It can be tempting to shrug off terrestrial radio as a quaint reminder of years’ past, nostalgically nestled between the cassette and the CD on history’s shelf. But despite the tech transformation of the past decade, old school FM radio remains by far our most popular source of music.
The real surprise is what has happened within radio during this same decade. Beset by competitive threats, radio has responded by becoming dramatically narrower in their focus on what’s most familiar. As evidenced in the chart below from the Wall Street Journal, radio played the biggest hits of 2013 nearly twice as much as the top songs of 2003.
As evidenced by the endless stream of superheroes in our cineplexes, a greater reliance on fewer blockbusters is an increasingly popular strategy for entertainment companies. When a handful of smash hits account for the lion’s share of your profits for the entire year, it can be good business to big on a select few (if you would like for a HBS professor to repeat this sentence over and over again, there is a book that you might like).
Seeing themselves in an escalating fight for listener attention, radio has placed their bets on the belief that their consumers are likely to continue listening when they hear something familiar and turn the channel (or turn the radio off altogether) when they hear something they don’t know. From this, radio surmised that they should just shut up and play the hit.
But their panicky fearfulness has led FM radio to ask the wrong question: rather than worrying about what leads people to turn off the radio, they need to be asking what is going to get people to turn on the radio in the first place.
When top 40 radio turns into top 20 radio and subsequently turns into the button that I press when I want to hear that Robin Thicke song, radio’s defensiveness is pigeonholing them into a smaller and smaller space in peoples’ attention spans.
This isn’t some idealistic plea for radio to return to a brilliantly varied past that never existed. Rather, it’s business: with any sense of serendipity stripped from the experience, radio is destined to decline into a bit player within our entertainment worlds.
Radio has to radically re-think what it needs to be. Or, with a renewed resolution to write more frequently, maybe I’ll toy with this in posts to come.
In the interim, I invite you to enjoy this track from Clare Maguire that you just might hear on the radio sometime soon.
Half Hearted Love, Clare Maguire