiny Dancer", so it must be 1:30 pm!

Posted by: etc. on February 6, 2003 10:51 AM

I could have sworn that "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" was by XTC, not Crash Test Dummies.

Am I getting senile or did CTD do a cover?

Posted by: FHC on February 6, 2003 2:05 PM

They did a cover. See here.

Afraid I can't help you with the first part of the question. :-)

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on February 6, 2003 5:25 PM

Thank you, Charles! Let me add an anecdote: my aunt criticized her daughter for downloading so much music, as she felt it was unfair to the artists. My sister, a struggling musician, explained to her that nowadays downloading music off the internet is basically the only way small acts will get heard, because the increasingly-concentrated radio market plays a limited number of songs from a limited number of artists and labels. If labels are really worried about their bottom line, they should try to put their eggs in more baskets, so they don't depend on any one artist to sell 10 million records - and if radio stations want people to listen, they should be willing to take risks and surprise people.

If you're interested, Charles, I can recommend a few newer artists who you might like: the White Stripes for Led Zepplin-type blues-rock, Hayden for when you're in a Neil Young mood, the Shins when you want Beatles/Beach Boys/Big Star-style pop, and Spoon for your twisty, new-wavey Cars-type songs.

Nice blog, by the way.

Posted by: Seth D. Michaels on February 7, 2003 4:57 PM