As a music fan and someone who’s had a long drive to work for most of his adult life, I’ve listed to a lot of radio, so this is a subject near and dear to my heart.
A writer at FiveThirtyEight attempted to determine “what is classic rock” by analyzing the playlists of 25 classic rock stations in the top 30 US metropolitan markets. In doing so, he he’s unwittingly quantified how radio across America has become homogenized.
Our author crunches a lot of data that ultimately reveals only a few minor regional differences in playlists of classic rock stations. For example, the classic rock station in Denver, CO played slightly more AC/DC songs relative to the average classic rock stations across the US (even though AC/DC is heavily represented in classic rock stations playlists) while the Miami station plays more Billy Joel. The truth is, radio stations have homogenized into a bland sameness wherever you go in the United States. Case and point, the top 25 classic rock songs played June 16th through June 22nd, 2014:
No surprises with this list. Looks much like a typical playlist for our two local classic rock stations here in Metro Detroit. Here’s a snap-shot of recently played songs from our local classic rock station WCSX.
Talk about sameness, three of the most payed classic rock songs in little over an hour. If you scroll through the recently played list, you can find most of the top 15 list sprinkled throughout the broadcast.
As to why this convergence to blandness has happened, our intrepid FiveThitryEight author interviewed the classic rock brand manager (there’s a hint) at Clear Channel to get a peak behind the curtain:
But clearly it’s not just when a song was released that makes it classic rock. Popularity matters, as does as a band’s longevity, its sound and a bunch of other factors. To find out why some artists are considered classic rock, I spoke to Eric Wellman, the classic rock brand manager for Clear Channel, which owns nine of the 25 radio stations in our data set. He’s also the programming director at New York’s classic rock station, WAXQ. Wellman said release years have nothing to do with what makes a song “classic rock”; the ability of the genre to grow based on consumers’ tastes is one of the things that’s given it such longevity.
In fact, radio stations are using data to make their selection decisions. Wellman said any radio company with the resources conducts regular studies in its major markets to find out what its listeners consider classic rock. And so it’s you, the consumer, who’s helping to define the genre.
“The standard in the industry these days is an online music test or an auditorium music test where you just gather a sample and have them rate songs based on the hooks — the most familiar parts of the song — and you just get back a whole slew of data,” Wellman said. The stations find a cluster of people who like the music that makes up the core of classic rock, and then finds out what else they like. They like R.E.M.? Well, R.E.M. is now classic rock. “It’s really that simple,” Wellman said.
There is more to it than simply surveying a station’s “listeners” to rate songs based on their hooks and saying “o.k. here are the songs that our listeners like, go play these songs.”
Stations need to identify their target demographic, because everything revolves around the listener demographics a station promises to deliver to its advertisers.
Concern about “the demographic cliff” has manifested itself in the continued rollout of second-generation Classic Rockers like Clear Channel’s “Brew” stations. And in the continued march by many Classic Rock stations into the grunge era—the music that was one considered to be a shot across Classic Rock’s bow. One recent evolution took place at Cox’s WSRV (The River) Atlanta, which added Pearl Jam and Lenny Kravitz to a station that had launched with a softer, older version of Classic Hits less than a decade ago.
The correct answer to the “age of the audience” question is never the one that GMs find helpful. Having an audience at the height of its earning potential and disposable income ought to buy the format some respite from the demographic concerns, but never has. So should having the audience that grew up most influenced by radio, and remains most under its sway. But agencies don’t accept that either and so neither do managers.
In the end, a radio station, no matter the format, is about delivering a targeted demographic to advertisers and not about delivering great music to its listeners.
Hopefully, a station somewhere, will try something radical and try playing interesting and different music and gain a huge audience.