Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Anybody Listening?

Word came down yesterday that WBCN, one of the longest running stations on the FM dial, will be signing off the air for good next month - and becoming an 'internet only' entity. In light of this news, we turn to our friend "Smack" for some feedback.

Please feel free to weigh in by posting a comment, and enjoy.

Within Reason: So down comes word from "The Man" that WBCN will be taken off the air - and become internet only - on August 13th. Thoughts on this?

Smack: Yeah I heard that yesterday. It sounded like they’re changing the call letters and keeping their morning show on the new station, and still playing the Pats games and stuff.

WR: If you ask me, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

A) You're taking one of only 2 AOR stations off the air in the 'greater' Boston market (I do not count 101.7 WFNX, because that signal drops about 15 miles outside the city).B) You are replacing WBCN with an FM sports station. In some cities, this may make sense, but there's a little station called WEEI in Boston, which is not only the #1 radio station in the Boston market now, it's near the top nationwide. B pt.2) Past attempts, by other stations, to compete with WEEI have failed miserably. Perhaps WEEI is down, following their loss - 2 years ago - of exclusive broadcasting rights to The Red Sox, but there's a problem with that reasoning, too. Anyone south of Boston can already get FM sports talk and programming - including The Red Sox - on 103.7 FM, WEEI's Rhode Island affiliate.C) 104.1 - WBCN's frequency, will now be occupied by the 'mix' station, currently Mix 98.5. The new sports station will move to Mix's vacated 98.5 spot on the dial. I question the logic of retaining a 'mix' station, where you are directly competing against Kiss 108 (107.9) Mike FM (93.7) Jam'n 94.5 (which plays mostly hip hop and R&B, or about 30% of your top 40 'mix' material) and a handful of other stations already established in this market.

This leaves mainstream rock audiences with 107.3 WAAF (also broadcasting on 97.7) as the only choice on the dial.

So, if I get this straight, media companies like CBS would rather try to squeeze another 50,000 - 100,000 in sales out of a Kelly Clarkson record than to develop any sort of rock audience in Boston. That would be Boston, Massachusetts. I guess former Spinal Tap manager Ian "I wouldn't worry about Boston, it's not much of a college town" Faith has landed at CBS Radio...

S: Just a couple of points:They do still have the exclusive rights to the Patriots live broadcasts which is big.Mix has a pretty good market share despite all the competition in their format. Don’t see why that would change much.WEEI’s share has been down over the past few years.

Graphic from

WR: Those are some interesting figures, but I do still find it odd that CBS is choosing to take on the top 2 stations in the market.

I would be interested in seeing exactly how the producers of these charts are defining "Boston" - as, again, there is an FM affiliate to WEEI in Providence that reaches much of Southern New England.

The main point, I think, is that every time a rock radio station goes off the air the devolution of music as a whole advances.

S: Do you think AM/FM radio will eventually go the way of the newspapers as people get more and more options for real time news, music and sports talk? (e.g. iPod, Blackberry, XM, Sirius, HD radio, streaming internet radio)

WR: It's an interesting parallel. Where the issue facing newspapers is 'what was once $0.50 a day is now available for free' - the issue facing radio is 'there are less and less free outlets for music.'

You can look at the issues facing Sirius/XM as an example of this. As of yet, it doesn't appear that there are that many people willing to pay for radio. Just as is happening with information, actual media (in this case, music) is available from such a wide assortment of formats that audiences - or consumers - are divided and sub-divided over and over. What ends up happening is that monetizing this market becomes increasingly difficult. As a solution, larger media companies are forcing consumers to migrate towards 'fee for service' music. If I want to get turned on to a new band, I'll have to come up with some way other than terrestrial radio.

We've touched on this before, but a singles market (as opposed to an LP market) is bad for music. Record companies push out bands like Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas, etc in the hopes that they'll get a few million $0.99 downloads - sort of like the new 45s. The problem is, the 'new' (post 1967) music economy was built on sales of the LP - not singles. This was especially the case in the 1980s and 1990s, when sales records were being set, and groups like 'Nsync, Brittany Spears and Pearl Jam could expect to sell 1 million copies of an LP in it's first week of release. Nowadays, 1 million in sales would put you in the top 10 for a calendar year. The problem with this new model is that there is no artist development - both because the 'artists' themselves are not strong enough to establish long term careers, and - as it turns out - even the 'big time' acts like Beyonce Knowles don't have the clout to maintain long term success on the level of past predecessors (see Beyonce vs. Madonna or even Brittany, Coldplay vs. U2 or Pearl Jam, heck - even Creed put up numbers that are, by today's new standards, astronomical).

Music will just get more and more homogenized, the quality will continue to diminish, and it will get more and more expensive.

S: Did music have these same issues pre-1967, when singles were the norm?

WR: I don't think they would be characterized as "issues" pre-1967 - it was just the market. It's becoming the market again, but this time it is doing so without the benefit of free promotion - commercial radio. I was discussing this with a co-worker earlier. ALL radio programming is commercial - even the songs themselves. The songs are commercials for the artists, and the records they produce. If you are some one who does not buy a lot of music, but you listen to the radio, you are the equivalent of some one who watches The Food Network, but shops and eats like any average consumer - thanks for watching, and now a word from our sponsors.

Downloading music for free, or "illegally" is not the culprit that it is made out to be by the media (of course, the same media that is suffering through this "music recession"). What you've got with downloading is a replacement for the radio. There are a few angles to this: First, if downlaoding was THAT big a problem, it could be stopped. Am I to believe that my cable company can block certain channels, my employer can block certain sites, and I can encrypt a personal data disk, but music companies cannot protect THEIR content? I doubt that. Second, downlaoding came about just as the 90s boom was beginning to fade. Through the 80s and 90s, record sales were exploding - and the bubble had to burst at some point. Whereas the hold-over between the hair band 80s and 'alternative/grunge 90s was brief, the post 90s rock scene has been slow to rebound and develop substantial artists to replenish the rosters of music labels. No offense to 3 Doors Down, but I wouldn't know if I were standing next to them a Home Depot - they're just that uninteresting. Third, there was a failure to acknowledge, on behalf of the labels, that along with this natural decline in sales was the advent of decreased music programming AND the availability of free music online. The current climate is the result of a perfect storm of poor business planning, a frustrated consumer base, and poor product.

In my opinion, music companies need to embrace free downloading, and rebuild their business model around incentivizing customers to spend their money. I understand that this is not easy in an environment where all of your product may be available for free - but what about sites, sponsored by the label - that offer free downloads (and not just some promotional single, but additional content) to their customers? Like it? Well, buy the album here, too. Again, I know it doesn't make sense on the surface, but it's exactly how radio used to work - if you replace "downloads" with "air play" and "website" with record store."

Record companies need to remember that the radio is their advertising. Any company that said "Uh, we're going to essentially stop advertising, lessen the quality of our product, and make it available in fewer and fewer places" would eventually run into this brick wall.

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