Radio - like its symbiotic partner, the music industry, and its mainstream brethren, broadcast television and newspapers - is in serious need of new ideas.
After years of reaping the benefits of consolidation and cost-cutting, radio is in desperate straits. According to the Future of Music Coalition, the amount of time Americans spend listening to the radio is at a 27-year low and the number of listeners has dropped 17 percent in the last 13 years.
Broadcast radio faces challenges from satellite radio companies for listeners, from the Internet for advertisers and even from automakers who are making it increasingly easy for drivers to turn their car stereos into mirror images of their iPods and skip the radio altogether.
Cutbacks haven’t worked out so well, serving only to speed the exit of listeners and making it harder to maintain smaller and smaller profit margins. Increasingly conservative playlists have made radio less essential to even the most casual of music fans, who don’t feel like they’re missing anything if they don’t listen every day since the same 10 or 15 songs are in heavy rotation for a month or longer.
In the name of cost-cutting and a jaded belief that listeners would tune in to whatever was on, CBS Radio eliminated New York’s heritage oldies station WCBS for a DJ-free hits format called Jack, and turned its alternative rock station K-Rock into an all-talk channel, leaving New York without a rock station at a time when the city’s rock scene was in the midst of a resurgence. Both moves failed and both stations have since returned to their original formats, losing listeners and momentum along the way.
All these previous mistakes seem to be on the mind of the folks behind the new rock station WRXP, “The New York Rock Experience,” which replaced lite-jazz station WQCD on Feb. 5.
At a time when most radio stations around the country try to seem like they could be from anywhere, RXP is pledging to focus on New York area artists and songs about New York. It’s starting with a wide playlist that looks to combine alternative rock, mainstream rock and oldies in a way that will appeal to the 18-to-44 demographic, especially at the wealthier older end.
It’s a good plan to try to introduce Led Zeppelin fans to White Stripes, to let Depeche Mode fans know about The Killers and The Bravery, to let Pearl Jam fans discover Spoon. It’s also an interesting idea to remind rock fans that New York still is a breeding ground for loads of great new bands, including The Hold Steady and The National, who have both found homes on the station.
So far, what makes RXP so interesting is its unpredictability. Knowing that Mike Doughty would fit well between Led Zeppelin and The Police requires a knowledge of all three artists and is a bold step away from the focus-grouped feel of so many of today’s stations.
That said, for RXP to succeed with the rock lovers it is courting, it will need to be even more unpredictable. After all, Long Island’s famous alternative station WLIR, which used a similarly knowledgeable format, recently called it quits, in part, because its listeners had drifted over to iPods and the Internet to find their new music.
RXP still is working on its balance, but it needs to steer away from the pitfalls of the Jack format, where novelty hits from years gone by landed in heavy rotation. (For example, as nice as it was on “Party of Five,” the BoDeans hit “Closer to Free” shouldn’t be on every day, the way it was last weekend.)
Nevertheless, “New York’s Rock Experience” is a calculated risk that stations should be trying more often, one that could help lead radio back into the age of increased relevance.