Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

Radio stations soon learned that some 90 percent of their audience was "passive," tuning in for only a few minutes in their cars or listening to background music in the office. So, while familiarity breeds contempt from some of us, radio executives learned that they could create listener loyalty among the majority by reheating the same dish again and again. After all, nobody was sitting around waiting to hear a new single from the Beatles anymore. And they certainly weren't running to the record store to buy singles the way they once did.

That's where the phone surveys, which are still used by almost every major-market station in the country, come in handy. Call-out research provides an immediate gauge on an audience's mood--in an even more detailed way than quarterly reports from Arbitron, the firm that configures radio ratings. Stations figure out which songs listeners know and like, then play them until they hear differently. (The surveys also have a "burn quotient," which measures when exactly listeners tire of a song.) Why try anything else?

To this day, "Heartache Tonight" by the Eagles (No. 6 in 1979, according to Kasem's countdown) is instantly recognizable and still tests well. Meanwhile, a tune like Herb Alpert's "Rise," an instrumental that was No. 11 when I celebrated my fourth-grade New Year's Eve, would probably get little more than a bewildered response if tested over the phone today. Problem is, brand-new songs don't fare much better.

To say the least, call-out research was the beginning of the end for free-form commercial radio.


In the mid-1990s, another event polarized the state of music radio even further: The sweeping Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated several industries and relaxed rules for radio ownership. Advocates of the legislation, such as Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt and President Bill Clinton, claimed the move would encourage more diversity in ownership of the airwaves; the opposite proved true.

Until 1992, any one company was allowed to own just one FM and one AM station in any given market. In 1996, the act allowed for up to eight, with no more than five on either band. In just a few months, media giants like ABC, Viacom, and Clear Channel snatched up the best radio signals in the top markets. In the Twin Cities, the most emblematic blow was struck in 1997, when ABC/Cap Cities bought the three frequencies airing the fledgling and truly unique radio station Rev 105 (105.1, 105.3, and 105.7 FM).

The demise of the Rev was covered ad nauseam, by teary-eyed music fans from City Pages to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The more influential cultural shift, however, flew under the radar. Clear Channel and ABC started to play a game of corporate cat-and-mouse, flipping formats and counter-programming each other seemingly down to the minute. In the past, stations tended to stake out a format and stick with it. That era, with few exceptions in town, is over.

Well into the Nineties, KQRS-FM (92.5), for example--once a revolutionary, free-form station--could at least be counted on to help break the occasional new artist or song, such as blues Turk Jonny Lang or "Bittersweet" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters. In the summer of 1999, the competition at Clear Channel, which had had a hard-rock format on 100.3 FM (an outlet for new music), introduced WLOL-FM (100.3), playing "classic hits" of the Seventies and Eighties and threatening KQ's very foundation. Overnight, KQ, which is owned by ABC Radio, quit adding new music almost completely.

To certain circles of the hip, this may not seem such a big deal. But considering how many people listen to just these two corporate stations, and how they can influence other markets, it's difficult to overstate the effect of these corporate moves. The commercial reality: Playing old Steve Miller nuggets guarantees far more listeners than playing the latest single from the Strokes.

Take R.E.M., one of the few alternative bands from my youth that made it to big-time-radio play lists. I remember driving to my girlfriend's house one weeknight during my senior year of high school in 1987 and having to nearly pull over when KQ played "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." It was weird. It was thrilling. It was new.

In 1996, the year of deregulation and the year R.E.M. signed an $80 million contract with its Warner Bros. label, the band was already beginning to fall out of favor with radio programmers, despite eight years of chart and radio success. Last spring Time-Warner/AOL, parent company to Warner Bros., reportedly considered shelving R.E.M.'s latest--and, to my ears, very good--album entirely. The label, according to some, understandably feared there was no room on the dial for the Georgia band.

The demise of bands like R.E.M. can also be traced, perhaps indirectly, to another element of the Telecommunications Act: The cost-cutting of several record labels that had been gobbled up when corporate conglomerates got the green light to jump into the entertainment business. As this happened, the music industry's founding fathers were let go. And people who had devoted their lives to new music were bought out.

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