Does EDM Work on Radio? Behind a Boston Station's Pivot from Dance to Country

At 3 p.m. EST on June 14, Boston's Clear Channel all-EDM radio station Evolution 101.7 (WEDX) abruptly switched formats to all-country 101.7 The Bull (WBLW). “We are excited to launch 101.7 The Bull, a fresh new take on Country music, for our Boston listeners. This station is for the new generation of Country music fans and will give our listeners a front-row seat to Country’s biggest artists and concerts,” said Dylan Sprague, VP of programming for Clear Channel Boston, in a statement.

(Meanwhile, a 2,000-person petition was launched to put Evolution back on the air. "Replacing Boston's ONLY E.D.M. Station is a shame to begin with, But replacing it with ANOTHER Country Station, is just simply a waste of a Radio Station," said the plea.)

Though the news that Evolution would be moved online came as a surprise, both the frequency and exclusively electronic dance music radio stations in the U.S. have had a checkered history: before WEDX took over in 2012, 101.7 had been The Phoenix (WFNX) for 25 years before its partner print and online publication ceased operation, taking the alternative rock station with it. As for the EDM format, "the industry 'wisdom' is that EDM, despite its importance elsewhere, does not work on radio," wrote Sean Ross, VP of music and programming at Edison Research, in an email to Billboard. 

One of the reasons electronic- and dance music-focused formats don't do well is that artists with crossover appeal, like Avicii, Daft Punk, and Calvin Harris, typically dominate Top 40 stations. "Clear Channel is not going to play music on EDX that’s going to get in the way of KISS-FM [107.9, WXKS] or JAM'N [94.5, WJMN, a Boston-based rhythmic station]," says Joel Salkowitz, program director for Las Vegas' Pulse 96.7 (formerly New York's Pulse 87, which lives online as well after going off the air four years ago). "Likewise, in their other markets, they’re not going to create competitors to their mainstream Top 40 stations."

A spokesperson from Clear Channel declined to name specific reasons behind the switch except to echo the press release -- "Boston is a key market with a growing number of Country fans, and this signal has a great opportunity with the Country format. We believe this format will resonate well with the Boston audience" -- and adding, "Evolution 101.7 has developed a passionate, loyal and quickly growing digital audience in a short period of time, making it a perfect fit for iHeartRadio. That is pretty much the gist behind the flip."

Salkowitz, on the other hand, thinks Evolution was launched to give Clear Channel a foothold into the astoundingly lucrative EDM business (to put things in perspective, iHeartRadio Festival sold 40,000 tickets last year, while 2012's Las Vegas edition of Electric Daisy Carnival moved over 320,000).

"You'll never hear anyone from Clear Channel say this," he tells Billboard. "It was done strategically to give them an entre into the festival business. Concert ticket sales don’t always translate into ratings, [but] there’s billions of dollars being spent in this genre of music through ticket sales, through sponsorships of these events. If you don’t want to take my word for it, call Robert Sillerman up."

Earlier this year, Clear Channel, the largest owner of radio properties in the U.S., made a successful play for a piece of the EDM market by partnering with Sillerman's SFX Entertainment, the largest producer of electronic music festivals (TomorrowWorld, Stereosonic, Electric Zoo, and Disco Donnie Presents, not to mention Rock in Rio), for a series of initiatives including some kind of live event scheduled for this year and a Beatport Top 20 countdown for at least 10 major-market Clear Channel stations. By Salkowitz's estimate, having Evolution allowed them to compete with satellite radio behemoth SiriusXM's electronic radio station BPM, which airs live broadcasts of Ultra Music Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival. Six months later, Evolution was taken off the air.

Having scored the deal, in addition to the fact that "EDM's ratings were not huge (although they were better than anything that has been on that frequency for a while)," according to Ross, Clear Channel could have discontinued the station's on-air presence to pursue yet another burgeoning market: country. "Maybe the plan was, 'We got what we wanted out of this,'" says Salkowitz. "'We got our foot in the door.' They're looking at Cumulus trying to roll out a national country platform -- 'Maybe we should get into this too.'"

In May, Cumulus changed the country music airplay game when it partnered with Nashville's Big Machine Label Group for exclusive programming and live events on NASH FM 94.7 in New York City, which has become one of the most listened-to country music markets in the country. "Greater Media's country [Country 102.5] WKLB has done better than anybody ever expected for Country in Boston," Ross wrote. In addition, "WKLB sometimes challenges the 25-54 dominance of [Clear Channel-owned] Kiss 108, so anything that takes WKLB down a notch is good," and "it provides another major-market clearance for Bobby Bones, their syndicated morning man."

It remains to be seen whether the petition will have its effect and, like Pulse 87, Evolution will be broadcast in the future over the airwaves; and whether the Bull can compete with Boston's WBKLB on the level of a station like NASH. It's also unclear whether Clear Channel's format switch-up is evidence of a larger trend, since WEDX has followed a similar path as many of its predecessors. In any case, it seems Clear Channel has little to lose by swapping one of the nation's most profitable genres with another.


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