Radio’s Place In A Streaming World

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You know the narrative. Once upon a time, when terrestrial radio reigned supreme, jockeys, DJs, and programmers handpicked which artists had a shot of breaking through to the masses. Like The Claw in Toy Story, or Got Talent judges. This old school business pokes its head during a scene from last year’s Oscar-winning Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody.

While gathered in a dimly lit label office, the legendary band shares the song that gave the film its name — a lengthy, operatic opus — with their record exec for the first time. He’s not pleased. “It goes on forever! Six bloody minutes! Not possible. Anything over three minutes and the radio stations won’t program it. Period.”

That was the 1970s. In the decades since, personal, portable, on-demand music consumption has iterated itself to varying degrees of frictionless, moving from Walkmans and CDs to iPods and iTunes to smartphones, smart speakers, and streaming services. Over the years, countless tweets, think pieces, and boardroom comments proclaimed the death of radio. Every new era seemed to bring new tech that ate away at its attention share. But radio’s still here. And healthy, depending on who you ask.

The debate’s a noisy one. People have predicted radio’s downfall since TV went to market in the 1940s, but some studies point to radio’s unprecedented market penetration in the 2010s as evidence of a cultural stronghold. Nielsen’s annual “How America Listens” report ranks AM/FM as the biggest stateside audio medium with 243 million monthly users. (Compare that to ~60 million streaming subscribers.) Radio also remains a massively important platform in India, among other nations.

Contrary findings forecast a swift decline as Generation Z (1995+) leads more people toward the subscription world of Netflix and Pandora. Cars, the final defense of AM/FM to some, are also rapidly changing. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that 75% of new vehicle dashboards will be digital friendly — capable of supporting the likes of Spotify — by 2020.

No matter how you slice it, though, one thing holds true today: If you want to be the biggest artist in the world, you’ll make a pit stop or two at a couple dozen radio stations before it’s all said and done. Dale Connone, founder of AWAL-owned In2une Music, has witnessed these shifts firsthand.

For a decade, Connone and co. have run one of the most successful independent radio promotion firms in the world, pushing songs from the likes of Diplo, Major Lazer, Calvin Harris, Chance the Rapper, The Lumineers, and Lauv into regular on-air rotation. So what’s radio’s place in a streaming world? How does any of this impact artists and managers? Here are some things worth thinking about, according to someone in the thick of it all.

Pay attention to how stations test records (it’s fuel for you to sell yourself).

Radio really looks at Shazam as a metric to predict and measure success or failure. If a records really performing big in a market, that’s another thing you can see. They still do their callout research, too, which is kind of horrifying when you explain it. They basically test 10 seconds of a song, they’ll pick a random demographic and do 100 calls a week and play different 10 second clips and ask you to rate them 1 to 5 over the phone and that can judge the fate of a record. If you’re the manager running a campaign, you want to see if a record’s reacting at radio by looking at when it’s played, where it’s played, and how it’s received. Is it being played during daylight hours? In what markets? Are the people voting in favor of it through sales, streams, and Shazams? It’s like streaming, it’s a consumer business. It’s all about keeping people engaged with content.

Take it slow with new artists to help build a narrative that radiates momentum.

There’s several radio formats. For Top 40, we’ve got a Head of Top 40 that deals with 185 key radio stations that have a big impact on the charts. What you’ll see them do is first take a song to some of the tastemakers, whether it’s New York or Minneapolis depends on the record. Sometimes you’ll go to five or six different stations and their reaction will let you know whether you have something on your hands. It’s like a lab test. We start there, and if it works, that’s the spark to take it to more stations. A big add would be a Z100 add in New York. Even then, you’re pushing to get new adds, new rotations, new stations week after week until they’ve got their callout research. And if that’s good, you’re golden, but even then you keep pushing for more stations, more momentum. For new artists, you have to be in the marketplace, meeting radio people, having face time.

Utilize streaming and data accuracy to unlock and measure radio support.

For Lauv, he had a great streaming story, great numbers, which helped us go out and launch it to radio, but then once the record got to radio, the streaming numbers exponentially multiplied, and that resonates with radio the same way sales does. You can now look at individual markets and see exactly what’s selling in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, then when stations there start playing the record, I can see the jump. So, streaming really goes hand in hand, even where it’s not as obvious. Everyone in Columbus, Ohio doesn’t really know what New Music Friday is, you know? A lot of people there still tune in every day to and from school, to and from work. Much of the masses still discover music that way.

Acknowledge the scarcity of radio slots (and the fierce competition that breeds).

Most of the 185 Top 40 stations in the US, despite their name, only play anywhere from 17 to 30 currents. Not a big list. They do their research every week. They might drop one or two records off, and they’ll add one to three new ones a week. But 20 new records come out every week that they’re looking it, and it backs up, so sometimes you’re competing with 50 to 60 records for two or three spots. It’s not a gentleman’s game sometimes. You have to fight hard. You win by having data and relationships. Knowing the station, the kinds of records they play early, what they’re late on. Especially us, when we’re up against Warner, Columbia, Interscope. Stations are playing less and less music and there’s more and more coming out. It used to be, you know, 10 million streams was a lot. Now it seems like it’s 100 million streams.

Anticipate varying radio promo costs contingent on the song and the format itself.

The most active format is Top 40. Then you’ve got rhythm, which is more hip-hop, then holiday, which is more adult, 25 to 54. Then you’ve got AC, which is even older. There’s rock and alternative and AAA. AAA is more the cool, softer alt stuff. Rock’s heavier rock. And there’s country. The pricing of promo depends on the format.

Radio campaigns are expensive because it takes marketing and advertising, plus moving the artist around to different stations, spending money elsewhere to give the artist visibility, doing iHeart festival stuff. You could easily be in a quarter-million dollars for a Top 40 record when it’s all said and done. It could cost anywhere between $25,000 and $50,000 just to find out you have something. Alternative, that might come down to $10,000 to test, and between $50K - $75K all in, if the song goes the distance.  

Trust early indicators of success, even if bigger stations aren’t biting just yet.

If we know we have a hit in McAllen Texas, or Cleveland, Ohio, if it’s showing all the right stats, we’ll fight through a slow start, whereas a major might stick with a record 8 - 12 weeks just to see if it reacts, and if it doesn’t in enough places, it’s over. With Lauv, we were confident in “Like Me Better,” which showed some signs in the sixth, seventh week, but it wasn’t until maybe the 16th that we got big results in major artists, big callouts, Shazam growth. It still has a 50-million-a-week audience. It’s been 60 weeks and it won’t go away. We had to sit with it and grow with it to make sure that happened. We pushed through the four-week industry shutdown that happens for the holidays. We pushed when we were getting 100 spins while other songs were getting 400 or 500. A big record on Top 40 might still reach 100-plus million.

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