Tuning out: Commercial radio may be in its worst shape ever

The soundtrack to the hit Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, with its mixture of vintage bluegrass, country and blues, recently won the most prestigious prize in music – the Grammy Award for album of the year. It has sold more than 5 million copies, was recently the No. 1 album on the pop charts and has been the top-selling country album for the last half-year.

Yet if one listens to commercial radio stations across the nation, the album might as well not exist.

Though the video for the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “Man of Constant Sorrow” was a hit on video channels and a tour promoting the album sold out theaters across the country, commercial radio programmers have deemed the album too risky to foist on their listeners.

That play-it-safe attitude has turned commercial music radio into a wasteland of inertia, a medium afraid to change or challenge its audience. Once the primary vehicle for exposing consumers to new music, tightly formatted and commercial-saturated radio stations now find themselves losing listeners to the Internet and other media that offer listeners a wider variety of songs and artists.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the radio industry, the nation’s public airwaves have come under the dominating control of a handful of corporations. These conglomerates – including Clear Channel, Infinity Broadcasting, Cox, ABC Radio, Entercom and Emmis Communications – claim that deregulation has been a godsend for listeners, saving them from the idiosyncratic programming whims of independently owned “Mom and Pop” stations.

“I think that putting stations in the hands of people who are committed to public service and who are top broadcasters is good for the public,” says Randy Michaels, the CEO of Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide. “When we were in the Mom-and-Pop era, half the radio stations were owned by people who were as interested in playing what they liked as opposed to really serving the public. When you have professional management, who is focused on serving the listener, then of necessity we are obsessed with what the public wants, and we work every day to give them what they want.”

But the numbers say they’re doing a lousy job of it. Since 1996, Arbitron surveys show that the average time spent listening to radio by consumers 12 and older has dropped 9 percent. In the last two years, listenership has dropped more than 7 percent, Arbitron says. The young especially are tuning out: Teen-age listeners are down 11 percent, and listeners between the ages of 18 and 24 have declined 10 percent.

“The next generation is not interested at all in radio,” says Jerry Del Colliano, a radio veteran who publishes an industry newsletter, Inside Radio, and lectures at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “You have a generation of people who can store music on computer hard drives and have Internet accounts. They don’t need radio to find out about music anymore.”

Indeed, there is evidence that radio stations don’t so much try to give listeners what they want but instead fret about giving them what they don’t want for fear of chasing them off.

Playlists at stations across the country continue to shrink, with only about 20 songs a week played with any regularity, most from the best-funded major labels. Many commercial stations say they play only records approved by their audience through extensive market-testing, but this practice has led to a numbing sameness of programming, with many of the same records played in the same formats from Miami to Seattle.

The intimate connection between the best-funded major-label artists and corporate-radio airplay is no coincidence. Commercial stations receive $100 million a year in big-label money funneled through independent radio promoters, a legal variation on the old pay-for-play “payola” that was stamped out in the ’80s.

“The airwaves are a public trust, but we have given that up and let one small group of people heist all the country’s programming decisions,” charges Miles Copeland III, former manager of the Police and Sting and current chairman of the independent Ark 21 label. And that small group of decision-makers appears increasingly out of step with the public’s desires.

Meanwhile, Clear Channel’s grip on the nation’s music listeners is being challenged by alternative media.

“We have a Web site that attracts 10,000 people a month,” said Rob Sacher, a New York City record label and club owner who last year started the Internet station RadioIndiePop.com, which net-streams the songs of independent rock bands who don’t have enough marketing muscle to get played at commercial radio. “We’re telling people if they’re tired of hearing ‘N Sync played 10 times a day, come to our station, we’ll play something cool, something they don’t hear everywhere else, and we’re getting a response.”

The volume of content streamed by Web radio broadcasters has increased 70 percent since January, according to MeasureCast Inc., which monitors online listening habits. According to Nielsen NetRatings.Home, 40 million people were streaming Net stations in the year’s first quarter. Jupiter Media Metrix predicts that by 2005, 5 percent of traditional radio advertising – approximately $1.1 billion – will have moved onto the Internet.

But even as Internet listening is skyrocketing, the U.S. Copyright Office is preparing a fee structure for Internet stations that threatens the existence of many start-up stations. The Copyright Arbitration Royalty Proceeding has recommended that the U.S. Copyright Office impose a $0.0014 royalty for each listener tuned in on a Web station each time a song is played. Such fees aren’t paid by traditional broadcast radio, but apply only to digital transmissions.

Webcasters contend the fees will force many of them to shut down. “This might be fair if it were being applied to large Webcasting corporations whose stations were loaded down with lots of expensive ads,” says an Internet broadcaster, William Smith, in a letter to listeners and the media. “But, given the state of Webcasting today, the highest fees would be owed by stations like ours that are in no position to pay them.”

But the Recording Industry Association of America, which pushed for imposing the fees, struck a conciliatory tone recently. “In the next two years we’ll see the impact of royalties on these businesses, and if the rates need to be adjusted, we will,” said Rosen at the recent South By Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas. “The impulse (of Internet radio) is to break the stranglehold of traditional radio and retail on consumers, and that should be allowed to happen.”

In addition, disaffected radio listeners now have the option of tuning in 100 channels of commercial-free music in their cars, broadcast by satellite radio corporations for a monthly subscription fee of $10 to $13.

Pat DiNizio, singer-guitarist in the Smithereens and a programmer at XM in Washington, D.C., says demand for the satellite stations will increase because they’re filling a void. “When the audience is listening to us, they’re looking into a mirror,” says DiNizio, who programs a satellite station devoted to independent music. “We’re playing music sent from people like themselves, the garage band down the block, their friends and neighbors. We’re modeled on the way radio used to be, where you could hear Otis Redding, Cream and the Beatles back to back.”

That sort of chance-taking is rarely found in commercial radio anymore, in part because the cost of promoting new or unknown acts to radio stations has become prohibitive for all but the largest record labels. Record companies pay indie promoters for getting new songs added to radio playlists, in amounts as high as $1,000 or more per song. The indies, in turn, set up what amounts to bank accounts with the stations, funneling some of that record company cash to programmers in the form of listener giveaways such as concert tickets and vacation trips. In exchange, the independent radio promoters gain access to station managers and information about programming decisions.

“We have to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to even get to the starting line with most radio stations,” says Donovan Finn, head of radio promotion for Matador Records, an independent label that has nurtured the careers of artists such as Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo and Pavement. Like most indie labels, Matador hasn’t had a song get significant commercial airplay in years. “It’s rarely worth it. Maybe four or five years ago it was financially viable for a smaller label like us to get airplay on commercial radio, but not anymore.”