Ross On Radio: Staying In The Continuous Music Business

I was streaming a major-market top 40 station a few days ago when I heard something new in the stop set. The tenor and the language of the spot were familiar to anybody who has heard ads for credit card or mortgage relief. This one, however, was offering relief from payday loans.

In that same stop set, I also heard an ad offering relief from student loan debt. And one for Viagra. And an ad about finding the best nursing home for your mom. There might have been an upbeat spot somewhere in that cluster, since it was likely more than four units. If there was, I didn’t notice.

This began as a column about “downer spots.” It’s been brewing for a few months since I listened to a successful mainstream AC, one with a likely strong qualitative audience, and only heard such ads. Discussions about spotload among broadcasters are often diverted to the topic of spot quality—something many clearly see as more fixable. And any discussion of spot quality should indeed start with the bummers.

Then I began streaming the top 40 station’s rival. The first few ads were better—a local college, a national auto parts spot. Then an extended period of silence. Then another spot cluster. Then more silence. The station website showed them as being in music. It was at least 25 minutes later when the music started again, mid-song.

Next, I went to Pandora’s top 40 stream. In 45 minutes, I got two video ads—both triggered by song skips—and three regular 15-second spots. Four of the sponsors were automotive: Mini, Nissan, Jeep, Mercedes. Pandora's spots were spaced aggressively; the song preceded by a video ad was always followed by an audio spot. But the ads were less depressing, more flattering and without dead air.

Broadcasters are newly enthusiastic about claiming the “live and local” franchise; they grudgingly allow that spotload is an issue. In some ways, the emphasis on the former seems like permission to ignore the latter. No proponent of live and local says they want to abandon the continuous music business. But it’s hard to do otherwise when you are not even close to playing the most continuous music.

The pity here is that broadcasters know more about playing continuous music than anybody. They have years of research, combined with their own instincts. Monitored audience measurement has only intensified the drive to play the strongest music. Broadcasters understand audience preference in a way that the pure-plays are still working toward.

Pandora’s growth spurt coincided with the arrival of its iPhone app, but also with an overall shift toward playing what broadcasters already recognized as the hits. The new iTunes Radio, like many of its predecessors, sounds best when it hews closer to broadcast radio. Set some channels for “discovery” and they’re a random collection of album cuts that sound less lovingly curated than hastily loaded.

And while wanting to hear more music with fewer interruptions was probably a natural instinct for most listeners, broadcasters have spent years making “continuous music” a mantra. They’ve upped the ante through the years, from promises that are easy to deliver, to those requiring asterisks, such as “always 18 in a row” (“during designated 18-in-a-row sweeps,” that is).

Broadcasters haven't lost the ability to deliver continuous music. What they’re lacking, at the moment, is the package. Three hours' listening exposed issues with quantity of spots, quality of spots and even getting the product in front of people. Minimize any of those issues if you must. In a connected car, one of them will likely be a problem for any given listener.

If broadcasters can't retrofit heritage brands to compete on the continuous music front, perhaps they should create new ones. Just as the existing FM dial accommodates music stations of widely varying levels of ambition, broadcasters have the expertise to offer new online brands that are music-intensive, or entertaining, or live and local. If walking away from existing FM inventory is truly unrealistic, we have the expertise to create new music products that start with less inventory.

Finding the time and resources is, of course, another matter. But broadcasters must understand: This is not 1949 when radio became the second-best way to enjoy Jack Benny. Spotload quantity and quality are addressable issues. If broadcasters fail to confront them, handing over the continuous music franchise will have been their choice.