(Note: This piece is an amalgam of an article I wrote about the consolidation of radio stations in the US, some discussion that followed, and a follow-up article I wrote based on that discussion. Links and attributions are included at the end.)
Here's the big dilemma: over the past decade, a few companies have been buying radio stations left and right. Today, 60% of the rock radio stations in the US are owned by ONE company, and they all play "heavy rotation" lists provided by that same, single company. That is, at least, if you believe this guy.
This, say many opponents, is a bad thing. Because a few companies own most of the airwaves, and rely on the same sort of market research to determine what bands should be played a lot, only "Top 40" music gets any kind of recognition on the mainstream airwaves. So if you happen to be, say, someone who makes music that can roughly be described as Industrial Punk Rock, then your only chance of ever getting airplay is if some guy doing a college radio show happens to pick up your virtually nonexistent CD and decides to give it a shot.
If there wasn't so much consolidation in the industry, the argument goes, then radio stations would have a chance to experiment with playlists. They would, in fact, get a chance to see if an audience might prefer to hear Bruce Satinover over Justin Timberlake. Radio stations could actually compete with each other, and may the best play list win. Breaking up the big radio companies, so they say, would liberate music and allow the underground to emerge from their dark corners into the clear blue sky.
As Travis points out, however, music on the radio was homogenized long before companies started buying up radio stations left and right.
In fact, radio's steady march toward pablum began shortly after the Payola Scandals in the early 1960s. Why? Because the scandal, and the subsequent loss of decision-making power disc jockey's had when it came to what music to play and what music not to play, allowed a little idea called Top 40 to get its foot in the door -- this new "format" led to a new methodology of music selection, and it is that methodology, not the corporate radio consortium, that makes radio suck.
The format is very simple: take what is currently selling well and play it, a lot, to the exclusion of everything else. It's what people are buying, after all, so they must want to hear it. There is a certain logic to this... it does ensure that the majority of the people who turn on the radio will like what they hear. Of course, it doesn't mean that they wouldn't like hearing the songs that aren't being played, it simply means they haven't been exposed to them. But from a business perspective, that's irrelevant. And for your average listener, who (let's be honest) is listening to the radio because he wants to take his mind off his work, or his commute, or whatever, it's no big deal. Blink 182 has a good beat, and if you were hopped up on amphetamines you could probably dance to it. Briefly.
It's the same thing as TV, man. He wants to watch Friends. If he wanted to watch Masterpiece Theatre, changing the channel to PBS would take less effort than it would take to stop the cat from clawing at his crotch... but he doesn't. And a 30-second commercial sells for half a million dollars for Friends, while PBS is constantly begging their viewers for money.
A DJ who worked in the business during the mid-70s has this to say about "format": (quoted with permission)
"Top40 is, was, and has always been a scourge. However, it is not the root cause of the Destruction of the Medium. IMnsHO, the root cause is the Format.
"And not the Format in and of itself, but the Format in the soiled hands of the control freaks and pigopolists who control the medium.
"A bit of history before I leap headlong from my soapbox into the mosh pit of public opinion. In the early and middle 70s, I was a DJ at a couple of different stations in the Southwest (New Mexico, to be precise). At the pinochle [sic]1 of my career in that misguided business, I was at two separate times the Music Director of KRST, a (then) Album Rock station whose transmitter, sitting atop Sandia Crest (12,700 ft above sea level, approx. 5000-6000 ft above average terain), would easily cover a 5-state area (and occasionally Kansas). KRST (pronounced "KReST", as in Sandia) underwent the same transmogrification as did all rock stations of the era, morphing from "free-form" to "formatted" to "Formatted" (spelling difference is important, as you will see).
"In the Free-form era (pre 1973), we took in records, and records, and records. More of them that we could possibly listen to all at once. I would often take home several dozen a day to try to find those that would be worth airplay. My decisions were not final; they could be (and were) overridden by the rest of the air staff. Nonetheless, we had quite a bit of leeway as to what we could play. Free-form was actually a bit of a misnomer; there were rules about what we could play, and in what ratio. But all it took for an exemption was a quick, "Hey, is it OK to play XYZ during my shift?" The answer was generally "yes", unless XYZ had been played too much that week.
"Steve Suplin (or "Santa Monica Fats", as he was known on the air) was my program director and mentor...until he got a better job in Denver (you move up, or you move out in this business...even then). When he came back, he brought with him the very first format for KRST. It was a variation of KBPI's groundbreaking format, one that KBPI claimed raised its listenership (and therefore, its card rates) by 15% in one year. The format reduced KRST's playlist from virtually unlimited (we estimated that there were some 25,000 available cuts from which to choose at any given time) to about 2500, all broken down into 28 neat categories (labeled A-Z, and 1 and 2; the numbers being "new" cuts of varying age). The DJs were required to play so many songs from each of the categories during a shift, with no back-to-back cuts from a given category, yadda-yadda-yadda. No matter that one particulay category had exactly 2 cuts in it (there were more than that available to the category, but KRST's library only had those two available), and that other categories were similarly bereft of possibilities.
"What happened? Well, KRST's numbers did improve, with younger listeners. But a competitor sprung up: KMYR, whose slogan was; "Proud to be/Format free". They beat the snot out of us in the first year and a half. I left KRST to finish up my degree.
"KRST's management response to KMYR was not to compete, but to clamp down. Formats got continually tighter, until about 2 years later (having finished my degree and looking for a job), I decided to try out at KRST again. Lo and behold, I got hired again. At this point, KRST's playlist was down to about 1000 songs, and the current management thought that was too much...they wanted the playlist shrunk to about 350 cuts! This was in late 1975. When the fall sweeps numbers were completed, KRST was showing its lowest numbers ever, KMYR was the top station in Albuquerque (and was this close to getting clearance from the FCC to put its transmitter onto Sandia crest, too). In a panic, management fired the curent program director (Suplin had long ago moved on again), but not the GM, whose "vision" was to contract the playlist; promoted me again to Music Director (ostensibly because I was the only one there from "the good old days" and I knew the library better than the people who had been working there for the last two years!), and was given the mandate to "make the station sound good again". I immediately expanded the playlist back to 2500 cuts (eventually getting it back up to 5000), and the new PD threw out much of the format. The result was, for the spring sweeps, an increase of 20% in our numbers!.
"Why didn't it last? A couple of reasons: First, I couldn't keep my mouth shut, and eventually ran terminally afoul of the GM. It was this episode that taught me the first two axioms of broadcasting in the US:
"1) When the inevitable conflict of personalities/egos/interests occurs in the broadcast industry, the person with the higher rank fires the person with the lower rank. This is not considered to be a bad thing; there is no disgrace in being fired from a broadcast outlet.
"2) If it weren't so much fun, ain't nobody would work in that industry.
"Second, since the GM was a control freak, he would do anything to assert control. The Format (big 'F') was the way to assert control on all aspects of the broadcast day. Hence it's popularity with the suits. Coupled with axiom 1) above, it assures that the suits will assert control over what was ostensibly an artistic outlet.
"Back to the problem I had with the GM. The primary point of disagreement was the irrational, paranoid fear on the part of management that, if you play the "wrong" cut at the "wrong" time, you will lose your entire audience. Management absolutely believes that the entire audience waits with baited breath for the next "hit", and if you should challenge the listenership with something a little different (such as a Led Zep cut before 8:00a, or...Ghod forbid...Jazz) they will abandon your station for good and forever. How to keep this from occurring? Program all chance (and therefore, all choice) out of the playlist, be safe, be similar, and above all, be in control!
"So, for both these reasons (ego and fear) the Format is all about control. Control is about Power, and Power is what drives the industry."
Another former DJ followed up with this: (also quoted with permission)
"To add on to a very good summary...the F-ormat at that time began to take on its own life...with consulting firms (the one I was familiar with was in Atlanta..can't remember the name...) telling you which songs appealed to which demographic...so you could go to the business owner and promise that his ad would come right after a classic song that appeals to 24-35 year old males...just what you want to hear if you are selling things to that demographic.
"Playlists then became *generated*along these lines...using software...so the "major market" stations became*predictable in the extreme*. For example...I STILL remember that for the summer season DC-101 (main competitor to us) would play something from Styx at or around 3pm EVERY weekday. You could set your watch by some of them.
"So, essentially, you had Washington (insert big city name here) programming being generated by some idiot in Atlanta with nothing but song survey results as a guide.
"End result...nobody listened to anything except your "trademark" stuff. "
He also recommended an article Keith Moerer wrote for SPIN magazine in February 1998, called WHO KILLED ROCK RADIO? I recommend reading it. 1998 was only two years after the legislation relaxing the rules on how many radio stations a company could own was passed, but the industry was already well on its way to the mess we're in now.
"The Format" is the great marginalizing force in radio today. It is, first and foremost, a bureaucratic tool designed to make music selection more efficient, and it's the kind of stuff large corporations need to use in order to survive. Companies that own huge numbers of radio stations must use this method to stay in business, and this is a serious problem... and not just in the world of "Modern Rock." I mean, if the only way Johnny Freaking Cash can get played on a Country radio station is to cover a song written by Trent Reznor, there is a serious problem in the world of radio. And the more radio stations are consolidated, the more they will depend on this flawed system... and the less we will be able to do anything about it at all.
So Travis is right. Music was being turned into a thick, formless paste long before companies started their radio pog collections. That said, he's also wrong: in order for radio to reflect a more diverse mix of music, the consolidation of radio stations must be halted and reversed. Not because doing so will automatically usher in a new golden age of musical diversity, but because if it is allowed to continue then the system of incessantly playing only "heavy rotation" hits will never, ever, ever stop.
Large companies exist to make money. "The Format" is the best way for large radio companies to make money, it's already in place, it's efficient, it works for them, and the sheer size of these companies will make it nearly impossible to force them to change. Smaller, autonomous stations are easier to deal with (one at a time) and while it may not be possible to change them en masse, it will be easier to convince stations here and there to give other music a shot... stations that would never have considered you if their playlists were being sent to them from Corporate HQ somewhere in Texas.
Consolidation is not the enemy, "The Format" is. But consolidation ensures that "The Format" will never go away.
Attributions and Meaningless Historical Information:
Travis Morrison's Website, which has the article that spurred the rest (I don't think he archives his articles, so this link is probably time-sensitive).
Saving Radio, my first response to the article.
A discussion on IWETHEY about "Saving Radio," wherein I learn I've been using the wrong terminology.
A followup, Saving Radio, Part II, where I attempt to correct my mistakes.