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A Look at Radio’s Hottest Formats

With No Clearly Emerging New Formats, Radio Programmers Fight to Find an Edge

With No Clearly Emerging New Formats, Radio Programmers Fight to Find an Edge

Radio programmers are facing tough decisions and complex choices as they work toward keeping listeners and attracting new ones. Experimenting with a station’s format is risky, and while there are no sure bets, some new trends are visible on the horizon.

Arbitron’s Spring 2002 format trends report showed no dramatic changes in the popularity of any one format, although some formats showed small increases.

Hot AC, rhythmic CHR, Spanish, urban AC and classic rock formats have all shown small, incremental increases, while other formats have remained steady or dropped slightly.

Just do research

With no particular format leading the pack, what’s a programmer to do?

“Here’s a real shocker,” said Warren Kurtzman of Coleman Research. “Do research. I don’t just mean do music tests, I mean strategically understand the boundaries of your format.”

Kurtzman believes consolidation has resulted in more focused and narrowly defined formats in radio. Although that may give listeners a broader choice on the dial, he said a format that is focused too tightly can affect audience share over a period of time.

Kurtzman said he is working with several clients on new formats for the coming year but declined to identify those formats. His strategy is to develop a balanced format, one that will, “allow you to compete in a market but still remain broad enough to allow you to draw a good cume.”

One format that shows signs of a broader range is the oldies format. Donna Halper of Donna Halper and Associates and author of “Invisible Stars, A Social History of Women in Broadcasting,” said the oldies format needs to change to keep up with the aging baby boomer population.

“I think that the big crisis for a lot of people in radio is what to do about the oldies format,” she said. She sees an evolution away from the standard ’50s doo-wop era format toward a more ’70s-influenced musical choice.

“Now you’ve got these baby boomers who are, by and large, 50-plus and they still like rock and roll,” Halper said. “I don’t think that they relate particularly to rap and dance formats. On the other hand I see quite a few of them listening to the AAA and “Alice” formats.

“Alice” stations typically feature a modern adult contemporary sound blended with an alternative format. “Alice” formats skew toward female listeners.

Format changes

Kurtzman said he sees some changes in the oldies format. He said many stations are working to keep both their older listeners and attract some younger listeners as well.

“A lot of people who run this format,” Kurtzman said, “have been looking at how to maintain a strong 25-54 position with these listeners.”

One trend is adding a more ’70s feel to the format.

“Many have dumped ’50s (music) entirely,” he said. Although he said ’70s are “definitely a trend,” Kurtzman isn’t sure how much of a difference that change will make in listenership.

The problem, according to Kurtzman, has a lot to do with listener perception. Preconceived notions about an oldies station may rule out switching despite the addition of ’70s-era music.

“In a lot of cases, what oldies stations have to deal with, especially if they’ve been the heritage station in their market, is what the listeners expect from them, whether they listen to them or not,” Kurtzman said.

In order to make the switch, Kurtzman said stations must move aggressively into the ’70s format, often re-launching the station completely.

“It’s a real challenge,” he said. “There is no easy solution.”


Alan Burns of Alan Burns and Associates said that while he doesn’t see any particular up-and-coming format, “I see and up-and-coming demo, 35-54, and I think we’ll see some adjustments for that.”

While that demographic has been traditionally perceived as “stodgy,” Burns said he sees more effort to reach that group as perceptions change.

He also sees similar trends within the oldies format.

“A lot of them are reacting by becoming more ’60s- and ’70s-oriented,” he said. Citing WBIG(FM) in Washington and WDRV(FM) in Chicago as examples of rising stars in the blended format, Burns said those blended formats have “a lot of potential.”

WDRV(FM) (“The Drive”) in Chicago is a Bonneville station, and does take a different approach to music programming. According to Program Manager Patty Martin, the format is the brainchild of the vice president of programming and operations, Greg Solk, and is focused on music from the ’70s.

“The ’70s are definitely where we live,” Martin said. “We started this based on a hole in the market. People who liked this kind of music weren’t being served.”

Martin said “The Drive” is a cross between a classic rock station, an oldies station and a ’70s progressive rock station. That format has enabled them to stay high in the 25-54 male demographic in Chicago.

“The idea is that people, basically 40- to 50-year-old men, the real core, grew up with lots of different music,” Martin said. “We are definitely a broad-based radio station.”

Play the tunes

Additionally, Martin said, the station does not run contests, limits jock patter and focuses primarily on the music.

“We figure people are going to be more interested in the music than in hearing us talk about the music,” she said.

Such an approach requires a lot of work, Martin said. It’s not a “cookie-cutter format,” and needs programming with a strong attention to detail.

“It’s the whole package that makes it work,” she said. “It’s the whole thing that’s connecting with the listener, not just the one thing. It’s the respect for the music, the lack of clutter.”

The 1990s saw a country music boom, and two years ago we had sudden interest in ’80s formats. But industry insiders aren’t seeing a specific format making waves today. Even country, which experienced a surge in popularity and the development of several tighter format options like new country and classic country, has seen a downturn over the last few years.

Kurtzman said he feels the market isn’t in the mood for country overall.

“Clearly the appetite for country is lower than it was roughly five years ago,” he said.

Although the listening audience may have lost interest in country, Kurtzman doesn’t think the cowbell is tolling for the format. Even though enthusiasm for the format is pretty low, he said it has “probably bottomed out.”

Good programmers still need to rely on their particular market needs in order to program effectively. Jumping to the latest hot new format may not be the right move for many stations.

Burns said while good operators are in love with the one format that really does well for them, he hasn’t seen any sign of corporate love for any particular format since the days when owner AM/FM became enamored with the “jammin’ oldies” format.

“That’s the last time I’ve seen a company just fall in love with a format and start slapping it everywhere,” Burns said. “I believe people have awakened to the fact that you shouldn’t fall in love with a format, you should fall in love with an opportunity.”