Is radio supposed to be interesting?
That question is the longest running debate in the industry. And, like everything else, it has moved to a new platform, especially with last week's news that Slacker Radio's relaunch included online ads that emphasized curation and attacked Pandora for repeatedly playing the same songs--in this case, one that sounds like the Rednex version of "Cotton Eyed Joe."
It's been noted at length that Pandora, despite its initial use of music discovery as a calling card, has been playing the same hits as mainstream FM radio--at least since the launch of the mobile app that propelled Pandora to its current prominence. Attacked by broadcasters as "not radio," Pandora was really the culmination of radio's 40-year quest toward more music, less talk, and "no bad songs," since there was no longer a need to determine what the likely tune-outs might be.
Even before the Slacker ads, a lot of FM broadcasters have hoped that Pandora might be vulnerable on repetition, a little ironic given the PPM-era tightness of most major-market music stations. Now, it's being attacked from the other side by Slacker, long admired for the creativity of its channel offerings. Slacker has always had a cult following among some radio people and was, in fact, one of the first pureplays to hire programming people from radio backgrounds. (Pandora eventually did the same.)
Slacker's campaign was the impetus to take a fresh listen to the mainstream top 40 channels called "Today's Hits" on both services. We listened to both around the same time on the morning of Feb. 15. We didn't skip songs on Pandora. We didn't adjust the familiarity slider on Slacker or skip any songs until about two-thirds of the way through. (Disclosure, my employer, Edison Research, has worked with Pandora in a non-programming capacity.)
As has been the case when I've done this exercise at various times in the past four years, Pandora was actually more conservative than what you might have heard on a major-market CHR--a few more recurrents and no songs that hadn't received widespread airplay. The curator of the Slacker hits channel promised the "coolest hits first," but the songs that set it apart were oldies and recurrents that had largely been pruned at radio ("Tattoo," "Finally Found You") and two hits from other formats that hadn't fully crossed over (Lil Wayne and Lifehouse). The mix got somewhat newer after I adjusted Slacker's settings for more new music and less popular songs.
All of this was in keeping with what broadcasters learned from the mid-'00s success of Bob- and Jack-FM. After years of simultaneously complaining about repetition and shunning more adventurous formats, listeners turned out to be sincere about wanting more variety, but only in the form of a slightly deeper library of familiar hits. Slacker, Pandora, and Sirius XM all offer creatively conceived stations, but listeners most often gravitate to the most mainstream ones: "Today's Hits" is the first listing among Slacker's "Top Stations."
Yet, it's interesting that somebody is trying to reach the audience that does exist for music discovery (in which I include myself). It was the initial calling card of satellite radio, which then mainstreamed considerably and saw expedited growth. It receives only a little attention from existing broadcasters -- even now that new platforms have unshackled them offering only the most mass-appeal programming. Slacker has to play the hits, too. It will be interesting to see the extent to which their creativity becomes a marketable point of differentiation. But it's most significant that the entity being attacked for its conservatism isn't FM radio. It's chilling to think that particular debate may have moved elsewhere.
Pandora, Today's Hits
Pitbull, "Don't Stop The Party"
Pink, "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)"
Imagine Dragons, "It's Time"
Kelly Clarkson, "Catch My Breath"
Script f/will.i.am, "Hall Of Fame"
LMFAO, "Party Rock Anthem"
Swedish House Mafia, "Don't You Worry Child"
Carly Rae Jepsen, "Call Me Maybe"
Ke$ha, "Die Young"
Adele, "Set Fire To The Rain"
Calvin Harris f/Florence Welch, "Sweet Nothing"
Justin Timberlake f/Jay-Z, "Suit And Tie"
Slacker, Today's Hits
Lumineers, "Ho, Hey"
Lil Wayne, "Love Me"
David Guetta f/Sia, "Titanium"
will.i.am & Britney Spears, "Scream And Shout"
Jordin Sparks, "Tattoo"
Bruno Mars, "Locked Out Of Heaven"
The Wanted, "Glad U Came"
Imagine Dragon, "It's Time"
One Direction, "Little Things"
Macklemore & Lewis f/Wanz, "Thrift Shop"
Justin Timberlake f/Jay-Z, "Suit And Tie"
Cher Lloyd, "Want U Back"
Nicki Minaj, "Pound The Alarm"
Enrique Iglesias, "Finally Found You"
Olly Murs, "Troublemaker"
Lifehouse & Natasha Bedingfield, "Between The Raindrops"