Radio, long a bastion of predictable formats, suddenly is experimenting with new ways to catch your ear.
At Clear Channel Communications Inc.'s studios in Burbank, for example, the newest format is erockster, a combination radio station and Web site. The audio signal broadcasts round-the-clock on the high-definition channel of KYSR-FM (98.7) with a corresponding site at erockster.com. The format targets listeners from 13 to 34 with an emphasis on new music and startup bands, but the station plays about any eclectic thing the audience wants.
"The playlist is thousands of songs deep, with very little repetition. Where else can you listen to Daft Punk, Beach Boys, the Ramones and Johnny Cash back to back?" asked Michele Laven, vice president of integrated media for Clear Channel Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, across town at CBS Corp.'s studios, the programmers have AmpRadio, a format of Top 40 songs not for teens or young adults but for children. It plays on the high-definition channel of KCBS-FM (93.1).
Radio stations "are taking chances with more eclectic programming," said Kelly O'Keefe, brand manager for Radio Heard Here, a Washington-based association with the goal of expanding radio formats. The group is backed by the National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio Advertising Bureau. "It's a time of increased experimentation in the industry because consumers want more surprise and diversity on the air.
"People used to listen to radio to hear their favorites. Now they have their favorites on an iPod. That shifts the balance as they look to radio for new music and discovery."
He said that erockster is an example, as it emphasizes new artists. "That's something we'll grow both in L.A. and across the country."
Also, the emergence of high-definition radio, which requires a special receiver, suddenly gives existing radio stations additional signals for experimentation, although for now these HD channels attract much smaller audiences than traditional radio.
The formats include new types of religious programming, on-air storytelling, psychic call-in shows, sex call-in shows and comedy programs, according to O'Keefe.
In music, he said that stations now mix genres such as hard rock and jazz or they specialize in niche genres such as "Vinyl Vineyard," which plays obscure oldies, or "Mother Trucker," which is country music mixed with Southern rock. Some target children as young as 6.
Both AmpRadio and erockster formats are responses to the changing radio market in the digital age. Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association, said the average time spent with radio has dropped since the peak in the mid-1990s when it hit 22 hours a week. The average now runs about 19 hours a week.
Those numbers have been flat for the past few years. But radio still has wide influence: In Los Angeles, where people typically spend hours in their cars, 94 percent of the population listens to radio at some time each week, according to the latest data from Arbitron Inc.
A study published recently by Jupiter Research Inc., a media analysis firm in Florida, found 65 percent of people cite radio as their primary source for discovering new music a statistic with special weight for tweens and young teens, according to O'Keefe.
In their quest for young listeners, erockster and AmpRadio play off the success of Radio Disney, the format launched in 1996 by Burbank-based Walt Disney Co. after it took over the ABC Radio Network.
Jeff Federman, general manager of CBS Radio Los Angeles, called AmpRadio "a little bit older than Radio Disney, and younger and safer than KIIS-FM" in terms of its programming.
Garber said it was the right move. "CBS is right to jump on the wagon. Of course, Disney was already there, but they play only Disney songs and there's other stuff out there."
Also, Portable People Meters, the new cell phonelike devices that Arbitron has introduced to track listenership, measures listeners as young as 6. Previously, Arbitron only measured the audience of 12-year-olds and up, making it difficult to convince advertisers to support a format for kids.
"Now that it's quantifiable, it's sellable," said Garber. "As it turns out, a huge proportion of kids listen to the radio something like 80 percent on any particular day."
Besides children's fare, O'Keefe sees growth in reggae, salsa and other types of ethnic styles.
He cites Delilah, a radio host syndicated by Sherman Oaks-based Premiere Radio Networks, as an example of the storytelling format. Delilah lets callers tell an episode from their lives and then discusses it.
Likewise, O'Keefe noted that sports talk radio now incorporates more storytelling rather than the rant-and-cheer recipe of yesterday's shows.
Because the new formats are experimental and currently attract small audiences, they offer a relative bargain for marketers. Federman said that an advertiser could buy a campaign lasting several weeks on AmpRadio for $5,000, while a similar campaign on a major CBS station would cost $10,000 to $15,000 a week. Also, these new programming options allow marketers to reach very specific audiences.
AmpRadio has a summerlong package with Knott's Berry Farm. In addition to paid advertising, the deal includes events at the amusement park to promote the station.
Clear Channel sells the erockster format through sponsorships, with an advertiser running one 15-second spot in exchange for sponsoring 30 minutes of commercial-free music.
While erockster originates from a studio in Los Angeles, the same programming plays on HD channels in two other markets, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. However, Clear Channel localizes the advertising content in those markets.
Challenges to the new formats include the bad timing in terms of the U.S. economic cycle.
"Radio is still somewhat down, but the economy is somewhat down so everyone is somewhat down," Garber said. "Even the Internet is not growing like it was."
Also, the new formats lack big-name DJs, the main tool of traditional radio marketing. Erockster has recruited Eric Szmanda, a young actor who appears regularly on "CSI." But his voice only appears in brief snippets rather then filling an extended time slot the way Ryan Seacrest, Rick Dees or Adam Carolla do.
In keeping with its interactive marketing ploy, CBS tries to let listeners run the station. "There's an announcer, but right now it's the kids who are the personalities of the radio station," said Federman. The promos are voiced by teens from around Southern California.
Finally, the formats suffer from the limited access of high-definition radio. But Laven at Clear Channel said a two-hour block of erockster will be syndicated soon on standard FM stations, and O'Keefe believes that with HD receivers now selling for less than $100, the medium's listenership will gradually grow.
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