AARP Tunes In to Radio's Discarded Audience

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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, July 8, 2007

First the standards vanished from radio, as stations that played lots of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald went dark. Then over the past couple of years, the oldies format collapsed, and suddenly the sounds of Motown, Elvis and the Beach Boys were hard to find on the radio. Now, even classic rock stations are starting to feel the pressure, as commercial radio strains to find ways to connect with younger listeners who find most of their music online.

But while big radio and TV companies join with the advertising industry in chasing after the 18-to-34-year-old crowd, the music that appeals to pop culture's increasingly forgotten demographic -- the boomers -- is starting to appear in all sorts of odd places.

Paul McCartney put his new album up for sale at Starbucks. James Taylor launched his latest CD in Hallmark shops. Sirius satellite radio cut a deal with Nancy Sinatra and retooled its standards channel as "Siriusly Sinatra." XM satellite radio responded by bringing on board Deana Martin, daughter of Dean, to host a program of Vegas Rat Pack hits on the service's '50s channel.

Now, AARP -- the organization whose membership invitations deliver a shock of "You're old!" to boomers the moment they turn 50 -- is turning into a radio programmer and concert promoter, sponsoring a Tony Bennett national tour, shows with Rod Stewart and Earth, Wind and Fire, and a radio service designed to do what commercial radio won't: Recognize that the fastest-growing market for the music industry is people ages 45 and older.

"We're not done writing our soundtrack yet," says Emilio Pardo, chief brand officer at AARP headquarters in the District. "Our membership -- the boomers -- are looking for options. We're at a stage where we want to experience new music and share our music with our kids and grandkids."

Unlike teenagers, who are more likely to download music, often illegally, boomers still buy lots of CDs. At Amazon.com, the five best-selling artists in the online merchant's history are the Beatles, U2, Norah Jones, Johnny Cash and Diana Krall. The top five sellers last year included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Andrea Bocelli -- all staples of the boomer crowd.

AARP is eager to hook into the boomers' passion for music to establish itself as something more than a lobby for the Geritol generation.

"We're constantly barraged by talk of the prime demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds, and it's like nobody else matters," says Steve Mencher, senior producer of digital media for AARP. Mencher, who earlier in his career worked at National Public Radio, creates programming to challenge the assumption in American business that only teenagers and 20-somethings are still discovering new passions and are still open to new brand loyalties.

So AARP produces daily radio features on "Music for Grownups" -- a recent show included a Nashville funk band called the Dynamites, a Nordic jazz trio, blues singer Marva Wright and the inevitable Frankie Valli. There's also a talk show called "Movies for Grownups," which consists of features and reviews about flicks of interest to people 50 and older.

"Despite Hollywood's infatuation with youth, half of movie tickets are bought by people over 30," says the show's Web site. The show -- which can be heard online at http://radioprimetime.org, or on many public stations (which receive the programs without charge) -- has recently included features on Robert Duvall, John Wayne, Ozzie and Harriet and the old "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" TV soap.

But although the book and magazine industries have come to accept that it's the older generation that keeps them afloat, radio and TV continue to resist the idea that there's merit or profits to be found in appealing to older audiences.

AARP is happy to address "the frustration that there's not enough choices on the radio," Pardo says. The organization is finding that its 39 million members are eager for programming they can tap into through the latest technologies. AARP is podcasting, Web streaming and even offering a branded version of Pandora.com, the online music service that deploys recommendation algorithms to suggest tunes based on preferences you plug into the computer. Pardo says one of the most frequently visited areas on its Web site is the online games section. And Mencher says that AARP's next wave of audio programming will be "user-created media a la YouTube."

Although AARP's radio programs are available without fees or advertising, the organization is not above selling tickets, and it plans to expand its concert offerings beyond the annual membership meetings where Elton John, Bill Cosby and Jose Feliciano have played. Inspired by the success of Bennett's sold-out, 20-city tour, Pardo says the group is looking to stage concerts around the country.

Meanwhile, back on commercial radio, industry analyst Sean Ross says he's seeing tentative signs of rebirth for oldies. Even as the format is dropped in some cities, there's some evidence that the growing desperation over the young generation's turn from broadcast radio is prompting some companies to look anew at oldies.

In Minneapolis, a rock station switched over to a "Greatest Songs of All Time" format, playing Bobby Darin, the Supremes, the Mamas and the Papas and the Temptations. And ratings for surviving oldies stations on Long Island and in cities such as Chicago and Dallas have suddenly surged.

"If you're a serious '50s or '60s fan," Ross says, "you're probably going to be happier with what you find through streaming or on satellite radio. But it's still good news for a format that broadcasters might have banished entirely this year."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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