“Radio has to innovate to remain relevant as a source of music discovery.”
That’s a line from a well done research report that came across my desk this summer titled “Paradigm Shift: Why Radio Must Adapt to the Rise of Digital”. Coming from where I come from, there’s a whole bunch of directions I could go with that thought in mind. If i ever get around to it, what with all the other stuff I’m into. I talk with and coach people about this music radio thing all day, every day. And I’ve been doing music radio as a profession since I was sixteen. A long damn time, eh? Since ’64. Double damn. So, here’s one of my thought paths about the culture shift and Where Radio Is Going ?!!?
This report is proffered as a wake-up call to today’s radio operators. The ground has shifted and we’re not the primary music discovery source anymore. Kids, the biggest consumers of new music, are now getting their new music yum-yums from Spotify and YouTube. A big artist releases an entire album now, all the tracks at once. Radio has been a single-at-a-time music source. Not so much by choice as by record label marketing design. Record companies firmly resisted the idea of radio playing anything BUT the current single. I’ll give you an example.
I’ve always been known as a music director/program director/programming consultant who “took chances” on new music. What did that mean? That I’d add a new song to my station’s playlists because I thought it might be a hit. I didn’t ask the promoter “who else has added it”. I didn’t say “I’ll wait until I see some call-out research test scores.” I was the leading influence on the chart success of “Blue” by Leann Rimes, an old-fashioned Country song released in the middle of the Hot Country, boot scootin’ boogie era as the B-side of the 13 year-old’s first single. I heard it the first week of May ’96, added it Amarillo, Columbus GA, Santa Rosa CA and every program director reported back to me they were getting “INSTANT PHONES’ every time they played it. That is, listener’s calling to ask about it and request repeat plays. The next week, it went into power rotation, seven spins a day at my powerhouse station KKBQ/Houston. The week after that it went on at KPLX/Dallas. The record promotion staff absolutely luvved me, doncha’ know. Don’t misunderstand me now. I’m not saying it was me that made the song a hit. I was just on the leading edge, the first big-time guy to play it on important radio stations.
Jump back three years and there was a different story on a different hit record. “Chattahoochie” was the third single off an album released in October ’92. The Country format was hot and Alan Jackson was one of its hottest new stars. The first single was “She’s got The Rhythm (and I Got the Blues)”. Number one on the charts. The second single was the droll ballad “Tonight I Climbed The Wall”. Released the first week of January ’93, it eventually peaked at #4, but my god, there was “Chattahoochie” sitting there on the album. Anybody in Country radio at the time who didn’t recognize that record as a potential monster hit wasn’t qualified for picking music. We’d added it in Houston over the Christmas holidays and beginning in January it went into Power Current rotation. The official single at the time was the ballad, which we had in light rotation. The record label was not happy. Not at all. “What’s gonna happen to it when it becomes a single in the Spring and station in Houston has it in Recurrent rotation?! It’ll hurt Alan’s chart success. He might not get a Number One on it!!”
The come-back from radio in situations like this was usually something like “we’re not in the record selling business, we’re in the radio business.” True, on one level of course. But radio airplay certainly sold records and exclusive ownership of a hot hit was a very strong programming element. For the entire ’93 Winter Sweep (audience measurement period), KKBQ was the only Country station in the nation’s most competitive Country radio market that was playing the Song of the Year and the CMA Single of the Year. And Alan still got his #1.