Is “R” really for radio?
Actually, I should have broken rank and gone with the letter “T” instead.
“T” is for terrestrial.
And “T” is for talk.
And despite what you’ve been told—talk is not cheap.
Radio is still big business. It’s precious turf out there in the terrestrial stratosphere—especially if you are a religious broadcaster. It may still arguably be the best vehicle for sharing the Gospel. The FCC is not exactly doling out broadcast licenses—thus there is a quiet high-stakes bidding war going on whenever a radio station is up for sale. A key player in Christendom is Salem Communications—who own or operate over 100 stations across the U.S. I had the good fortune a few years ago to be able to sit down with Salem chief Ed Atsinger. It was in the start-up phase of my last label venture. We were on one of our barnstorming fundraising road trips. We had an “in” at Salem and we boldly marched in there and pitched Ed himself on why he should add a Christian record division to his already massive media empire.
I should add that we were still in the learning stage of road show presentations. In truth, we broke every rule. We conked Mr. Atsinger over the head with 45 slides filled with busy text and a rambling oratory that lasted almost 2 hours. I could see his eyes begin to glaze over but he patiently listened to us blather on as to why Salem should fund our label venture and all the strategic synergy that lay within. It made sense on the surface. Imagine having a label tied to a radio powerhouse! Many record companies have promotion staffs that brag about “owning radio” but imagine being guaranteed airplay as part of a powerful corporate juggernaut. We salivated at the thought.
Ed listened to our pitch and at some point interjected that it was really not that simple. There were FCC guidelines that monitored how much owned content could be played on stations owned by the same mother ship. Apparently, Disney had similar issues and had spent considerable time and money navigating those tricky waters.
Ed then spoke of why he got into broadcasting—and his passion for sharing the Gospel over the airwaves. You could see it in eyes. That’s what got him going. Oh, he liked his Christian music stations—but it was clear that his focus was on talk radio—both teaching and news formats. He politely forwarded us to his key men in Nashville to discuss our proposed music venture. In retrospect, I’m still amazed that he was kind and tolerant enough to listen to our entire slipshod presentation.
Time for a commercial break:
Do you listen to Christian music radio?
Do you listen to mainstream music radio?
Pretty exciting…isn’t it?
Brilliant and diverse musical content…right?
No. “B” is for boring.
And now back to our show:
So, we returned home and met with Salem’s Nashville chief—and this time, with 10 well-prepared and visually beautiful slides—and only 20 minutes of pitch—and in 30-point type so you could actually read it. Yeah, we had our game on.
I could tell that we had impressed our subject. This guy had been an “Imagineer” at Disney. A heavy hitter to be sure. He told us it was the best visual presentation he had ever seen. (Thank you Apple Keynote!). We beamed and exhaled.
Then he said, “But as far as radio—we live and die by our testing”.
Oh, no! Not another “T” word!
Just what is testing? And who the heck is Becky?
Well, testing is the so-called science of research and focus-groups and all the controlled methods of trying to pre-determine whether the music played on a given station will inspire the listener to keep listening long enough to be impacted by those all-important advertising dollars—the very lifeblood of radio.
Flipping the station is the kiss of death in radio programming—to be avoided at all costs.
Careful calculation and research must be done to keep the listener tuned in. This led to an industry unto itself— a costly one at that.
At Christian music radio, research determined that the average listener was a white suburban housewife in her mid 30’s who had 2.5 kids and drove a gold mini-van.
They called her Becky (and Sarah and Laura…etc.).
She became the target demographic. The name of the game was to keep Becky from changing the station as she drove about town in her mini-van with kids Petey, Chelsea and baby Halfling in tow.
These moms were invited to auditorium test groups where they picked the songs that they felt added a soothing uplifting touch to their harried day and gave their kids solid musical edification as well.
Nothing wrong with that…right?
On the other side of the fence, the mainstream radio stations did their testing as well. Expert programmers rendered bulletproof play lists guaranteed to keep the listener hypnotized and tuned in.
“That’s right folks…don’t touch that dial”
One question: Why does music radio suck so badly these days—both secular and Christian?
Because research bites…and ultimately fails.
Why does it fail? Because modern society moves too fast to be able to accurately define trends through the so-called science of radio research and testing.
I once heard a business maxim that applies here:
“All business models are temporary—change is ever present—adapt or die”
The problem at Christian radio is that Becky’s kids grow up. They turn 12 and they don’t want to listen to the same music as Mommy anymore. Becky’s needs change as well. She may enjoy flipping through the stations, listening to teaching, news or even oldies/classic rock radio that takes her back to fond skate-rink memories from junior high.
God forbid that she may even have an iPod that plugs into her car stereo that lets her listen to what she considers “known good music”—bypassing radio altogether
There’s not much discovery going on these days at music radio. “P” is for predictable.
Research worked for a while but now people are tuning out of music radio in droves. The so-called target demographic is a moving one at that—with ever-changing needs and tastes.
Kids don’t discover music on radio anymore. They discover it on the Internet.
Modern music radio on traditional terrestrial stations has become irrelevant—audio wallpaper at best.
The battle is still being fought over the survival of satellite radio. There’s some good stuff out there but you have to pay for it—and the jury is still out on that one.
All of this is more bad news for Christian record companies. The once solid branch of radio is drying up and splintering.
Dilution is occurring—How the heck do you market to a splintering demographic?
I’ll say it again…Music is not going away. But the old business model is breathing its last breath.
Terrestrial Christian radio will probably survive—but it will be 80% talk and teaching—maybe more.
If you follow tech news at all, you’ve probably heard much about some major initiatives to make entire cites (such as San Francisco) “wireless” —yes, that’s right—Internet access everywhere.
Lemme tell ya—it’s gonna happen—And it’s not as far away as you think
Take this one step further. Eventually, you’ll be able to get the Internet in your car—streaming through your speakers.
Imagine the possibilities.
To be continued. The Epilogue...