The format flip and consolidation this past week of a couple local stations in my market raised a bit of an online ruckus and made me think a bit about whether or not ‘terrestrial radio’ as the AM/FM dial is now referred to really matters much any more in terms of the music business.
The impetus for this comes from the Columbia, SC market where last week the ‘modern rock’ station WARQ went dark save for an ad promoting its sister station, formerly an all classic rock formatted FOX 102.3 as “Columbia’s Rock Station” and promising the best of both the new and old rock. On Monday, the new Q 93.5 debuted on WARQ’s signal, a ‘Hot Adult Contemporary’ station that plays hits of the last ten years or so with emphasis on current top 40, without much if any R&B or hip-hop.
The outcry so far has mostly been from the loyal WARQ rock audience, who rightly feel that their ‘modern’ rock has been sidelined in favor of the heavy rotation of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, etc…and wonder where they’ll have to go to get their fix of heavy new rock.
It’s a valid question as radio consolidates nationwide and fewer stations, fewer formats, and fewer options present themselves. And despite the constant crowing that radio is a dying or dead medium in the internet and satellite radio age, it’s still a major presence in every market. The problem, as I see it, is that most of it is not focused on the local angle, where it might gain the most loyal listenership from those who do still turn on their radios. With playlists programmed by one guy in a consultant’s office somewhere in LA or New York based on national research, and most live DJ slots filled by automation and canned, syndicated shows, one could listen to the same station in almost any market in the country and other than the local advertising not know where you were.
What about the music? Does anyone discover a new band on the radio any more? Do local bands stand a chance of getting on the air at a station that’s programmed from the other side of the country? Would they want to, anyway? All great questions that I don’t really have an answer for. What I do know is that the losers in this race to a very generic bottom of the radio format issue are the listeners. Those who still use the radio as a primary source for music listening and even discovery are being shortchanged by lowest-common-denominator programming in the name of ratings and ad revenue; the smaller the radio pie gets, the safer everyone has to play the game to get their own slice.
The other losers are live music fans—if a band is unable to get radio airplay in a market, their booking agents (who still pay attention to stuff like this) will be less likely to route them through that area for concerts or club dates. If the bands you like aren’t on the radio anyway, fine…but there are plenty of mid-level acts who are, and that radio airplay still gets butts in the seats for shows.
So, the answer to the titular query above, at least, is ‘yes’. For a significant portion of the population, especially outside of the big metropolitan cities such as New York, Chicago, etc., radio remains an important and oft-used part of their lives. Turning on the radio in the car on the way to work, school, or going out in the evenings is a ritual that hasn’t yet been replaced by satellite radio or the internet—only the options once that radio is on have been reduced.
If you’re in Columbia, there are still valid and viable options for good new music in the ‘modern rock’ genre. The Palm, 92.1 FM, plays a mixture of modern and classic rock that’s song-oriented and more rootsy/Americana than Rock 93.5 ever was, but it’s fairly listenable stuff most of the time. WXRY-FM 99.3 is the closest to a ‘real’ modern rock station, but their signal is not strong in many areas and they don’t play the heavier rock acts. WUSC-FM 90.5, the college radio station at the University of South Carolina, is a great place to discover new and different music of all stripes, if you can make it past the student DJs who are admittedly learning as they go.