April 19, 2017

Resolving Radio’s Music Discovery Crisis

When the 2017 Infinite Dial study revealed that AM/FM radio is no longer the #1 source for keeping up to date on new music among Americans 12 and older, alarm bells sounded for radio professionals. Even more alarming, radio now trails YouTube, Spotify and Pandora among the sources that 12- to 24-year-olds use to keep up with new music.

Introducing listeners to brand new music has always presented radio programmers with a dilemma long before there was competition for it: Research finds listeners don’t fall in love with most new releases right away, while Mscore often confirms that tune-outs are fewest for established, highly familiar songs. As Garth Brooks noted at CRS 2017, “how many songs have you hated the first time you heard it, then played it at your wedding?”

On the other hand, listeners routinely tell focus groups that they expect their favorite radio station to introduce them to the coolest new songs. Perceptual research tells us stations that stick too closely to tried and true recurrents can ruin their credibility as sources of new music, while also developing harmful reputations for playing stale music.

Playing brand new songs can cause listeners to tune out now, but not playing new releases can cause them to not tune in tomorrow.

Many stations straddle this dilemma by drawing as little attention to new songs as possible. They schedule new releases immediately after stop sets. They bury them in music sweeps with no commentary from air talent. They hope listeners won’t notice them. The Infinite Dial results suggest we’re getting our wish: Listeners don’t notice the new songs radio helps them discover.

It wasn’t always this way…

Lessons from Radio’s Past

There was a time when radio made a big deal about new releases:

Boss Hitbounds: In the 60s, legendary 93/KHJ Los Angeles programmer Bill Drake advertised brand new songs on the air with a special “Boss Hitbound” jingle. He also played hitbounds as frequently as the biggest currents. This approach not only helped listeners become familiar with new releases quickly, it also gave KHJ a hip image that helped the station dominate ratings for years.

Smash or Trash: In the 80s, many nighttime shows regularly played a brand new song and asked listeners to call in saying if they loved it or hated it. Not only would listeners engage in rating the song, they’d eagerly await fellow listeners’ verdict on whether the song was “a smash”—or “trash”. The feature pioneered gamification for new music discovery long before people called it gamification.

Hottest Record In The World Right Now: From 2003-2015, BBC Radio 1 legend Zane Lowe gained a reputation as a tastemaker, highlighted by his nightly song debut feature, “The Hottest Record In The World Right Now.” His reputation for breaking new music drove Apple to lure Lowe to lead Beats1.

While these relics from radio’s past might not be effective today, they spotlight several principles of how radio could effectively showcase new music today:

  • Listeners get excited about new music when you’re excited about new music. A key advantage radio has over streaming services is that we have music gurus who can tell listeners why they should care about a new song. Radio personalities provide the context that gives listeners a reason to pay attention to a new song that would otherwise just be some strange song they don’t know or like. Whether it’s a regular feature with your music director, or simply structuring your clocks so air talent can intro brand new songs, listeners are most likely to care about a new song when we tell them why they should care about it. This concept isn’t new, but it’s one radio seems to have forgotten in our PPM® driven quest to eliminate clutter.
  • Involve and engage listeners in discovering new music. Yesterday’s “smash or trash” phone-in bit could easily be transformed into an interactive texting or social media feature that would both generate listener reaction and increase engagement with the station. Gamifying the feature gives listeners a reason to care about whether the new song is accepted or rejected, even if they don’t like the song. Finally, such a feature gives stations a strong image for playing new music first, even if the station doesn’t actually debut that many new songs. To succeed today, however, the feature must air in a daypart when lots of listeners will actually hear it, such as afternoons.
  • Play new songs frequently enough that listeners get to know them. Playing a new song in low rotation—or relegating it to evenings and overnights—ensures a new song won’t catch on with your audience. Unless other stations in town or other music sources make that song a hit for you, your audience will never get to know it well enough to ultimately decide if they like it. You’re better off betting big on a few new songs and giving them enough exposure to become familiar hits fast than you are hedging your bets and playing a lot of new songs infrequently.

Should your station care about music discovery?

For some formats in certain competitive situations, new music discovery simply isn’t strategically relevant. If you’re an adult-oriented Hot AC, letting the crosstown CHR sort out which songs are real hits means you can always be playing a song your audience knows and loves when they tune in. After all, those songs teens are already sick of hearing are often still a new songs to adults. While radio as a medium should worry about losing its reputation for new music discovery, that doesn’t always mean your specific station should be.

Even though people now have endless ways to listen to music, radio remains uniquely qualified to introduce listeners to the new songs most worth discovering. What are some ways you think radio could regain our role in music discovery? Share your thoughts and ideas below.  

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