Relying on research or your own ears; syncing the pulse of a local community with the talk of the Internet — today’s radio insiders have the gargantuan task of pleasing a diverse audience of 243 million listeners a week (91 percent of all Americans 12 or older, according to Nielsen) while facing an uncertain future. The business generates steady revenue — in 2013, year-over-year terrestrial revenue held flat at $14.3 billion, with online growing 14 percent to $570 million. But the arrival of Pandora, Spotify and YouTube in a market where traditional broadcasters and digital pioneers were already elbowing for space has upped the ante, bringing ancillary businesses like concerts and TV programming into the mix. What’s the plan for the digital media age? For the participants of Billboard’s radio roundtable — Charlie Walk, executive vp of Republic Records; Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms for iHeartMedia; Michael Martin, senior vp programming and music initiatives at CBS Radio; Steve Blatter, senior vp/GM of music programming at Sirius XM; and Anya Grundmann, executive director of NPR Music — the battle to connect is well underway.
What’s the biggest change to the radio industry that you’ve seen in recent years?
Charlie Walk: There is no room for error, so labels and radio are partners more than ever before. It’s a very different relationship. We’re having a real conversation as to why something develops and becomes a big hit. It’s a truthful, authentic, organic period where we are better at seeing the future through a mix of art and science.
How much of that decision-making is data-based?
Walk: I think radio is playing more hits than ever because of information. Data-driven records like [“Stolen Dance” by] Milky Chance that come from Europe — we know that if it’s No. 1 in 18 countries, there’s a good chance it’ll be No. 1 here. [“Habits (Stay High)” by] Tove Lo developed on Spotify with massive streams — cross it over to terrestrial radio, there’s a good chance people are going to like it. The old days of Hail Marys and seeing if something sticks or not — those days are gone forever.
Steve Blatter: At the same time, after we play a new piece of music, we know earlier — after two or three weeks of airplay, or 125 spins — whether something is really going to break. We’ll look at digital track sales and either go pedal to the metal or drop records more quickly than we ever have.
Formats were once much more regimented. Today, there is no formula on top 40 radio…
Tom Poleman: And that’s the best thing. You never know where that next left-field sound is going to come from, whether it’s Mumford & Sons or Sam Smith or Iggy Azalea or Tove Lo.
Michael Martin: Who would have thought Mumford [& Sons] would’ve [had] a pop hit? Or Lorde. We kept stretching and the lane got wider. We used to have the old-school music schedule rules. We’ve thrown them out.
Anya Grundmann:At NPR, we’re committed to giving that broad multigenre scope where we’ll celebrate jazz along with hip-hop, along with telling the stories of folk, country, Latin and how they’re all speaking to each other across boundaries. We can’t underestimate the curiosity of the audience. The younger generation, especially, is incredibly curious around music exploration.
Iggy is from Australia, Nico & Vinz are from Norway, Lorde from New Zealand. What does the global nature of the market say about where we’re at right now musically?
Blatter: The A&R process has been flattened. Ten, 15 years ago, when it came to discovery, we were almost solely reliant on people like Charlie at record companies to identify music that they thought we’d be interested in and then we’d consider it for airplay. That still happens, but now you can get on a computer, spend an hour and discover some of the most amazing music out there. At Sirius XM, we find it everywhere. It’s not just all coming through the pipeline of major labels.
Walk: I respectfully disagree. We have the biggest stars in the world because we develop them. Yes, a song will break here or there from other places, but we have spent time over many years curating [artists] and helping grow their brand. Ariana Grande was signed at 16; she’s now 21. There’s a process.
What has been the impact of streaming?
Walk: Lorde’s “Royals” spread like wildfire after [it appeared on] Sean Parker’s famous Spotify playlist. That was a very important moment. Tove Lo, too, developed on Spotify with massive streams.
Taylor Swift put Spotify on blast in 2014. Many artists have complained that it doesn’t compensate them fairly.
Walk: First, we support Taylor Swift. She has her own prerogative as to whether or not she wants to have her music available on Spotify. That said, it’s too early to make an assessment. We have found there to be a symbiotic relationship with streaming and radio success. We are in uncharted waters with where streaming will take us. If what we’re seeing in Scandinavia is any indication, streaming can be extremely lucrative for all.
Are you concerned that listeners — particularly younger ones — will migrate to Pandora or Spotify?
Radio is completely different from playlist creators such as Pandora and Spotify. It lets you engage with the world and find the music, news, traffic, sports, gossip, weather, events, DJs and talent, etc. that you’re interested in, and helps you be part of what’s going on. Playlist creators — or music collections — are the opposite. They’re for when you want to escape from the world and be alone in an environment you create. Music collections have existed in some format or another for decades (45s, albums, cassettes, cds, ipods, MP3 players, etc.).
With iHeartRadio, we do both. iHeartRadio brings incremental listening to iHeartMedia’s already existing broadcast audience. Broadcast stations continue to dominate our listenership (92 percent of listening in America happens on AM/FM broadcast radio), but iHeartRadio provides another platform for our listeners to access their favorite radio stations and personalities as well as custom stations and non-audio content. Digital listening/streaming is additive for us and for our listeners. And remember, people are extremely loyal to ‘their’ stations, like Z100 in NY or KIIS FM in LA. Playlists will never be able to replicate the content, reach and relationship that on air personalities have with their listeners.
How much of an impact has social media had?
Martin: In a lot of ways, social has become the new request lines. Our jocks are constantly interacting — before, during and after their show.
Blatter: It’s a great feedback mechanism for listeners to communicate to us what they like and don’t like — about music or other elements of our radio stations.
Poleman: Radio is the original social medium. It became the beacon for communities, and this is just an extension of that same role.
Grundmann: We recently expanded more into hip-hop and R&B. In social you speak differently to different communities, and that is part of us getting to better know the communities with which we’re engaging.
NPR seems to be moving into genres not typically associated with public radio. For example, you recently aired a nearly nine-minute-long interview with Taylor Swift…
Grundmann: Yes, but our goal is not to put somebody on and see them go to No. 1. What’s interesting about Taylor is how she’s changed over time, who she is as a creative artist. This fall, we had T-Pain come by. He was such a personable guy, and people seemed surprised by how well he could sing. Being in that environment allowed the audience to really embrace him.
Walk: The NPR platform is so great at letting artists tell their stories. We have [British singer-songwriter] James Bay, who’s about to be a very big act, and we’re so thankful of the support of NPR.
Each of the broadcasters sitting here has played an essential role in breaking new acts. What’s a recent example?
Blatter: Probably the biggest act that we identified at a very early stage was Florida Georgia Line. We put them on the radio, they reacted almost immediately. They were subsequently signed to Republic Nashville after a bidding war.
Martin: Same with Tove Lo. Who knows who played what first, but we all saw that wave. I remember putting Tove on alternative and within a few spins, you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is a pop record.” Then everyone started jumping in.
Blatter: We try to be in sync with the label marketing plans. There are times, though, when we go early on a record. With Vance Joy, we played “Riptide” on The Spectrum 10 months ago. We had to follow up with something. Waiting a year until Atlantic said, “Here’s the next song” — that’s not an acceptable answer to the audience. So we added “Mess Is Mine.”
How does radio reach a younger generation? If you put a transistor radio in front of most kids, would they even know how to turn it on and find Z100?
Walk: They wouldn’t. But they want to be curated to — they want to know what to like. They’re not searching for it, they need to be told. Radio is on your device — it’s on your Sonos speakers, in your car. Whether it’s satellite or terrestrial, it’s there.
Martin: It’s our job to take the product that we curate for the radio and deliver it in every possible way that the audience is consuming it. Radio would die if it stuck its head in the sand and refused to acknowledge the technology.
Walk: And a major event like Jingle Ball or the iHeartRadio festivals, it’s where the digital meets the physical. People still want to see and touch the artists and be a part of the musical moment. These guys have figured out a 360 approach to communicating to the kids.
Has the definition of radio changed?
Blatter: People ask, “Will radio be around?” The hardware doesn’t really matter. It never has. I always say to programmers, “Just because our antenna is higher in the sky than an FM radio station does not matter to an end user.”
Poleman:That’s a big reason why radio hasn’t been impacted the way other mediums have been with new technology — because there is still that human connection. There’s still curation and storytelling and that emotional bond.
Walk: One thing hasn’t changed, stars and smashes.
Iggy, Charli XCX, Taylor Swift, Jessie J, Meghan Trainor … Is pop music now the domain of women?
Poleman: Great songs are the trend, and the women happen to have great songs at the moment.
Walk: I’m with Tom. I don’t think it’s a trend. “All About That Bass” was a media moment. The minute my daughters heard it, something happened.
Poleman: By the way, my first year at Z100 when we did Jingle Ball, we subtitled it Girls Rule the Yule because every single artist on the bill was a woman — from Tracy Chapman to Lisa Loeb to Sarah McLachlan to Gwen Stefani with No Doubt. And I remember having this exact same conversation.
What about on-air talent: Where are the younger DJs coming from in an era of consolidation?
Poleman: If you don’t create an environment between the songs that connects with the consumer, then you’re losing your biggest opportunity. So talent development is hugely important. I recently met with Ryan Seacrest and told him, “Some of these stations where we have you on the air, you’re talking too little. We need to show your personality.”
Martin: I love finding talent, but whenever we have an opening, you get all the résumés and the audios, and a lot of it is the same. So I walk down the hall and start talking to the van drivers, to the street kids, because if you find that kid that has the X factor, you can teach them everything else. But you can’t teach the swagger, that innate quality in knowing how to talk to the audience.
Poleman: You can’t do things the way you used to on the air because they see you on Instagram, on Twitter, on Facebook. They have access to you and expect a picture of your life. They want to see behind the scenes — Ryan with his mom at Thanksgiving — and that’s the kind of stuff we have to say on the air to retain that connection. We always have to be a very human medium.
But when Ryan was 16, he walked into the hits station in Atlanta and got himself an overnight shift. Kids today want to intern at Google.
Blatter: You don’t come across the college kid that aspires to be a radio DJ as much as you used to. Why would you want to be a radio jock? You can go on YouTube and build a following. So we have to look for talent outside of radio. We recently launched a show with YouTube, and the host is Jenna Marbles. She had never been on the radio. We spent a little time with her, taught her some of the fundamentals, and she is one of the most compelling radio personalities I’ve ever heard.
What about the battle for the dashboard. How do you view music listening in the car?
Blatter: Sirius is in 70 percent of all new vehicles that roll off the assembly line. We’ve had amazing penetration there. But it’s not so much about getting our hardware in those vehicles as it is to really deliver on the experience.
Poleman: That being said, one of the most intuitive things in a car is an AM/FM radio. It’s in 100 percent of cars. It’s as essential as a steering wheel. It’s free and ever present. If you took somebody’s FM radio away tomorrow, they would let you know. At the same time, we support digital as well. We are always mindful of getting iHeartRadio in the dash. But the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented on something like the radio.
Grundmann:I don’t think it’s about the dashboard. It’s about how you like to connect. If someone has a relationship with iHeartRadio or Sirius or NPR, they can plug into the cloud. Making the interaction as smooth as possible is what car folks are working on. And we’re not going to be driving our cars in 15 years anyway, right? The steering wheel may not be that useful.
With the iHeart festivals, Sirius’ Town Halls, NPR’s Tiny Desk series, you’re practically in the concert business? Does the radio business cease to be the radio business at some point?
Poleman: Well, we changed our name from Clear Channel to iHeartMedia because of a recognition that we are a multi-platform company. We are not looking to replace Live Nation, we’re not looking to replace the record labels or become managers but it’s a recognition that we’re at the epicenter of a lot of things pop culture and they manifest themselves in a lot of different media forms. We’re an outdoor company, we’re a digital company. The iHeartRadio platform is one of the most successful digital launches over the past five years and the reason is our consumers expect it and our advertisers expect it. They want their brands to be expressed through multi-media and we want to position ourselves as a solution provider for them.
Martin: We joke that we’re concert promoters half the time — out there booking shows constantly. But everything that we do reinforces our brand. It all links together.
Grundmann: With Tiny Desk, it reflects our desire to tear down some of those boundaries between genres and have it be about the journey of an artist trying to connect. We’ll do everything from Yo-Yo Ma to hip-hop and R&B artists, indie rock singer/songwriter folks and Latin artists.
Tom, we keep reading We keep reading about the restructuring of Clear Channel’s debt. Is it as much a matter of discussion inside the company as outside?
Poleman: Building our financial flexibility continues to be a top priority. We have made significant progress in the last 18 months to maximize the value of our business by continuing to improve our capital structure and liquidity through the capital markets and strategic transactions, and we’re very proud of this. We now have clear runway, which enables us to keep focusing on our operations and growth.
What keeps you up at night?
Walk: Honestly, finding the next artist. I’m less concerned about the platforms. As long as these guys continue to reinvent and create great places of curation, we’ll hopefully be able to feed those platforms with amazing talent.
Poleman: [iHeartMedia CEO] Bob Pittman’s emails. He’s an insomniac and is always thinking. It’s like, “OK, what’s fighting for the attention of our consumers? We can’t sit back and ever celebrate our success. We got to keep moving.” This is a guy who created MTV, who ran Six Flags and AOL-Time Warner. I feel like I get a great education every day.
Martin: For me, it’s “Did I miss something?” You don’t want to surround yourself with sheep who will head-nod and agree with you, because what if you’re dead wrong? You have to have those people that look at you and say, “Wow, you are way off.”
Grundmann: We can’t be satisfied that we figured it all out. This is a very exciting moment to be in the music world. The genres are overlapping, the technology is changing the way we reach people. You want to make the right choices, be open to experimentation and make sure that you have the resources to do so.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of Billboard.