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Top 13 ways to bring Radio back from the Dead

Radio Towers

Towers of Love

I’ve probably made my love for radio fairly clear on this blog. But I’ve never really explained it in detail, given my reasons and my hopes. Your imaginary curiosity combined with my lack of mp3s to easily and quickly post this week means my chance has arrived. This will be a long read. But the rewards will be many.

My love for radio started when I was very, very young. (yes, it’s going to be THAT kind of blog post,sorry) It all began with AM, oddly enough. Those weird stations you could pull in across the country on just the right night, with just the right weather conditions. UFOs, weird religious shows, oddballs, really old music, all of it.  Then I found my first truly independent AM station, which was probably a pirate radio station considering most nights they played noise music and strange stuff like the joyous Residents and a bit of the old Throbbing Gristle. I remember thinking “you can do this on the radio?”. Turns out you can. Then I found left of the dial FM and I was hooked.  There were a couple of years there when so-called “alternative radio” kept my attention, until they became the Limp Bizkit/Korn/Sublime networks.

Can we just come to a mutual understanding that Sublime (or at least its surviving members) doesn’t practice Santeria and leave it at that? It’s pretty clear and they’ll be getting no argument from me anymore. And we are all clear on how many joints you smoke in the morning as well as at night. It’s 2. Perhaps a total of 4 per day or more.

In my region, radio died a few years ago. We still have two truly independent stations in the area, but they are usually just out of range. In the city itself, you have to tune to obscure cable radio to find independent radio that is not the local NPR outlet or a jazz/classical only station. Pretty sad for a major area.  I can think of at least 3 religious stations. Only one of them AM. I’m sure there are more. Then we have your usual 2 country stations, 2 classic rock stations and countless pop nostalgia stations focusing on the 80s and now even the 90s and 2000s. And those aren’t even over yet. One top 40-ish station (even if something that is not your typical top 40 fair crosses over and makes it to the top 40, they still won’t play it) and one rap station that honestly sounds more like the top 40 station than a real rap station. Your average normal will say that’s diversity. It’s not. Many of these stations are pre-programmed and identical no matter where you go in the country. Anyone who has taken a road trip recently can testify to this. Once you leave an area, you can count on another area having a station with different call letters and not much else. There’s a “The BUZZ” in every major area. (I just made that name up.. I think..) And their playlists are identical, as are their on the air personalities, if they even have any.

Living in southern California for a short period of time at the end of good commercial radio, I witnessed those last few years of radio personalities. DJs that still chose content to play, participated in playlists and actually had an interest in the artists being played. And they even expressed opinions. Those days are also over. The only place you’ll find DJs still talking about the music between songs is on geezer rock stations. And these classic rock stations are only doing it because they know it’s a proven formula for their audience.

Now I find out the radio industry would like mandatory FM receivers in every mobile phone. Some say this is a way for them to “save radio”.


You want to save radio? How about you actually bring radio BACK from it’s coma. I’m going to do the industry a favor and hand this over for free. You can even pretend it was your idea. I know some of you will be surprised at how money-focused some of this is. But the reality is that you cannot operate a commercial station in a major market and reach a large audience without considering the money side of things. Things just do NOT have to be the way they are. You need to bring the new audiences back to radio. And music needs radio back in order to bring back large-audience curation.

Here are the top 13 ways you can save radio and bring it back from the dead….

13. Start doing better research into your potential audiences. Yeah, numbers suck. Marketing sucks. Polls and estimations suck. But it’s a game none of us are going to be able to avoid now. Embrace it. But do it the right way. Listen! A lot of your radio audience is not part of the crowd that hangs at the mall or regularly frequents Starbucks, or even the local retail stores. I can guarantee you, whatever method you’re using to figure out what the radio audience wants is grossly inaccurate. That’s part of why no-one listens to radio anymore. You just got it wrong for far too long and delivered crap because you thought it was what we wanted. The truth is, probably a good 50% of the people you made contact with regarding listening habits wouldn’t know what they wanted to hear unless someone told them what it was. So what do you do? You ask those people. And what do they tell you they want? More of the same. Ungh! Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to go out and find a bunch of indie hipsters and only listen to what they want. That would probably be a worse disaster. But you need to find SOME of those people. And people who actually love radio.

12. Get rid of the anti-DJ creep that’s been going on for over a decade now. It all started with “less talk… more rock” BS. Radio programming by computer is worse. I don’t need to prove that to you now, do I? It’s obvious at this point because radio is dying or in some places dead already. It’s a nostalgia fest catered to state workers and soccer moms that love Coldplay. People whose lives ended with high school. Harsh? Yeah. But it doesn’t make it less true. The only way to get past this crap is to put actual people in charge of deciding what gets on the radio. AND let them TALK about the music they pick. And give them some time. Which brings us to the next thing…

11. Give new formats time to build a loving, loyal audience base. Like I mentioned above, many of these people don’t know what they want until they’ve had it for a few years and miss it when it’s been taken away from them.  They will tell you NOW that what they have is fine. But the truth is, it takes time for people to warm up to any kind of new ideas or diversity they’re not used to. Arrogant? A little. But again, not any less true. When those first numbers come through, don’t drop the ball. And you MUST continually mix things up. Don’t over-play one genre, but focus on the NEW.

10. Once the programming feels like it’s found it’s sweet spot, don’t freeze playlists. I know it’s a temptation. But that’s how it starts. A year later when your audience is telling you they want to hear the same STP and Nirvana tracks over and over (of course now the bands would be different), you’ll listen. And then gradually your audience numbers will drop. See, that’s a great way to not gain a NEW audience. It can be a hard balance, and difficult to do when your audience die-hards are asking why “you’re playing all that new crap.. that’s ghey”. But you have to not listen at that point. That’s the bad advice that will spell your doom. That new song that pisses off 50 of your old fans (vocal ones) may be the ONLY reason 500 NEW listeners (quiet ones that do not give you feedback yet) are listening at all.

9. Do NOT hire seasoned radio people. “Seasoned” is code for “old and tired”. They will be jaded, entrenched people with old ideas they will stick to until they die. And they will fight you at every turn to keep things a certain way. You’re making the rules now. And they are new rules. Hire out from college radio. Find curators that know their music and actually care about it. They may not “know the business”, but neither do you. Remember, you F^(k-ups ruined radio. So stop making the same mistakes over and over, thinking you’ll come out the other side with unpredictable results. You won’t. Radio worked. It was ruined by people crunching numbers trying to squeeze out more than could be squeezed out of the fruit that is radio in the first place. Radio will have its audience. That won’t change much. Let the old folks listen to their old folks radio stations and you and I will bring the new audiences back in.

8. Stop fearing the Internets. Embrace streaming and pay out what it takes to do it in an unrestricted way. Make the stream available to all comers. Allow it to stream any and all ways it can, no matter the cost. You are not competing with the Internet. Yes, people download most of their music for free now. Yes, most people listen to streaming music or their mp3 player rather than the radio now. Yes, it may take some time for the word to spread that there’s an ACTUAL radio station out there now. And your Internet presence must reflect the savvy of your programming. Your audience needs to know that YOU know how it all works. ALL DJs must blog, even if they hate it. And you must make as many of the tracks you play on air available to download as well. NOT just links to places to buy tracks. Have a look around the music blogosphere and you’ll see. Bands and artists are making tracks available to bloggers all the time now for their readers to download freely. Don’t act like you, being in radio, live in some different universe. Encourage artists and labels to continue to embrace this idea. If you do so, your audience will respect you. And love you. The radio is not always convenient and it’s not what we want ALL the time. Learn this, know this and stop acting like it’s a competition for ear-time. The audience for music has proven that it WILL get what it wants, when it wants it, where it wants it. Fight this at your peril. Besides, it’s DUMB to ignore reality. Even though you can shape reality, some things remain constant truths. Downloading is one of them. So be a part of it and everyone will be better off. Even the artists.

7. USE HD radio side-band or side-channels the right way. I look at the options in my area for those extra HD radio channels available and it’s all more of the same. Even the remaining “alt” station in town (honestly, it’s a 90s station) does not use its extra channel wisely. Just more of the same. Blah. YOU will use your extra channel to play everything from obscure album tracks, local music shows, live music, interviews with bands and artists all the way to alternative morning shows and drive time talk with an edge. The audience is limited, give them something they won’t get anywhere else. These other stations are basically Pandora over the air. Again.. what’s the point of that?…Blah. Here we have a new technology that potentially doubles the airtime of any station that uses it and they waste it on the same old same old. Even the classic rock station in my area chooses to play live tracks rather than hand it over to the old DJs and let them do free form classic rock. Which is what their audience would just eat up. And to listen to that audience is not a contradiction. If your audience is stuck on nostalgia and you’ve embraced that, listening to what the audience wants is essential.

6. Serve your community and your community will serve you. Participate in local culture that fits your format. If there’s a successful local band, engage their audience and make it out to shows. Have a presence in the local scenes that cannot be ignored. Engage with local promoters, clubs and most importantly bands that bring in an audience. A few years ago radio disengaged with local culture, if they ever engaged at all. Big mistake. It’s another level of audience loyalty potential well worth the price of time and a little investment. By culture, I do not mean to limit it to the local music scene. Artists, musical or otherwise, filmmakers, comedians, you name it, can all bring in a whole new level of loyal audience. You scratch their backs, they’ll scratch yours. And the pay-off may not always be obvious. It won’t make sense on a corporate level unless it’s spelled out to them in ways they can understand, which will always be difficult. Come up with new corporate-speak to describe it. Terms like “local loyalty engagement metrics” (make graphs and charts) and “local resource leverage procurement” or “holistic short to long term leverage asset growth”. They’ll cream in their corporate pants. Your job here is to turn very granular, long-tail nebulous concepts into terms that a suit can unders…. wait.. I just did it myself. Quick, someone put on some banjo music!!

5. Bring in young advertising blood. You want your advertising team to be just as savvy curators as your music programmers and DJs. Less McDonalds, more mobile phones. Less beer and more coffee. Less “Sunday Sunday Sunday!!!” and more indie movies. More genre TV shows and fewer carpet/furniture stores. What are people buying as they leave home and enter college? Yeah, maybe IKEA, but unless THEY actually advert on your station, avoid things like carpet and furniture. Focus more on daily spending and habits/pass-times. Part of that work is to find out what your audience does EVERY day. Everything from where they work to where they buy their food.

4. Do your own market research. Make it open with full disclosure for your advertisers and partners, but don’t let the people that find out which dish soap is most often used do your numbers for you. You need to go where YOUR audience goes to find out what they like. And keep in mind that in order to for real long term success, for the first couple of years you’ll need to remind yourself to completely ignore all of this data. It’s a hard paradigm to accept. But aren’t they all? (ooh there’s the corporate speak again! dammitt! quick! someone get me a corn dog and a beer) Don’t be all moral about the info you collect. Hold your data close to your heart but sell it AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY! Keep it anonymous, but take advantage. There’s gold in that data you now collect. Use it. And hire a person to do ONLY this work. Don’t force it on your advertising team. They have swag to collect… ahem.. I mean work to do.

3. Don’t assume, ever, that just because someone like me has no actual experience working IN radio, it means they don’t have the best ideas. Back in the olden days (the 60s, 70s) Free-Form radio and then what were called Progressive rock stations didn’t play by the old rules and they prospered for a time. They would have continued to prosper if they had embraced new genres, styles and scenes. Most of them did not and died because they betrayed their own ideals. Some of them died because of audience mis-calculations and corporate take-over. There was always some guy in a suit that thought he knew what audiences wanted more than the DJs did. The truth is, as I’ve over-stated here already, the larger public doesn’t KNOW what they want until it’s been spoon-fed to them. Obviously, the general public is not going to embrace the more extremely obscure styles, but a mix of the obscure but critically acclaimed with more mainstream music couldn’t hurt. The long-view must be considered. What embracing new genres and styles does for the music scenes themselves will pay off for everyone. The bands, the radio stations, some labels, advertisers, etc etc. When the machine for new music stops (or in this case, moves on), honestly the real money stops as well. Remember, this isn’t ALL about the money. But tell that to your corporate overlords. For them, it is. And one need only look as far as the losses in radio over the last few years to see that what they were doing for so long failed miserably. And THEY are why. A smart corporation knows when it doesn’t know. And hires those that do. People these days like to turn to the example of Indie 103.1 in Southern California to explain to us that Indie radio will not work these days. Bullcrap. Indie 103.1 failed because they let ARTISTS decide what to play. Many of them… shall we say… “seasoned” (read:GEEZERS). That will never work. Yes, I do enjoy listening to some of their shows online, but that doesn’t change the fact that their format will never work in a major radio market. You need to remain focused on the new, not the old. Leave that to nostalgia radio(as in ALL of current radio).

2. Stop listening to the majors and don’t be afraid to fire DJs. They want to push crap on you because crap costs them less. And crap is pretty much all they have left with a handful of exceptions. Engage directly with bands and small labels. Never take pay to play money, no matter how enticing it is. Even if the pay to play is in the form of a weekend away or an expensive dinner. CRAP FOLLOWS PAYOLA. Why? Because the only way to get crap on the air is to PAY for someone to play it. If it’s good, your on-air talent will recognize it if you’ve hired good people. Once every year or so, re-engage with college radio and if there are artists they are playing the hell out of and your DJs hate them and refuse to play them, it may be time to hire new on-air talent. These people need to remain focused on new music and the directions it goes in. If they get lazy, lose ’em.

and finally….

1. Hire someone like me to oversee or consult the creation of your new station. I may be arrogant and unflinching in my views and opinions of radio, but that’s what you need. Someone not afraid to tell it like it is and commonly has a repellent reaction to the idea of compromise. There will be a few small prices to pay. I would need re-location bonus money for talent I’d have in mind immediately to start with. A new music library (including vinyl).  A personnel department that takes orders ONLY from me but has the sack to suggest things. And it has to be in Northern California. (heh) I kid, but someone LIKE me at the very least is what you need. And much as the so-called “Alternative Radio” boom back in the late 80s-90s exploded because of one or two stations taking the big programming risks, all it will take is one. And I know you corporate guys love words like “growth” “viral”  and “formula” these days. There are ways to embrace the idea of formula radio without compromising what makes radio so great in the first place. You can FORMULATE non-formulation. Your stations will conform to non-conformity.

But is this all a pipe dream? Probably. In any case, radio is $h!T with a capital $ and it’s not getting better by keeping it the same. Someone will have to take the risks necessary to make it happen. The whole concept is completely viral. Once one of them is a success, it will spread. That will do artists well, which means more music and more fans. Which means more money for everyone while at the same time bringing back what was good about radio in the first place. Finding new music. And the music finding its audience.

Or… you could just let people like me do that without you. Either way.


Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/85941395@N00/1104591461/

  1. MisterMusic
    September 22, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    All In all a lot of your points have merit but radio is a business and they will not stop the capitalism and go backwards to when people did what they wanted. And a few are making decisions for the many, because the many don’t know what they want (as you put it).
    The only comment I would like to add to ‘your opinion’ is that the reason (traditional) radio is failing is because of huge conglomorates like Clear Channel ( who as of July 2010 own 857 stations in USA, 50 states=17 stations per state and that’s down-sized from 1,168 stations owned 4 years ago) They don’t hire DJs if a computer can do itl ike you mentioned.
    I am one of those old radio geezers as you put it. I have an FCC licence and a degree from a university broadcasting school, and many years of experience at stations— and after realizing radio wasn’t for me (formally speaking) I got a ‘real job’. Then when I wanted to go back after a couple years, I found out that those positions have been replaced by a computer. The station is now run by a music director, a community affairs director ( setting up announcements of events and publicity) and an engineer/computer IT guy. Oh and one other announcer to cut live weather announcements, and run the board.( 4 people instead of 15 ten years ago).
    SO..my point, Radio won’t allow free format because it doesn’t have manpower to do it or the payroll to pay salaries since the staff or number of stations have dwindled.
    Yes most people download music, and your points about the value of internet are correct. Going back to conventional radio again??? or satellite HD? Can’t go back…have to move forward. and radios on cellphones are probably because everybody is wireless now, cellphones can access the internet. The audience is Not sitting in cars listening to the radio or in the dorm or office- they are listening to their MP3 player. So, if you can catch radio on your phone—the advertisers can reach you there ( that’s probably the big outside lobby pushing this idea).
    So I will do my internet radio show..reaching a couple hundred listeners all over the world per month instead of 50 people still listening to the radio in your/my town. And do what I want to do, play what I want- play The Smiths and then Foals, and Rush into Carly Simon because I want to for christ sakes. And hopefully more people will continue to listen each month…. and download away. Love That. Hey you are welcome to also-if you don’t mind an old dinosaur-geezer spinning the tunes (cause that’s one thing you can’t change-getting older).

    -MisterMusic on Radio Gets Wild(dot)com

  2. Tom
    October 12, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Reading this reminds me quite how much I should love the BBC.

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