Every Format Change Disappoints Someone, But Is Radio Healthier For It?

When WJHM Orlando, Fla., became 101.9 Amp Radio last week, it was confirmation of a format evolution to top 40 that had otherwise been completed some time ago. 102 Jamz was, upon its late '80s launch, a 12-share powerhouse in a market that had never had an urban format on FM before. That station was long gone, and the station that is now playing Fall Out Boy and Passenger is better called something else anyway.

I still felt a little bummed by this news. Four years ago, the original WAMO-FM Pittsburgh, another one-time legend, was sold for surprisingly little money, leaving Pittsburgh with no urban station of any sort for two years; (it has since been replaced only by an AM/translator combo). I had hoped that the issue of whether Orlando could support an R&B/hip-hop station was long settled by that 12-share. Jamz was nudged out, but not directly replaced, by a rhythmic top 40 rival. Both format changes gave me a similar twinge.

Still, the last time I listened to 102 Jamz was just long enough last fall to establish that it wasn't the station I remembered. And the next-to-last time was a long time ago. By 1982 when WABC New York dropped its last vestiges of top 40, (by then, it was a low-rated full-service AC), it was already an industry truism that people still felt sentimental about the stations that they had long stopped listening to. 

In fact, even as somebody who cares about radio deeply, I can't remember a recent format change that really upset me for anything other than symbolic reasons. The last time I turned on a station (New York's Z100) to discover a format change (from alternative-leaning hits, which I liked, to harder alternative, which I didn't) that personally disappointed me was 20 years ago, back when options were still limited to what was in the market. Other favorite stations I liked and lost over the years -- KFRC San Francisco in the '80s, KHOM New Orleans in the '90s -- were really more about PDs who were long gone by the time the actual format change took place. 

Two years ago, Edison Research's Infinite Dial study contained a much-quoted factoid that 44% of respondents would be "very disappointed" to lose the AM/FM station they listen to most, while 29% would be "somewhat disappointed." In a recent online study, researcher Mark Kassof offered the statement, "It upsets you when a station you like changes format" and got the same 44%  for "agree strongly" and 40% for "agree slightly."

Broadcasters and the trade press quickly seize on stats like those as good news for radio. But the Edison “agree strongly” number was actually down from 51% two years earlier. Moreover, radio has never been able to translate that sentiment into anything usable. During the last oldies format crisis, WFOX Atlanta tried to rally listeners with a "save the format" campaign. Today, it's classic rock WSRV. Capitalizing on potential sadness over a format change would be a Pyrrhic victory, but it's rarely a victory to begin with.

The specter of a format change isn't even an effective stunt. More than a decade ago, during a format downturn, a dozen major top 40s tried some version of telling listeners that their station was "going away," or something similar. A few days later, that statement was modified to "going away to the Bahamas and taking two listeners with us." Almost all of the stations that toyed with listeners that way lost ratings at the time. 

Format changes have been a less frequent occurrence over the last five years, but it doesn't stop broadcasters from swarming into a hot new format or fleeing one they've decided is over. When that happens, there's very little concern that abandoning smooth jazz will disenfranchise listeners who might not transfer that listening to another station, or that the third top 40 in a market can't possibly grow the audience enough.

If owners were truly concerned about maintaining the greatest possible usage of broadcast radio in a given market, they would more often take into account the full portfolio of available stations. Could we create more 12-to-24 listeners if there were more choices for them beyond multiple top 40s? With oldies/greatest hits and classic rock under new scrutiny, are we about to again disenfranchise the listeners with the greatest loyalty to radio and disproportionate AQH contributions? Trumpeting the 44% number overlooks that most format changes are not claiming many listeners' favorite stations. But occasionally, a highly-rated station gets blown-up anyway, and the impact on overall radio usage is rarely considered in the conference room discussions that precede it.

If broadcasters wanted to maintain their footprint, no matter how the landscape of available audio changes, they would create viable national properties that don't depend on a tower. Allowing a defunct FM to "live on" through HD-2 or streaming for a while is a transparent sop to a few angry callers, but it doesn't have to be. Broadcasters would also better manage the infinite dial. I hope WNSH (Nash FM) makes country viable in New York, but I also stream KAJA (KJ97) San Antonio. But if WNSH weren't to survive, streaming another radio property would still be too much work for most listeners. 

Finally, you have to ask what broadcasters are doing to maintain the viability of their brands before the format change question comes into play. Broadcasters don't ask often enough if listeners are getting what they expect from their favorite stations. Or if they think they would follow their favorite station to a new platform. Or listen to it no matter what other types of choices are available. The hypothetical format change question is trumped every month by more concrete figures about declining TSL. What is radio doing about that, today?