Report: What FM rockers must do to survive


Forbes columnist Michele Catalano took a look at NYC radio, wondering where all of the rock stations have gone and why, given this is the nation’s #1 market. We do know that one full-power commercial station is left—but it’s the usual 400 song Classic Rock playlist—CCME’s WAXQ-FM.

From the article:

When the radio station at 101.9FM in New York went from rock/alternative to sports talk last fall, it was yet another blow to the New York rock radio market. Like the demise of KROCK before it, the loss of WEMF meant the New York metro area once again had no venue for rock/alt radio. There are still classic rock stations like Q104 and WBAB, but no station presenting promising new bands or alternative music.

Is the demise of rock/alternative FM radio in that area a sign of the times? With the popularity of Internet radio (iHeartRadio and TuneIn, for instance), streaming stations (Pandora, Slacker) and the myriad of other music options available on line like Rdio and Spotify, does this spell the end of the viability of FM radio?

Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media, a leading consulting firm in broadcast media (and creators of the Classic Rock radio format) replies to that question with a surprising answer:

“NYC – the biggest market – has always been the worst market for radio,” he said.  “A true anomaly. So for the reality of FM rock/alt radio’s present and future, get out of Manhattan.”

Jacobs maintains that the rock/alternative brand of FM radio is alive and well and thriving in other areas, and the lack of such a station in the New York metro region does not cast a shadow on the industry, just on that market alone.

So what makes an FM station viable in the age of the Internet and streaming radio?

“Like Clayton Christensen’s ‘jobs to do’ orientation, the stations that have had the most success – and will likely thrive in the future – are the ones that have a strong grasp on what jobs consumers are hiring them to do.” Jacobs said. “Cookie-cutter radio, rampant out-of-market voicetracking, and syndication throughout the day only serves to genericise local radio. We’ve seen research that points to key downsides with Pandora – listeners feel detached from their hometowns and often miss hearing personalities they love. But the ‘economy of scale’ that was brought out by rampant consolidation in the ‘90s runs against the grain of what FM radio needs to do now in order to not only stay in the game, but continue to thrive in a rapidly changing media marketplace. Local stations can stand out in a global, streaming environment by providing a richer experience that reflects the local ethos, and provide the audience with the opportunity to ‘go backstage’ – meet the band, sit in on the morning show, go to a baseball game with the afternoon guy, etc.”

Jacobs continues, “When you look around the country, it’s not hard to find radio brands that are fulfilling the promise – stations that have adjusted or that have been committed over the long haul to doing great local radio. Of course, KROQ in LA is the poster child, but beyond them, WMMR/Philly  is a live, local station that IS Philadelphia. They have a #1 high-profile local morning show in Preston & Steve, a market institution in middays, Pierre Robert, who is a fixture at key concerts and community events in town. Their afternoon guy, Jaxon, champions local Philly rock. And they even have a live overnight guy, Jacky Bam Bam, who is a bona fide personality.”

He then goes on to mention several FM rock/alt stations around the country that cater to their local listeners and thrive because of it. KISW in Seattle, KNRK in Portland and KWHL in Anchorage all provide great local experiences and a fulfilling rock/alt radio experience.

Jacobs is right with his point that you can’t get that local flavor online. As much as you can program your own stations, make your own playlists and design your internet radio to fit your own style, there’s still that one thing missing: the human connection. Even if a brand like Slacker Radio has actual human DJs, the personal connection one has with a local DJ is missing and that’s where FM rock radio still has the upper hand.

The online experience has made radio a different game. Stations are not just competing with each other anymore, but competing with a changing technology that has the industry rearranging and reinventing itself over and over again.

Jacobs points out that “Clearly, the mission of FM Rock and Alt stations has changed. Where they were once about music discovery, that role has shifted to diverse online sources, from YouTube to Spotify to even band sites. However, FM radio is still a go-to medium to find out about new bands and songs – it just doesn’t dominate as it once did due to the myriad options – similar to the way that print has been impacted by web-delivered news and information. However, label people will tell you that it is still nearly impossible to have a true hit song without FM radio airplay. Given the ‘long tail’ of Internet radio sources, that’s not likely to change over the near-term, but new music destinations are erosive over time to FM rock and alt’s ability to ‘break songs’.”

“Which is why so many FM stations are using the internet as a tool rather than seeing it as a foe,” Jacobs continues. “FM radio has moved into digital areas, allowing consumers to access their content via streams, podcasts, and mobile. We’ve got research that indicates that as much as 15-20% of an FM rock radio station’s consumption is taking place online, on smartphones and on tablets. The majority of FM rock stations have their own apps and/or are part of the iHeart Radio and TuneIn platforms. That trend will continue, allowing consumers to take their favorite stations and personalities wherever they go – whether there’s a traditional radio or not.”

So what does the future of FM radio look like? Will it remain a viable format, one with an audience and profitability?

“Long-term survival for FM Rock & Alt. stations will come down to their ability to reflect the values that got them to the dance in the first place,” says Jacobs. “Proprietary personalities, a hometown POV, solving local advertiser needs, and serving their communities. We’ve done this before.”

FM rock/alt radio has certainly been declared dead before. But for now, at least outside of the New York metro area, it not only lives, but has found a way to co-exist among its internet competitors.

See the Forbes story here.

RBR-TVBR observation: Jacobs is right—if you want to build a station in The Big Apple that super-serves the local 18-34 audience with an Alternative or Indie Rock station, you need to have the personalities and local connection. They need to know their music, bring in the acts to the studio and interact with the audience. That’s how it was done in that market years ago and it sure worked: WNEW-FM, WOR-FM and WLIR-FM are prime examples. Even though the demos in the NY market may not be the same as in the 60’s and 70s, it’s such a large market that Alternative/Indie Rock could thrive in that market if done with the right template. First off, the format could not have the same playlist as any other cookie-cutter Alternative format across the nation. This is very cosmopolitan audience that knows its Indie Rock and is currently listening to it in clubs and online.


  1. “Is the demise of rock/alternative FM radio in that area a sign of the times? With the popularity of Internet radio (iHeartRadio and TuneIn, for instance), streaming stations (Pandora, Slacker) and the myriad of other music options available on line like Rdio and Spotify, does this spell the end of the viability of FM radio?”

    Just because people may not continue to depend on radio for music does not spell the end of the the viability of FM radio. Maybe once the emphasis is taken off of music, broadcasters will get back to the business of finding other creative ways to serve their communities as we have been doing in small markets for many years. More local news, more local play by play of high school ball games, more interview programs with area movers and shakers to keep people informed on what’s going on in the area. The sooner music radio dies…the better off REAL radio (and the listeners) will be. Unfortunately we have had a couple generations of programmers who have convinced people that radio is a music medium. It will take some effort to undo the damage…but it can be done.

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