For nearly two decades, the prospect of nationally programmed radio has been one of the most charged issues in our business. And yet, it has arrived in many ways during the last year -- to little controversy.
In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Clear Channel was the weekly lightning rod for consumer press stories about standardized playlists. At that time, Clear Channel’s top 40 stations were having a significant impact on the national top 40 charts -- thanks largely to a fast-growing collection of rhythmic-leaning top 40 stations with spin counts that were unusually high for the time.
But Clear Channel wasn’t standardizing top 40 or any other format. A record could spread quickly through certain like-minded stations. But an analysis in Billboard’s Airplay Monitor found little more correlation between, say, WHTZ (Z100) New York and other Clear Channel top 40s than there was between Z100 and other separately owned stations. At the time, there were too many regional and format captains, and too many Clear Channel stations for them to move in lock step.
The “national playlist” story faded. Randy Michaels, Clear Channel's CEO at the time who had given the press an easy target, left. Satellite radio gave the consumer press a new toy, and a safety valve to hear more of its own favorite music.
Then there was top 40’s eight-year musical journey from 50 Cent to the Lumineers. Both the national playlist story and the negative post-Eliot Spitzer-scandal coverage of radio carried a whiff of snobbery, at the very least, as if rap and rhythmic pop could only receive widespread airplay if the fix was in. No such complaint has been voiced about the success of Mumford & Sons.
In fact, few complaints were voiced at all when Clear Channel indeed began actual national airplay initiatives in recent years, first the nationally programmed dayparts of those stations using its "Premium Choice" programming, then saturation airplay at various formats on new artist releases, beginning just over a year ago with Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Luvin’.”
Clear Channel execs made a point of noting that their premieres were not paid spin programs -- something that had figured into the Spitzer controversy. Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman was a friendlier face to the outside world than Michaels, and besides, it was easy to understand Clear Channel’s hourly airplay for new singles by big-name artists -- it was just what Pittman used to do at MTV 25 years earlier.
While the Clear Channel premieres could disrupt the charts with their rush of early spins, they couldn’t force a record to become a long-term hit, and didn’t seem to try. Some songs, like Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” took hold. But stations didn’t hesitate to move on from Madonna, or Kenny Chesney & Tim McGraw’s “Feel Like a Rock Star,” or Adele’s “Skyfall” after a few weeks.
At a September Radio Show panel on the radio/label relationship, CBS Radio president Dan Mason expressed his desire to work more closely with the music industry. CBS named its own director of label initiatives last week, and during the last year, certain trends have emerged among CBS stations. Its country outlets were early champions of Kelly Clarkson’s crossover efforts, then of Mumford & Sons. CBS top 40s have been early spin leaders on reaction records from “Gangnam Style” to “Thrift Shop” to Pitbull’s “Feel This Moment,” which received heavy CBS airplay before becoming a single. Labels used to be forced to switch to the “song that radio wanted” all the time. So is it group-wide programming, or just a return to the fondly remembered days of networking PDs who used to find their own hits?
Then there’s Nash FM. Cumulus’ New York country station launched recently as an intended national brand. Shortly after Nash FM’s launch, Clear Channel moved top 40 morning man Bobby Bones to WSIX Nashville, effectively creating a new national country morning show. And by picking up some of Bones’ former top 40 stations, Elvis Duran extended his national footprint as well.
Two years ago at Country Radio Seminar, the perceived national nature of Cumulus country playlists caused more high-charged hallway discussions than any panel. But as radio “Nash”-ionalizes, there’s been surprisingly little blowback. Maybe it’s been a foregone conclusion for too long. While there are certainly more cuts coming, a lot of jobs have already been replaced with programming that was neither satisfyingly local or national. A well-done station that was overtly national would be an improvement in ways.
Ironically, SiriusXM with its own Nashville-based morning show and Country format, has been offering just that, making national radio seem less insidious. And as “Harlem Shake” sits atop the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to YouTube views, iTunes sales and virtually no radio (yet), major radio groups are trying to show that they can still control the musical agenda -- something they once had to deny.
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