Post Magazine: Radio Playlists: The Songs You Want to Hear

Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007 12:00 PM

Has audience research sucked all the life out of commercial radio?

Marc Fisher explores this question in this week's issue of Washington Post Magazine.

Marc Fisher is a columnist for The Post's Metro section.

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Marc Fisher: Welcome aboard, folks. Lots of questions and comments, about the piece in Sunday's Magazine, about radio's overall state of malaise these days, about new ways to find and listen to music, about my new book on radio, and about radio's troubles here in Washington and elsewhere around the nation. Keep 'em coming and I'll get to as many as possible during our hour together. Let's go....

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Montclair, Va: Marc,

First, very interesting article. So much so that I ordered your book.

Second, I find the ideas about why 'radio' is having so much trouble adapting to today's audiences & technology most fascinating. I for one have shifted 90% of my listening time (primarily during my commute into Crystal City) to podcasts. Having done so, I think the belief 'that choice is overrated' is wrong. I've purcahsed more CDs or tracks from iTunes over the last two years of listening to podcasts - discovering new artists - than I have over the last 10 years before that listineing to radio. And I'm 55! And while I don't believe for a minute that radio will disappear anytime soon, I have to believe we will hardly recognize it in about 5 years.

Your thoughts about the impact of podcasting and portable players on the future of radio?

Marc Fisher: Thanks very much. There's more about the book--as well as audio clips of many of the major radio figures in the book--at www.marcfisher.com

Podcasting and iPods are quickly changing the nature and purpose of radio. Overall listening to traditional broadcast radio is down, yet nine in 10 Americans still have the radio on for a significant chunk of their day. Clearly, broadcast radio has pretty much lost a generation of listeners; many young people just don't see a place for radio in their lives.

That said, there are growing indications that after people stuff their iPods with favorite tunes, they often don't listen to many of them because they know what's there, and they're eager to find and hear new music. That's where the serendipity of radio comes in. Podcasts can be wonderful, but they can also be stultifying. As with blogs, it's hard to find the gems and sift out the trash. I don't see podcasts becoming a mass market phenomenon, but they are a great way for enthusiasts to share music and get to know new stuff.

Radio needs to find a way to capture the passion and personality that marks the best podcasts--that would be a return to the future of sorts for traditional radio.

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Alexandria, Va: So our money is not good. I am 52, and I was devastated when WBIG went "classic" in March. Actually, the classic went out of the station when they dropped the "oldies" -- Big made a big mistake when dropping the format because oldies reached far more than the AARP set. I have switched to WASH (it's all right - and Music for Your Life when at work) ... but why would these young turks think that our money is not good ...

Now I know how my parents felt when they could no longer find stations playing the Big Bands ... which I also like.

Marc Fisher: I thought that as boomers aged, the hegemony of the 18-54 (and really it's more like 18-35) age group in determining the shape of our popular culture would shift. But so far it has not. It does seem irrational that our advertising/media industries pitch themselves so heavily at a demographic that has considerably less money to spend than middle-aged folks. Yet the gospel remains that it's essential to reach young consumers because their buying patterns have not yet hardened.

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Satellite Radio - The Only Way To Go: Mark,

I have been a satellite radio subscriber almost from the beginning and when I don't have access to it and have to listen to commercial radio stations, I feel like screaming. The many commercials, banal chatter, and the few tired songs they continually play is hard to take after being exposed to the variety and commercial free aspect of satellite radio. I just hope XM and Sirius can start making a profit - it would be a shame to lose the product they offer. Long may they both broadcast.

Marc Fisher: I've also found lots to like on both XM and Sirius. One of my favorite jazz deejays of my youth, Les Davis, has reappeared on Sirius late at night, and he's still introducing me to new artists. On XM, Bob Dylan turns out to be a creative and original deejay very much in the mold of the freeform radio artists of the 1960s and 70s.

But as businesses, both satellite providers are deep in the hole. There's a big debate raging about whether the feds would let the two merge; my pet theory is that that will happen if and when one of the satellites starts to wobble and jeopardizes the billions that car companies and others have invested in satellite radio companies.

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Columbia, Md: Great article, Marc, but wonder if it gave short shrift to iPod docking stations in cars? Since much of listening is in the car, and Detroit seems headed towards built-in mp3 player docking stations, could this be another kick in the stomach to traditional radio?

Marc Fisher: Good point--I know a bunch of folks who swear by their iPod docking stations, but I know far more people who don't like to have canned music going in the car. They feel a need to be connected to something live, to know that if news breaks or there's a big traffic mess being reported, that they will hear about it.

The next big breakthrough in portable sound will likely combine an in-car mp3 player with live radio, either by satellite or terrestrial, so that you could combine personal choice with staying in touch. But first, the recording industry is going to have to get over its bizarre policy of suing anyone who tries to let listeners into the possibilities of the new world of technologies.

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Alexandria, Va: Marc,

I enjoyed your article on WBIG. It's obvious why it's become so terrible (they have to worry so much about advertisers and TSL).

To counter this unfortunate trend, I wish the public radio stations in DC would run more music programming, like Minneapolis (The Current), Los Angeles (KCRW), Seattle (KEXP), etc. Even satellite channels are no match at all for stations like this - full of personality and unpredictability.

Marc Fisher: Those are great stations, and I continue to be surprised by how many people I meet who keep their favorite web radio streams going all day at work--primarily those stand-out, personality-driven terrestrial radio stations that let intelligent deejays lead listeners to new sounds. I have kcrw.org going right now in the office and I've never lived in southern California.

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Alexandria, Va: I want to listen to the radio, I really do, but the corporatization of the FM dial has made it hard. Less variety of genres, miniscule playlists, and WAY too many ads. The demise of WHFS is the end of a process that began in the early 90s. . .when HFS was truely alternative. We've now lost classical programming as well. It's sad really but people have no choice but to go to pay for radio to hear good music. Does Clearchannel understand that they're killing their product?

Marc Fisher: The big radio companies have seen the light. They are now in panic mode. That's why you're hearing promos for "HD Radio" ad nauseum. Digital radio--second and third channels added to the frequencies of each broadcast radio station--do offer broadcasters a way to compete with satellite. But so far, the programming I've heard on HD Radio is done on the cheap--it's mostly unhosted, automated music with more interesting formats than what's on most of FM radio, but still, these new stations sound lifeless. For HD Radio to succeed, it must bring in new personalities, a new generation of talent and passionate voices.

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Albuquerque, NM: Why aren't more radio station taking a chance on alternative formats? Here in NM, we recently had a station switch from all-sports (there is now only one) to Hispanic music (there are now seven). The market is there but many are afraid to make the move.

Marc Fisher: Radio executives, like most people, tend to stick with the tried and true. And even if they see overall audience numbers declining, if they can persuade advertisers that they are serving up an identifiable and desirable audience, the ad money will keep flowing in. Look at it objectively--a "successful" radio station these days may draw only three or four percent of a shrinking overall audience--and it seems crazy. But within the context of radio as it defines itself, it makes sense.

Still, I think we're at the dawn of a new era of innovation in radio programming; desperation and panic have a way of creating novel approaches, and in all the Old Media, we're quickly reaching that level of desperation.

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Forest Heights: No one can make a rational decision about a song based on seven seconds. No one. To rush through a hundred or so songs played seven-second clips is so absurd, it plays more like a Monty Python or "Saturday Night Live" sketch than reality. Every radio station in the country could make a big improvement in their budgets if they just dropped, point blank, these weird surveys and just played good music for their listeners. The surveys are a joke.

Marc Fisher: Well, yes and no.

It is simply amazing to sit through a music test and realize that your brain is so damn good at figuring out what a song is in just a couple of seconds. Most pop tunes are so hard-wired into your skull that you really don't need more than a few seconds to decide if you like them or not.

But you're right: The problem with music testing is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy--you're fed music you've already heard and you're asked to decide which of those predigested songs really send you. That's fine, perhaps, for an oldies station. But it becomes a much less reliable process for stations that trade in new music, and it makes it extremely hard for a genuinely new or different sound to break through.

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Baltimore, Md: The idiotic thought process that believes that no one on the planet wants to hear "oldies" is so alien to reality that anyone who thinks that really should not be in radio--regardless of the misguided, ill-informed suits peppering your article. People out here in the real world love the songs from "oldies" formats--otherwise, why on earth do oldies stations still survive elsewhere and why do the satellite stations have oldies channels and why do "oldies" evergreen CDs still sell, year after year? And why do people still go to "oldies" concerts? Guess what--people in the real world love "oldies." And guess what--people loved the old WBIG, which had a loyal, faithful audience. Your article neglected to focus on this: People loved the "oldies" WBIG, and no one really gives a darn now for a 94.7 knock-off. You can hear the same music on 94.7--with the great accompaniment of Stevens and Medley, Shelby, Cerphe and Weasel--possibly the best line-up of deejays working in the D.C. area today. No one is really listening to WBIG anymore.

Marc Fisher: Not exactly no one. The station struggled to find a way to modernize the oldies concept, and it just didn't work, largely because the old coalition of listeners who grew up with Top 40 disintegrated in the late 70s, and everyone who has grown up with radio since then has enrolled in one or another niche listening experience. So then it's hard to bring those disparate groups back together as they get older, because they don't really share much music.

This problem will only get worse as folks now growing up in a far more eclectic music environment get older.

So WBIG and Clear Channel switched directions and decided to appeal to a narrower audience. That would be fine if we had a bulging FM band full of exciting choices. But with so few formats dominating, it does feel redundant and lifeless. Alas.

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Washington, D.C.: These surveys are a problem--they are wrong, about 99.9 percent of the time--but even more so, the problem in radio, television and film is often the inexperienced, out-of-touch, ignorant, corporate-mentality, over-educated, party-and-hype-and-sensationalism-and-p.r.-infatuated, and completely un-artistic idiots running entertaintment companies for about the past, oh, 30 years. They are the ones at fault, and they are the ones who have ruined radio, television and film. And that is not over-reacting--it is true.

Marc Fisher: Well, you're right, of course, except that in a highly niched society--and that applies not only to our pop culture, but to the larger society as well--what matters is often not the big picture, but your ability to manipulate the niches to make it look like you are delivering a product to a particular demographic subset. The danger posed by the avalanche of choices that the Internet and the digital age make available to us is that we lose any sense of a common pop cultural foundation, and I think that has troubling implications for our politics and our sense of social connection.

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Washington, DC: Marc,

I have questions about the Post's radio station. Instead of running the bland syndicated programming after 7 p.m., why not have a show in which Post editors and reporters talk about stories that will be in the next day's paper? And on weekends, instead of "best of" programming, why not highlight sections of the newspaper like Style, sports, metro, Sunday Source, etc. The paper has the platform to have a potentially awesome local news/talk format combining the best elements of the newspaper.

Marc Fisher: Thanks--I'll pass this along to the programming chiefs at Washington Post Radio. The station remade its format a couple of weeks ago and is now a much quicker sound. It's still a work in progress. A lot of what you're suggesting is already done during the daytime hours on the station--right now, the evening concept is primarily to air sports play by play and syndicated talk. I'd bet that will evolve with time.

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Washington, D.C. (formerly Los Angeles): Albuquerque writes: "Here in NM, we recently had a station switch from all-sports (there is now only one) to Hispanic music (there are now seven)."

"Hispanic music" assumes that any station broadcasting in Spanish is one format. In fact, there is a great deal of Spanish-language stations, with different types of music and talk, just like English-language stations. How simplistic.

Marc Fisher: You're right, of course. In cities with large Hispanic populations, there are now several music formats competing, as well as some emerging talk and news stations. In Washington, El Zol, the station that took over the old WHFS, is riding up the ratings ladder quite quickly. But in cities such as LA, NY and Miami, Spanish language stations are rapidly becoming as popular as the black-oriented stations that tend to dominate the ratings in many other cities.

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Silver Spring, Md: Ironically despite the use of focus groups and the way they end up homogenizing your music choices, due to the internet the average person has access to SO MUCH more music than they used to.

I am waiting for the people at www.pandora.com to come up with a way to broadcast their technology over the air waves.

Marc Fisher: Pandora, which I've written about a couple of times, is a terrific site that tries to serve up the serendipity that radio traditionally provided, all built around your own preferences. It marries Amazon-like suggestion engine technology with the human element of new music that's been broken down to its elements so that the software can recommend new music that you're most likely to enjoy. It would be hard to put something like that on the radio because the core of the experience is the personalization.

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Alexandria, Va: I do not own an IPOD -- and do not download music, and wonder am I the only person left in America, who likes waking up to a radio going off, and relaxing for a few minutes listening to music and waiting for the weather ...

What is this 94.7 station that someone mentioned ...oldies???

thanks, Marc

Marc Fisher:94.7 is the classic rock station in Washington.

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lowest common denominator: I've more or less given up listening to regular broadcast radio because any creativity's been focus grouped out of existence. Here's a concept - if you played something new and different, people might have a chance to decide they like it! There's brilliant new music out there, but the only outlets that seem to play any of it are TV producers who pick out tracks to use in the background of their shows.

Marc Fisher: TV producers do seem much more free to explore new music than many of the music radio architects these days. It's a sad state when incidental music on a TV drama becomes one of the best ways for new music to reach an audience.

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My Generation: So Marc, what have you personally done to bridge the generation gap in music? For example, how much music do you listen to from artists who started recording in the 90s or later? Who are your favorite modern-day musicians?

Marc Fisher: I get into new sounds through five primary methods:

--My teenage daughter shares her latest iTunes acquisitions with me.

--Pandora.com

--Surfing XM and Sirius

--Music blogs

--classicalwebcast.com

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Washington, DC: Great article.

It seems to me "free" radio is in a vicious cycle that can be illustrated metaphorically from the part of the article when everyone said "I want this, you can do that!" And the executive said, "OH really? Well, will 'X' happen if 'Y' happens?" And then everyone said "No."

People seem to want more choices in music.

Well, choices are found in creativity of DJs that are given the freedom of programming choices. This freedom often leads to some bad choices or over the top behavior that offends listeners who then complain to the radio execs. The radio execs then limit the scope of creativity and freedom of programming they can offer their DJs so as not to upset the listeners.

See what I mean? It's a vicious cycle.

Marc Fisher: That's exactly right except that I think the cycle has hit an obstacle--there's a skip in the record, to use a metaphor that won't make any sense in a few years. We haven't seen broadcast radio giving deejays that kind of freedom in about a quarter of a century. So the folks who have the passion and freedom to lead listeners to new sounds and to justapose interesting musics against one another have found refuge in places such as satellite radio, Internet stations and podcasts.

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Falls Church, Va.: Great article Marc. Question - I understand, kinda, why younger audiences are more attractive to advertisers. But I don't understand why men are more appealing than women? I spend way more money and do much more shopping than my husband!

Marc Fisher: Oh, advertisers and radio love women too--and surely women make many, if not most, buying decisions. But women are generally much easier to reach for advertisers. So the challenge--and the payoff--for any format that successfully reaches men can be higher. That's why there's so much sports on the air, and that's why raunch talk radio has grown so quickly. Anything that promises to deliver men's attention gets advertisers salivating.

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Dayton, Ohio: It's not that "your money isn't good anymore". It's that you're purchasing habits are set. No matter how many ads are thrown at you, you're not going to switch from a Coke drinker to a Pepsi drinker at the age of 55.

Marc Fisher: Well, I've seen conflicting research on that. You're certainly right that that's the governing theory in most media decisions. But middle aged and old folks tend to have more disposable income and also enter into whole areas of the economy that young people rarely touch--that's why you hear ads for luxury cars on WGMS, the classical station, that you would never hear on your average rocker.

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Arlington Va: Assuming that older persons' buying habits are fixed is just stupid, and may turn out to be marketers' fatal flaw. I'm 55, and the music I listen to was all written within the last few years. I use my laptop to put it on CD's for the car. Since my new car has bluetooth, I'll probably adopt an iPOD sometime soon. I can't imagine being limited by what radio decides to play- haven't listened to broadcast radio in years.

Marc Fisher: The first radio stations that adopt a new holy trinity consisting of 1) intensely local programming with 2) intelligent deejays who have freedom to roam and lead the audience 3) into a daring eclectic approach to music will be the medium's first real chance to connect with that alienated audience.

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Lost Springs, Wyo: One of the primary factors that defined the Golden Age of Top 40 radio was the abundance of terrific pop/rock/Motown music. The downfall of good radio parallels the downfall of the music industry. I'll never forget what a HUGE event it was to hear a premier of a Beatles song on WABC. There is nothing equivalent to that these days. Looking forward to reading your book!

Marc Fisher: Thanks very much--There's a reasonable argument to be made that the Top 40 era included one of the great flowerings of creativity in pop history. But it's also true that there were periods of the Top 40 years (the mid-50s to the late 70s) when the music mainly stank, or at least was as mediocre as at any other time. What made that period different, however, was the Top 40 concept--the idea that even if you hated one song, if you stuck around, you might well like the next. And the best deejays made it worth your while to stick around. The contemporary conceit--that somewhere out there is a station that serves up only what YOU like--chops up the audience into tiny pieces and still tends to disappoint listeners.

The real trick for pop culture in the next phase is to find ways to reaggregate an audience that is tiring of being sliced into micro-niches and wants some common, shared language.

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Ex-Washingtonian in Pittsburgh: Does DC have any radio stations airing jazz programming any more? I used to enjoy Felix Grant on WMAL-AM in the evenings (still treasure his tribute to Washingtonian Duke Ellington following his death, back in the 1970s). At least up here in "da 'Burgh" we can listen to wonderful jazz on WDUQ (also available online), along with a goodly dose of NPR news programs. I agree with the chatter who said that s/he likes just to be able to turn on the radio to get music, rather than having to link up to the Internet -- I especially treasure being wakened by good programming on my clock-radio in the early AM, when I'm still too groggy to log onto my computer!

Marc Fisher: Alas, the last jazz left on the radio in Washington is the music on WPFW, the Pacifica station, which devotes half or more of its time to political content. The last full-time jazz station, part of the University of the District of Columbia, was sold to C-SPAN by order of the D.C. Control Board during the city's 1990s financial crisis.

Sadly, public radio in Washington is almost entirely news and talk. That could change if the WETA board is successful in pushing that station to go back to classical music.

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Marc: The tops!: I have heard you on Kojo and Wash Post radio, and I read your chats religiously, but I wanted to let you know that you have reached the pantheon (parthenon?) of my idol worship with your recent article in the greatest magazine in the world, the New Yorker. Congrats on such a cool accomplishment!

Marc Fisher: Thanks very much--the New Yorker piece, in the Dec. 4 issue, is a profile of Bob Fass, the radio revolutionary who was the father of freeform radio. It's based in part on a chapter from my book, "Something in the Air." There's some cool audio of Fass with Bob Dylan at newyorker.com

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New Carrollton, Md: In your book, do you touch upon the notion that Radio should be making stars and making a song a hit and not just playing what is perceived as a hit already?

Marc Fisher: Yes, I get into the whole debate about the impact that an overreliance on research and music testing has had on deadening the sound of radio and making it tougher for new music to get on the air. But while I'm all for making radio more personal and restoring some of the authority that deejays once had, I should give a nod to the radio management professionals who can make an awfully good case that many listeners SAY they want to hear new music, but actually flee from new sounds and cling to their personal favorites.

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Gone in 7 Seconds: In response to the chatter who said that you can't make up your mind about a song in 7 seconds - - I'll change the station a lot sooner than that. Particularly if I recognize the song, as the focus group obviously did for most of the tunes.

Marc Fisher: Right--the art of selecting the hook in the song to play in a music test is a fascinating one, and I'm consistently impressed by how they find the one quick passage that immediately communicates the whole song's experience to the folks in the room.

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Williamsburg, Va: Your question about radio -

Yes, as the owner of two stations in Williamsburg - and a previous owner of stations in Amherst, MA, I have been in radio ownership for nearly 20 years and have found the only place to escape the Arbitron curse and actually provide programming that the people want to hear is by operating in fringe markets where Arbitron can't manipulate some media buyer who has to buy ads in 100 markets in the next six hours and looks only at a computer screen to do it. We also rely almost exclusively on local advertising as our base. You can see how well radio can perform and succeed first hand at www.tideradio.com. We stream our audio as well.

Tom Davis

President, Davis Media, LLC

92.3FM The Tide; 107.9FM, WBACH

Marc Fisher: Thanks--one of the main things I learned in reporting my book is that innovation in media tends not to come from the big, established corporations that dominate, but rather from small operations, often small companies that are hard pressed to make it.

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Washington, DC: Radio's two advantages have always been community and surprise. Even indie outcasts can feel connected to each other through college radio, and a decade ago even a popular station like WHFS could play something great you'd never heard before. You give stations like those your trust, and they pay it back. Who can you trust on FM today when they don't even trust themselves? Satellite channels may be narrowly defined, but I know that one of those channels, right this minute, is playing something I love -- and maybe something great that I've never heard before.

Marc Fisher: I like that concept--trust. Find me a deejay in FM radio these days who feels trusted by management to go his own way and create his own show. I'm not sure such an animal exists in a corporate climate in which stations need to produce consistent ratings so that the company has at least a prayer of digging itself out of the debt it accumulated in the radio station buying binge of the late 90s.

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Arlington, Va: Marc, I am 28 and used to listen to DC 101 in the car, till I noticed that I knew all the words to every song they played. Why? Because they are still playing songs that were popular when I was in high school and college (the 90s). How lame. I was sick of all those songs a long time ago. I gave up on DC 101 because the station offers no fresh, exciting songs. There is no magical moment of hearing an unexpected song. I wonder why the execs there think this is a winning format?

Marc Fisher: They think it works because the archaic diary rating system that still rules radio shows them that enough of the right listeners in the Washington area still write down "DC 101" in their Arbitron diaries. And the folks you went to high school with, at least the guys among them, are apparently still reasonably satisfied hearing the tunes they fell in love with as teenagers. One of the Golden Rules of the radio industry is that the tunes you loved in the 16-22 age range, or thereabouts, are the ones you will stick to for the rest of your life. You and I might want to branch out from that, but lots of people don't, and that's what directs radio's content.

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Montgomery Village, Md: Marc

Read the article , but haven't read the book --yet.

You did not mention the notion that perhaps the advent of music videos helped kill radio. Back in the day, when we heard a song on the radio, we conjured up our own images of what the song meant--to us--the lyrics helped us draw a mental picture. With music tv, the images the artists want to convey are what you see and become "your" images from the song. Perhaps this is yet another example of losing our own creative abilities.

Also, have some oldies becomee stale because advertisers have incorporated them into their ads--- My Girl, I want you back,and dozens of others get more airplay as background music and so we are less interested if not sick of hearing them.

Hope to see you in Rockville on 2/4.

Marc Fisher: Interesting--and thanks. Feb. 4 is when I'll be talking about the book at the Barnes and Noble in Rockville.

I don't see much evidence that Video Killed the Radio Star. Certainly, in its initial years, MTV had a big impact on what was played on radio. But MTV has moved very heavily away from music videos. It's definitely true that how a band looks and performs now has a lot to do with its success, but videos actually ended up helping music radio, delivering more ears searching for those hit tunes. Still, you're onto something when you say that seeing bands perform in videos stole away some of the probably grander images we all had in our imaginations as we listened to our favorite songs.

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Arlington Va: To Dayton - well, I did switch from diet Pepsi to diet cherry Coke when I was 53, and I switched from Tide to Method last year. The old canard doesn't hold water.

Marc Fisher: And did you switch because of any advertising you saw or heard?

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Silver Spring, Md: Just posted on dcrtv.com

B'ville To Start Score 104, WETA-FM To Go Classical - 1/22 - DCRTV broke the news at noon Monday. Bonneville's classical WGMS will go sports talk, as Score 104, at 3 PM Monday. Bonneville has been negotiating to sell the station to Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his Triple X ESPN Sports talker. Apparently, that deal is off. Also, we're hearing that NPR news talk WETA-FM, 90.9, will pick up WGMS's classical format later today. Stay tuned.....

Marc Fisher: Thanks for the bulletin! Big news....

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Bethesda, Md: Really enjoyed the article Marc and definitely plan to buy your book.

It is really interesting to read about how radio is trying to lure back former listeners, because other than the news on WTOP and Nats games, I have abandoned regular radio for XM and my iPod. One exception is Nick Spitzer's excellent "American Routes" program on WAMU and XM Public Radio.

In particular I was amazed to read in your article of how the public has tired of Motown as my wife and I have always loved those songs. Is there a chance of the same thing happening to the Beatles, as they are apparently played even more frequently than Motown?

Marc Fisher: Hard to imagine that--if there's anything that radio programmers can count on, it's the continuing, widespread popularity of the Beatles.

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Lovettsville, Va: Here's what I took away from your article yesterday: Disco killed radio!

I knew it!

Marc Fisher: Ha!

I don't know about that--disco was certainly part of the splintering of radio into niche formats, but so were lots of other music formats.

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Bowie, Md: Imagine if the restaurant industry operated like the radio industry. All we would have to eat is hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza.

Marc Fisher: All too true.

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Suitland, Md:"The real trick for pop culture in the next phase is to find ways to reaggregate an audience that is tiring of being sliced into micro-niches and wants some common, shared language."

My main complaint is, there are all these formats slicing and dicing the music of a bunch of yesterdays, and few formats introducing new music that adults might like.

I don't know about others, but this fiftysomething wants to hear that next song that will become part of the soundtrack of my life, and I'm willing to listen to songs I'm not gonna be so keen on, in order to find those songs.

But I'm not going to find them on oldies, or classic rock, or any other yesterday-format station.

Give me as many micro-niches as you want, as long as some of them are playing new music that isn't all teeny-bopper stuff.

Marc Fisher: Check out kcrw.org

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Boston, Mass: If you want radio that's driven by the DJ's choices, try college radio. There are tons of stations up here that play all sorts of great stuff--and I get 28 out of 30 minutes of actual music on my morning commute instead of 7.

I just feel bad for them when they graduate and get jobs DJing on the commercial stations. Goodbye choice and introducing new music to their listeners!

Marc Fisher: Alas, Washington has precious little college radio--one of the main reasons this is not as interesting a radio band as in many other cities.

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weta!!: Paul Farhi has the word: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/22/AR2007012200579.html

Marc Fisher: Here's the latest....

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St. Mary's City, Md.: Marc, is there any chance that Congress or a Democratic president might roll back some of the corporate radio consolidation that took place in the last decade? I'm uncomfortable with ownership of media outlets being in fewer hands, because I think the temptation is too great for the conglomerates to control the flow of information for their own benefit. I realize that might sound paranoid.

Marc Fisher: I don't see that happening, but the FCC is under considerable pressure to expand the number of low-power FM stations--microradio serving rural communities and urban neighborhoods.

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Bethesda, Md.: On commercial FM radio, the listener isn't the customer: the listener is the product. The customers are the people who pay the money: the companies buying ads who are trying to reach 18-22 yo black women or whatever. They pay the radio stations to deliver the audience, us, to them. So anyone outside the target audience is irrelevant and can be dismissed and alienated, as you said in your article. No wonder my teenage son likes FM radio better than I do.

Satellite radio turns this model around, back the way it should be: I pay the money every month, so I'm the customer. And surprise-- besides not having to be annoyed by ads and idiotic DJs, I get a tremendous variety of new and interesting music.

Do you agree?

Marc Fisher: Generally, yes--that's a good way to put it. The only nuance I'd add is that FM doesn't need to be that way, and broadcast stations could put together larger audiences by reaching beyond that very narrow model.

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Follow-up on grreat comment by Lost Springs, Wyo., and your reply: You and Lost Springs, Wyo. really hit the nail on the head. If you go back and look at Top 40 lists from the 1950s-1970s, there's such a diversity of offerings, from Elvis to Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and folk music in the '50s; from doo-wop to Frank Sinatra, Bossa Nova and Beach Boys in the early-1960s; from the Beatles, Stones and Animals to Burt Bacharach, etc., etc. My point is that people got to hear (and have the opportunity to like) a much wider variety of music on many radio stations than today's niche-broadcasting affords.

As an example, note the outpouring from old-time listeners that Johnny Holliday received when he did a recent online WaPo chat -- including from old KYA listeners like me! Their 1960s Top 40 lists offered such a variety of popular music.

Marc Fisher: You're right, but part of what made that possible was the limited choice of stations. That world is gone.

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Washington, DC: Whether Latin music consists of one format or several (Nortenas, Reggaeton, Salsa) the use of Spanish as the primary language alienates me. I speak Spanish, but learned Spanish from Spain. When the Guanacos sprinkle Calliche into the language it becomes as incomprehensible to me as it would a Cuban. I work with just such a Cuban who has the same complaints about El Zol that I do.

Marc Fisher: Out of time, but another view on Spanish language radio...

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Anonymous: I like listening to the Radio on my 30 min drive home. I feel that I What I don't like is that the station I listen to (mix 107) seems to play the same 2 or 3 songs during the same time slot at least 3 times a week. Why do stations do that?

And to the poster from NM: There's s great variety in spanish language music. Which is why I'll listen to Viva 900 (am) versus El Zol.

Marc Fisher: A couple more comments before we go....

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Washington, DC: Before WCBS-FM in NYC changed to the JACK format, I always admired that they seemed to play a little bit of everything, including doo-wop and "newer" songs by "oldies" artists -e.g., playing "Heartlight" by Neil Diamond]. Their listener-chosen top 500 spanned decades and genres!

What bothered me about the old WBIG playlist is that it purported to play only hits of the "60s," yet included "Oh What A Nite -December 1963]" by Frank Valli & The Four Seasons, which was released in the mid-70s. When the playlist replaced songs from the early '60s with songs from the '70s, "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel was played incessantly, even tho that particular song was released during MTV's heyday, and there were plenty of Billy Joel songs from the '70s that could have gotten air time!

And with the new format, I've heard some of the same songs over and over and over . . .

SHEESH!

Marc Fisher: No matter how an oldies or classic station defines itself, you're likely to hear a lot of repetition. The more daring approach would be to dig much deeper into the music vault from that era, and some satellite channels are doing that.

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New Britain, Conn: As a teenager, I listened to AM Radio. Most of the programs on AM today in my market are Talk Radio and Sports Radio. Hardly any music anymore. And AM or FM alike, I cannot hear music from the 50's and early 60's (pre-Beatles). I think the station managers think that people want TALK radio (and maybe they do) but it's sad that the music has apparently died. MJK

Marc Fisher: Talk replaced songs on AM when the superior fidelity of FM came along. Now FM could be heading in the same direction, with news and talk moving there to chase the younger audience that never listens to AM.

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Fairfax, Va: You should have been more critical in your article on radio marketing. The fact is that WBIG was one of the best radio stations in the D.C. area, with some of the best DJs and a top-notch news guy, with great community spirit and community involvement, and Unclear Channel came in and systematically destroyed the station. Completely, 100 percent, destroyed it. First, for no real GOOD reason, they fired the much-liked Dave Adler. Then they brought in Murphy and Cash, and then they fired them. Then they fired one of the best local news guys, Ira Mehlman. Then they fired a guy who was arguably one of the very best, and most-liked, DJs in the D.C. area--Goldy. Then they fired one of the most legendary local DJs--Johnny Dark, whose experience and knowledge stretched back 40 years. Then they fired the much-loved format--and took off the local airwaves a library of classic songs that no other station played. On top of all that, the old WBIG actually made money! So you take a station that is well-loved, a viable part of the community, a station with no controversies, no violence associated with it, no bad marks in the community, that makes a profit, that is filled with top-notch talented people, that played great classic rock, dance, soul, funk and pop music--and you destroy it. Unbelievable. The real story should have been about the systematic destruction of one of the best D.C.-area radio stations and how just unbelievably stupid the entire process has been. Now we have a station with no identity, no community involvement, no big names, the same music that's played on WARW (without that station's big-time DJs), and absolutely on imagination concerning its playlist. That's the real story on WBIG, unfortunately.

Marc Fisher: And more on WBIG....

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Greenbelt, Md: I am amazed that radio stations are still the last bastions of overt segregation in this country. I am a black man in his 50s and used to constantly listen to WBIG before it changed formats and blew all of their personalities (Kathy Whiteside, Tom Kelly and Goldie) out the door. The station played the music I grew up with and I just don't mean R&B. Radio stations have to open their minds because music today is so crossover.

DC radio is so bad, that I got XM a year ago and that's there I get my music. Heard you on Bob Edwards's show a few weeks back and enjoyed it so much I listened to three repeats of the broadcast.

Marc Fisher: (Thanks so much--the Bob Edwards Show staff did a fabulous job producing that interview.)

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Alexandria, Va.: At the fitness center I go to I am held hostage daily by WBIG. I submit to you that I've heard "Big Old Jet Airliner" by the Steve Miller Band more times in the past six months than I did when the song first came out (and it's just as bad now as it was then).

The suits at WBIG and its radio-ruining parent Clear Channel lament that nobody listens to commercial radio anymore, even as it proudly touts market research that tells it which 200 songs to play ad nauseum.

That's my rant. I'd complain to the fitness center, but with the sad state of commercial radio in Washington, that complaint would be an exercise in futility.

Marc Fisher: Not a lot of choices out there.

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Potomac, Md: Mark: As someone who is a fan of commercial radio and as someone who has participated in all forms of radio marketing surveys--on the phone, written and in those hotel-room surveys--one thing needs to be made clear, and it's true: The opinions of 110 people (55 people in two sessions a year) do NOT accurately reflect the musical opinions of an entire metropolitan area. Or even a fraction of a metropolitan area. The surveys are a farce. They are inaccurate. And they are a horrible marketing tool. Literally, a group of friends knows dozens of people who love Motown. Those friends know dozens more who love Motown. And on and on. There are likely tens of thousands of people who love Motown in the D.C. area. So the feeling that people hate Motown is patently stupid. That's just one example of what's wrong, horribly wrong, with these surveys: They don't reflect anything. I talked with people who participated in the hotel-room surveys afterwards, and nearly every person said the process was ridiculous--flawed, inaccurate, ridiculous, generalized, rushed. Radio stations cannot, and should not, run their programming based on these surveys. Additionally, the phone surveys were so fragmented and generalized, a bunch of us who have done those surveys almost hung up halfway through them. The bottom line: Surveys are dumb. They should not dictate the programming on any radio station, anywhere, at any time, in any country.

Marc Fisher: You get the last word.

Thanks everyone for coming along. We can continue the conversation during my regular Live Online show, Thursday at noon, right here.

Til then....

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