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Passion, Lifestyle Tie-Ins Drive Success

What makes — or breaks — a station’s formatting choice?

Radio stations that are passionate about their formats and are tied into specific lifestyles are on the path to success. Conversely, broadcasters who run their stations on autopilot, with no connection to their listeners’ lives, are traveling a road to ruin.

That’s the take of three radio programming experts in the United States and U.K. Collectively, they describe a radio industry where success is still possible in the Internet Age, but only for stations that take their content and their listeners to heart.

Antal SofalvyHOW YOU DOIN’?
Music radio is alive and well, at least those formats that speak to tastes and lifestyles of their listeners.

“This is why country radio is doing well, as is Christian music radio,” said Phil Hunt, president of Hunt Media in Little Rock, Ark. “Both of these programming approaches are lifestyle formats, which are intimately connected to their listeners’ day-to-day lives. They mean so much more to their audience than just being sources to tune into for their favorite songs.”

The same is true for classic rock and CHR, said Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media in Bingham Farms, Mich., who is credited with the invention of the classic rock radio format.

“This is music that speaks to people and that has an emotional link to their lives, whether it be nostalgic memories tied to classic rock or what’s happening now for young CHR listeners,” he said. “In either case, the formats matter to their audiences.”

Sports talk radio is also on the way up. The reason: “Sports talk provides the same degree of spoken combativeness and listener interaction that traditional talk radio does, but without all the political pitfalls and controversies that advertisers like to avoid,” said Jacobs.

“The last thing sponsors want is the kind of negative ‘blowback’ with consumers that has been linked to high-profile commentators like Rush Limbaugh. This is why sports talk is eating into the standard talk revenue base — and its audience.”

Lately the industry has watched the rise of a classic hip-hop format; these stations play hip-hop from the 1980s and 1990s, in addition to current hits.

“It seems like there is a new classic hip-hop station popping up every week,” Jacobs said. “They are emerging for the same reason that classic rock emerged: Contemporary hip-hop stations aren’t playing the early hits of the genre, and people want to hear them on air.”

Both Hunt and Jacobs agree that American talk radio faces issues.

Some of these are due to advertisers backing away from controversial commentators, motivating stations that carry these personalities to consider dropping their shows; in some cases, they are doing so.

Other issues appear to be related to the novelty of talk radio having worn off, leaving commentators like Limbaugh and Glenn Beck with their core audiences but little more.

Either way, talk radio is not as strong a shining format light as it once was.

American adult contemporary (AC) is also having troubles, as the Baby Boomer audience ages.

“As the audience ages past the magic 25–54 demographic, they fall off the cliff as far as advertisers are concerned,” Jacobs said.

Hunt added, “AC is also not a passionate format, which is why its audience is being attracted to the formats with more drive.”

This isn’t the case across the pond.

Fred Jacobs “Here in Europe, AC usually wins,” said Antal Sofalvy, managing director for Europe for Radio Consulting Network in London. “It is common to find massive 20 to 45 percent listenership data for these stations.” He attributed AC’s European success to “an uncrowded radio market” — meaning limited format choices — rather than any particular passion for AC. “Pure oldies have dropped off because … ’60s–’70s music has been integrated into some AC formats,” he said.

As for smooth jazz? “With the advent of Portable People Meters replacing diaries, the measured audience for smooth jazz seriously declined,” said Jacobs. “This motivated many broadcasters to drop the format. Today, smooth jazz is a nonstarter.”

With 2015 underway, all three of these programing experts see room for a wide range of music formats — and sports talk, too. What will divide the winners from the losers is how committed specific stations are to bolstering their formats; from fostering relationships through interactions between on-air personalities and listeners, to building virtual communities that audiences will support by tuning in on a daily basis.

“Success belongs to those stations who truly believe in what they’re offering, and go the extra mile to deliver it,” said Fred Jacobs. “Those who just ‘phone it in’ hoping to fool the listeners, will fail.”

“One thing I do know: The only non-duplicable part of our business is people,” Hunt added. “Having outstanding personalities that are in touch with a station’s target audience — in addition to music — is the key to getting more than your fair share in the ratings game. Stations that have this ‘hybrid force,’ attracting listeners outside the format, are ones that are truly in the driver’s seat.”

James Careless is a longtime Radio World contributor; he writes the recently introduced column What’sNext about new radio platforms and applications.