(Pictured: You have forgotten—and by “you,” I mean me—that in 1971, Shelley Fabares played Joy Piccolo opposite James Caan, in Brian’s Song.)
(I’m not convinced my argument in the following post isn’t profoundly flawed in some way, and if so I trust you will point it out, but it’s time to hit “publish” and move on.)
Many amongst the readership were enchanted by my story last week about the clueless young DJ who followed a Motley Crue record with Shelley Fabares’ 1963 hit “Johnny Angel” played at the wrong speed. No, there’s no tape. I heard it while I was driving home one night, and it was so absurd that I half-believed I was hallucinating it after a long day at work.
I mentioned it as an example of how the competitor station we called Brand X was hilariously bad, although it represents a familiar line of small-market thinking: if we program something for everyone, then everyone will listen. But that wasn’t true in 1992, and it hadn’t been true since the 1960s, before targeted formats became a thing. A person who liked “Johnny Angel” did not have to sit through Motley Crue every day waiting to hear “Johnny Angel”; they could find a radio station that played “Johnny Angel” all the time.
(“But I like a variety of music on the radio.” Yes, but chances are you like it within certain limits: a variety of classic rock, or as the famous adult-contemporary positioning statement says, “today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites.” Most people aren’t turning on the radio to hear a Haydn string quartet in the same quarter-hour with a new Drake song. The we-play-anything Jack stations that proliferated in the early 00s had carefully curated libraries, and so do today’s variety stations. You can’t build a bridge between Motley Crue people and Johnny Angel people and expect advertisers to pay for it.)
Why was Brand X playing Motley Crue in the first place? Because they believed that the local high-schoolers were listening to their hopeless mishmash, on AM. “They live here, so naturally they listen to us.” Unless you are quite literally the only signal audible on the dial, there’s nothing natural or automatic about it. Most people need a better reason than that. There was no way for a crappy little AM peashooter to “out-music” a half-dozen crystal-clear FM stereo stations, even if those stations were 30 miles down the road. If music is what a listener wants, that’s where they’re going, no matter what their age.
But to attract other potential listeners, Brand X had the same advantages my stations had. It involved the stuff we did that the bigger stations would not and could not do. It was in our local personalities, local news and sports coverage, the commitment to broadcast from the local summer festival, and even in the commercials from local advertisers who had neither the need nor the budget to be on one of the bigger stations. You could—and we did—capture the listeners for whom that is a major attraction.
The music you play around that stuff is secondary. Many of your listeners may not care about music all that much. If you want to keep them, the music shouldn’t work against you—which is what a mindless “something for everyone” commitment to variety risks. At KDTH, we emphasized pop country over hardcore twangers, figuring that Kenny Rogers’ appeal (to name one) was broader than that of George Jones, and would retain more of the people who listened for local news, the homemaker show, and University of Iowa football. Competing against Brand X, we ran a format that played current adult hits but was also heavy on 60s and 70s rock and pop. The idea was to be highly familiar without going too far out—to not let the records work against us. If it was a little bland, it was also safe. (Unlike a Motley Crue-to-Johnny Angel segue.) It didn’t get in the way of our broader purpose, which was to entertain people who weren’t necessarily there for the music to begin with.
In major-market radio, your music is often your reason for being. Back in the day, small-market stations made a mistake when they believed it was their reason for being, too. We had to compete on ground where we had an advantage. Today, in a world of streaming audio, there’s a certain irony in major-market stations struggling to learn and embrace what we in the small markets knew 30 or 40 years ago, about how to be relevant when you can’t “out-music” your competition.