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Have You Heard It On The Radio?

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Radio’s Not “The Radio” Anymore; Choice And Variety Has Done Away With The Old Model

By Amir Said (Sa’id)

In case you haven’t noticed, radio broadcasting is increasingly losing its influence over the general public’s music listening (and buying) decisions. In his rather organic and illuminating study, author and Wired Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson notes that “in 1993, Americans spent an average of twenty-three hours and fifteen minutes per week tuned in to the radio;” and that by the spring of 2004, that figure “had dropped to nineteen hours and forty-five minutes” (a 15% decline), bringing traditional radio listenership to a “twenty-seven year low.” To be certain, traditional radio listenership continues to spiral downward. In fact, if the current rate of decline simply holds up, 2009 will show an 8% decrease in traditional radio listenership. This means that since 1993, there will have been at least a 25% nosedive in traditional radio listenership—a rather precipitous drop, to say the least.

Where Have All the Traditional Radio Listeners Gone and Why

There are many reasons why radio listenership continues to decline at such a rapid pace. Radio behemoth Clear Channel and its one-size-fits-all radio centralization—what Anderson rightfully regards as Clear Channel’s bland homogenization—has indeed played a role. And we can not overlook the fact that the increasing lack of artistry found in the music industry-pushed “hits” has also prodded some music listeners away from the radio. But these factors represent the under card. The main event—if you will—is choice and variety.

Remember when we “heard it on the radio?” Well, yeah, that was back when we really had no choice. Let’s remember: Traditional radio represents the old “hit” music model of narrow choice and low variety; no choice or variety meant that you had to listen to the radio and whatever traditional media deemed as a hit. But the web age has truly brought more choice and variety through a myriad of more music listening options. With the expansion and popularity of the internet as well as the advent of the must-have iPod and other MP3 players, many traditional radio listeners peeled away from the radio and moved towards those options that, in effect, allowed them to be their own personal radio programmers.

So Who’s still listening to the radio?

Whether due to unchecked arrogance or denial, broadcast radio culture has failed to see the writing on the wall. Indeed, instead of opening up their programming and shifting to a more variety-based structure, radio stations (particularly in the urban market) are pairing down their playlists, essentially walling them off from the threat of any real variety. So entrenched is this culture that many of the same household radio personalities from 1993 are still on the radio in the same regional markets. This certainly begs the question, How can the very people who have been behind the wheel during the decline in radio listenership still be given the keys to drive broadcast radio towards new horizons? The answer, of course, is: They can’t!

In fact, I would argue that many of these held-over radio personalities have been left in place just to cater to those music listeners who have yet to escape the traditional radio programming model. After all, if there is as much as 75% of the once-mighty radio listenership, one can understand why the grand old music industry is still supporting the old radio model. For the music industry—which is seemingly dedicated to bleeding manufactured formulas dry—is always the last to know when something new has emerged, and when something old has died.

(1) Anderson, Chris, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, (New York: Hyperion, 2006), 35.


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About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual