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Even the Most Passionate Young Music Lovers Eschew Commercial Radio

The commercial radio industry’s reaction to last week’s Boston Globe article reporting on the relative dearth of young listeners can be fairly summed up, as “Nuh uhhhh! Not true!” Despite radio’s collective denial, I had this reality reaffirmed for me this past Friday.

I had the opportunity to speak with a group of high school and college age interns at an independent music promotion agency here in Chicago on the topic of the music radio. More so than any random grouping of teenagers and young adults, this was a group that is passionate about music and the artists that create it.

Chicago's erstwhile AOR station WXRT.


Yet, when I asked the group of about twelve interns if they listen to radio, only five rose their hands. Of that group a few of the older ones said they listen to public radio, primarily for the news. A couple said they listen to Chicago’s most well-known and widely respected commercial AOR station, WXRT, and one said she listens to a couple of the pop stations on occasion.

When I asked why they listen to little or no radio the answer was pretty similar to what we’ve been hearing in the press. They said there’s too much repetition, not enough music that they care about and way too many commercials. A few also said that none of the stations they’ve heard are diverse enough for their tastes. They don’t want to pick a station that only plays hip-hop, rock or dance music; they like their genres blended.

I was actually a little surprised by that last response, though I shouldn’t be. One of the reasons I’ve preferred college and community radio all these years has been for the relative diversity of their programming. I’ve especially loved late night freeform radio because of that tendency not to be bound by genre, a constraint which most primetime noncommercial radio tends to adhere to.

But it probably took me until late college to really appreciate the value of true genre-crossing freeform programming, not just a playlist-free college rock program with the occasional jazz or rap track thrown in. That’s probably due to not really being exposed to that sort of radio until college, and the fact that it takes some time to acclimate to it after a lifetime of hearing strictly formatted commercial radio.

Both the radio listeners and the interns who don’t listen to radio all said they primarily rely on the internet, and on friends, to learn about new music. They cited music blogs and Pandora as primary sources, but also mentioned using the iTunes music store to check out what’s hot and listen to samples.

The ability to customize their music experience and not be a slave to faceless programmers was a rationale they all agreed upon. When I asked if they ever get playlists from a friend or another source, like a blog, several said they do, but made it clear that it’s very different than how they’ve experienced radio. The intern coordinator, who I’m guessing is probably the oldest of the group, said that it was clear that even the commercial station he listens to doesn’t care much about him or even the music it plays.

Your humble author's WMFU T-shirt.

Your humble author

Interestingly, none of the interns (except for the one who works with WNUR) was particularly aware of most of the college stations in Chicago, nor listened much to any of the most well-known indie rock stations with popular live streams, like Seattle’s KEXP or New Jersey’s WFMU (full disclosure: I’m wearing a WFMU t-shirt right now). At least one said he’d heard of KEXP, primarily through their connection with music festivals and because they record and make available online many live in-studio performances.

I asked the interns who listen to public radio if they ever learn about new artists that way. I got some tentative yeses, as they reflected that they’d heard artist interviews and some song excerpts and occasionally make use of the online archives.

Towards the end of the discussion I proposed that I think there is still life and potential for radio as a music medium, although it’s clear that changes need to occur if the commercial side is going to survive. I asked them what would entice them to listen to radio.

In response the intern coordinator asked why hadn’t a station created a more interactive environment, wherein listeners might be able to participate in the selection of artists and songs. I didn’t have an answer so much as another question: how is that different from an iPod playlist or Pandora? He reflected on that for a moment before acknowledging that it’s not.

Then I asked if instead they might be interested in listening to a station where it seemed like the music was being chosen with more care and artistic integrity, more like a music blog or a live DJ set. I got plenty of head nods indicating, “yes,” but I’m not entirely sure I’m convinced. One young woman said that it would have to be pretty good to get her to change her habits.

Therein lies the rub. It isn’t the case that commercial music radio only needs to regain listeners that it’s lost. No, it has to entice a whole generation who were never listeners to begin with.

photo credit: thomasbrandt/flickr

photo credit: thomasbrandt/flickr

I’m certain that some erosion of listenership was inevitable due to the rise of the internet, cable television and the multichannel universe. But the loss of an entire generation of listeners was not so unavoidable, and is due to turning radio from an entertainment into a soulless commodity, no different than real estate or pork belly futures.

Still, I’m cautiously optimistic, especially if the giants like Clear Channel continue to sell off and give away stations to smaller groups who might be more connected to local communities. Perhaps one way to connect up radio with young listeners is via the artists themselves, as personalities which young people obviously trust and respect way more than the local Clear Channel top 20 + 20 minutes of commercial station. I’ll have more on that last thought soon.

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