Radio changes its tune to recapture listeners

May 11, 2005

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Posted 5/11/2005 8:42 PM     Updated 5/12/2005 9:00 AM
Radio changes its tune to recapture listeners
As more consumers turn a deaf ear to traditional radio, stations increasingly are switching formats.

The Internet, iPods, computer games, podcasting, commercial-free satellite radio and staid programming have combined to slice average weekly listening time 9% since 1998, prompting many "terrestrial" commercial stations to jettison even relatively strong formats, such as rock, in several big markets.

Country, talk, adult contemporary and religious formats still dominate. But with satellite radio growth exploding, format flips are accelerating as stations "become more earnest addressing the erosion in listenership," says Sean Ross of Edison Media Research. Hot concepts:

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•Jack. Aka Bob, Alice and other first-name monikers, the format focuses on '70s, '80s and '90s hits, sprinkled with current tunes. Target audience: twenty-somethings to baby boomers. A hit in Canada since 2002, Jack could be in 100 U.S. markets this year.

Jack is often backed by "throw away your iPod" marketing hype because it employs playlists of 1,200 or more songs — triple most oldies-style music stations and a bit closer to iPod capacity. "Jack's a reaction to stations that are tightly formatted and predictable," Inside Radio editor Tom Taylor says.

Baltimore station WSQR jettisoned its 17-year-old oldies format for Jack on May 4. "With Jack, people don't know what to expect, and we hope that's what they'll gravitate to," says programming director Dave LaBrozzi.

•Hurban. Spanish-language formats are hot. Hurban, a fusion of Spanish hip-hop and English-language R&B, targeting young second- and third-generation Hispanics, is even hotter. Strong in Southern markets, Hurban "is a concept coming up bigger every week," Billboard Radio Monitor editor Paul Heine says.

•Progressive talk. Talk radio has long been dominated by syndicated conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh. But liberal formats, led by Air America, have sprung up in 75 markets. "It appeals to those left out of the current conversation in talk radio," Heine says.

Some formats, such as contemporary Christian music, are bolstering ratings at 15 Salem Communications stations, says chief operating officer Joe D. Davis. Other stations are simply tweaking playlists. New York's WXRK-FM (K-Rock), home to Howard Stern until his 2006 ascent to satellite radio, modified its non-talk rock format to classic rock to keep core 25-to-54-year-olds, says industry consultant Robert Unmacht.

Operators also are avoiding listener static by slashing commercials, following Clear Channel. The USA's No. 1 operator with 1,200 stations has initiated a "Less Is More" campaign. "We had some stations with 15 to 16 minutes of ads an hour," Clear Channel programming executive Doc Wynter says. "Now, it's no more than 10 minutes."

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