Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Media: Return of Full-Service Radio

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Those in the radio industry continually complain that there is too much competition from other forms of media, everything from the Internet to satellite radio, leading to an ever-decreasing audience. Music radio, especially, claims to be suffering from the phenomenon of people preparing their own play lists on their iPods and other portable music players and just listening to that instead of their broadcasts. In response, some radio stations have changed their formats to emphasize music and de-emphasize their personalities. I think they've missed the point. In the case of commercial music radio, they will never be as good as a commercial-free iPod. What I would suggest that they do is play to the strength of radio rather than try to imitate the competition. I would suggest that it's time to bring back the full-service radio station that plays meaningful blocks of music--but also provides the information needed to get through the day.

As far as I am concerned, the radio industry accelerated the iPod phenomenon by not playing enough music on supposedly-music stations, especially during the morning commute. When car-pooling to work not far from Houston, Texas in the summer of 1998, it was not uncommon for the group I was with to scan the dial and find NO music on the entire FM dial, except maybe classical on one public station. The music stations were all either in a commercial break or having their hosts talk about something banal that they thought was entertaining. This phenomenon was quite widespread; I distinctly remember a morning while traveling through Denver, Colorado in 2003 when I similarly failed to find a single song on the air at about 8 in the morning. If there's no music there, then no wonder people would turn somewhere else to get it.

However, now that the iPod phenomenon is widespread, there's really no way for commercial radio to directly compete. It needs to offer something else for the listener. Watching human behavior in the modern environment implies an old solution. I know people that, upon getting in their cars, tune in a local newsradio station to get traffic information, perhaps staying tuned for weather and headlines, and then they switch back to their portable music players. Radio can do that without all the button pushing by bringing back a format I grew up with--the full-service radio station.

Less than a generation ago, there was at least one full-service radio station in nearly every market, usually on AM. In Chicago, it was WGN. In Seattle, it was KOMO. In Portland, Oregon it was KEX. Smaller markets had them as well--the Tri-Cities in Washington state had KONA, and even Sunnyside, Washington had KREW-AM. Many were ABC affiliates, carrying that network's news at the top of the hour and Paul Harvey at noon, but others were CBS, NBC, or even Mutual affiliates (notably, all of those three networks have since been merged into Westwood One's CBS).

When tuned to these stations, one would usually hear the network news at the top of the hour, local news at the bottom of the hour, weather a few times an hour, sports at least once an hour on the weekend, and in between non-offensive music, usually adult contemporary (or "light rock"), with minimal DJ interjections. It might not be one's favorite music, but it tended to be acceptable to a wide audience. One could relax with the music, yet still be informed if a major news story suddenly developed.

Growing up, I remember leaving a radio on KOMO for hours on end, especially on the weekend--I could tune out during the music if I was doing something that required a bit more concentration, but if big news broke, I would still know about it. It was also quite nice during that afternoon commute--the traffic information came on a regular basis, but there was also the music that one could use to keep nerves down. Admittedly, I grew to be a regular listener of hard news programming, but KOMO was a resource that I always appreciated and while perhaps a day might go by that I wouldn't listen, there certainly was never a week.

Yet, the radio industry changed, and the full-service radio stations saw their ratings decay. Niche formatting was the order of the day. KOMO introduced evening talk in 1990, and by 1995 would go full-time newstalk, then later full-time news. In the northwest, KEX and KONA held out a bit longer as full-service stations, but by the end of the decade, they were newstalk as well and the music was long gone.

In Europe, such a phenomenon never really took hold. All across continental Europe, one finds music stations that provide news at the top of the hour. Near the British base in Bonn, Germany, one could (at least in 1998) even find one broadcasting in English, as the British Forces Bases Service used a full-service format, including local news and weather.

Lately, I've been longing for a full-service station here in Toronto, something that I could just leave on during the evening, but still get the weather forecast for the next day and any breaking news if it happened. The same format could serve commuters well during a rush hour. Doing it on FM instead of AM would make the music sound better and potentially keep people from running to their iPods--while driving, the less effort required, the better.

Considering how poorly many radio stations are doing during the recession, I'm surprised a full-service revival hasn't been tried. Actually, I think we all know the answer to that--it would cost too much to have one live voice behind the microphone 24 hours a day--and that's simply pathetic.

No comments: