Since many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock, welcome to “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al Shipley (a.k.a. Idolator commenter GovernmentNames) examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of Billboard‘s rock charts. This time around, he tries to find out just how Arbitron’s new ratings systems are impacting the modern rock radio landscape:
Over the years I’ve known a few people in the radio biz, and since starting this column one of them has been particularly helpful whenever I’ve felt the need to pick his brain about rock radio. My friend Joey Odorisio writes for the radio industry mag FMQB, and has both on-air and off-air experience in the Philadelphia market. So in the Idolator tradition of cutting and pasting from Instant Messenger windows, I decided to pass on some of his wisdom without merely rewording and taking credit for his observations myself. Below, we discuss the effect of changing ratings measurement technology on the landscape of rock radio, and gratuitously quote Anchorman.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: So are you up for some rock radio inside baseball chatz 2nite?
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: How long have you been working for FMQB now?
NotJoeysIM: Since the summer of ’03.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Do you mainly cover rock for them or everything?
NotJoeysIM: I focus on rock, but in terms of what I write about, it’s the whole industry.
NotJoeysIM: But I’m more comfortable writing about Trent Reznor than T.I.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: And you’re totally lost when it comes to T.I.P.
NotJoeysIM: I know they’re the same person!
NotJoeysIM: Like Chris Gaines.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: What would you say the big stories in those 4 years have been, or what the prevailing trends in radio are?
NotJoeysIM: The Arbitron PPM/ratings accountibility.
NotJoeysIM: Satellite radio.
NotJoeysIM: Technology encroaching on listenership.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: So the whole industry cowering in fear of the future, basically.
NotJoeysIM: Well, not cowering so much as figuring out how to deal with it
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: But shivering, maybe just a little?
NotJoeysIM: Depends who you ask.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Explain the ratings accountability thing to me a little.
NotJoeysIM: Well do you know how the Arbitron ratings system works?
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: More or less.
NotJoeysIM: Written down in diaries/calling people @ home.
NotJoeysIM: That system is losing its accountability with radio.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: I imagine a lot of disputes like in Anchorman when Vince Vaughn yells, “You know those sample audiences aren’t big enough!”
NotJoeysIM: (Dorothy Mantooth was a saint!)
NotJoeysIM: Because younger listeners don’t A.) bother to use the diaries, and B.) have land lines at home, which is a reason Rock stations started flipping… their ratings were falling b/c they couldn’t prove they had these young listeners. The PPM technology has been in the works for years. It’s basically a passive ratings meter, like a small pager that picks up what stations are being listened to around it.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: How big has the drop in rock radio ratings been, in a ballpark percentage.
NotJoeysIM: I can find you a graph on that from Arbitron’s web site….
NotJoeysIM: But yeah, the PPM has shown that rock listening is bigger, just as was suspected, so stations have been flipping back [to rock] two years later…
NotJoeysIM: However, the sample sizes are not up to snuff, and just this week, Arbitron announced it was pushing back the implementation of PPM. It’s in effect here in Philly and in Houston, but nowhere else. NYC was supposed to start in December; now it won’t go til Fall ’08.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: So the trends that were being observed that led to that period where HFS and all those other alt-rock stations were flipping formats has started to reverse, or
been corrected to an extent?
NotJoeysIM: Reversal sorta…Here in Philly, we now have three rock stations, where
we had 1.5 a year ago, the .5 being Free FM.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Was the one new addition a rock station at some point in the past?
NotJoeysIM: No. It’s a station that has been about half-a-dozen formats.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Ah, one of those slutty mistresses.
NotJoeysIM: It was Spanish for barely a year before that.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Is it a rock format that wasn’t/hasn’t been in that market in the recent past already?
NotJoeysIM: No, it`s an alternative station, but one that is very [Alternative] Gold-friendly, very light on current [songs].
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Do you think the numbers/listeners are telling stations to lean on old stuff, or if there’s a preference on the management end not to rely mainly on new music?
NotJoeysIM: A little of both, probably.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: So do you think it’s slightly older guys in charge who just have a boner for 1994 making sure that era dominates the playlists?
NotJoeysIM: No it’s aiming at late 20s/early 30-somethings who are less interested in new music.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Yeah, and I get the impression that there are a lot guys who are 5 or even 10 years younger than me who are more into Nirvana or DMB than what you’d assume their generational bias to be. And I’m not even really in my late 20s yet. So is the sense that not as many
young listeners are coming to rock radio as they used to, or just that it’s a tougher audience to track with the current technology?
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: On that Arbitron chart, “NW Rock” [New Rock] numbers drop off around 2001. Is that just a nascent format that died off?
NotJoeysIM: Not sure, maybe it was a term they stopped using.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Yeah, there’s so many tiny semantic distinctions between formats, could be just a phrase that went out of fashion. I can’t believe “active rock” has had legs for this long.
NotJoeysIM: It’s going strong.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Well, I just mean the name, not so much the format. Although it’d be funny if all the metalhead teenagers in America started pledging allegiance to “ACTIVE
RAWK.” What about the rise of satellite radio? Is rock radio’s listenership impacted by that any more or any less than other formats’ audiences?
NotJoeysIM: I don’t think so…it doesn’t have that much of a proven impact currently. Except for that it took away Stern, which caused a lot of his former stations to flip.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Yeah, it seems like that impacted talk radio, and indirectly rock stations who had Stern, but that it was just an immediate ripple. Of all the different phases of alt-rock radio in the last few years, the rap-metal and the retro rock and the emo, do you think some more than others are staying and will stay in playlists as oldies, and keep yielding hits and new artists? Or is it just gonna be more bubbles bursting after a couple years and nothing making a big
NotJoeysIM: I think audiences in general are too fragmented for ANY genre/movement to have a true “impact.”
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Yeah, I suppose so.
NotJoeysIM: I think if something is a well-remembered hit it will stay. I mean, look at the public perception of the Bizkit now…I could look it up nationally, but I figure it’s probably just two or three of their songs that still get played on Active Rock…
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: I just hear those kinds of schizo mood swings in the format from year to year, and I wonder if there’s one audience that likes them all, even if I probably like at least a
few songs from each era.
NotJoeysIM: But it’s generally the “hits” that test well and stick around, and if people think “Float On” or “Paralyzer” is lame five years down the road, they’ll fall by the wayside, regardless of
how big they were at the time.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Is there any song or band that people in your format seem to be really excited about right now, less established bands that people are kind of rooting for?
NotJoeysIM: It really varies from person to person…it’s not like a consensus that the industry is rooting for.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: I just wonder “man… who’s getting excited about Angels And Airwaves?” It’s interesting to me how most of the big famous rock bands now are ones that actually get pop radio play as much as rock, like Fall Out Boy and the Killers. Whereas a band like Three Days Grace can have rock radio chart topper after chart topper but a fraction of that fame or profile. And it’s not like 3DG or Chavelle are heavy metal bands who don’t make videos or anything.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Do you think AAA [Adult Album Alternative] is going to keep growing or if it’s going to stay as the kind of niche format it is now?
NotJoeysIM: It sort of has its own little world. It’s not a niche per se…and the AAA format is
sorta divided into non-commercial public radio stations (like WXPN in Philly) and commercial stations that are AAA.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: Right, so it’s an umbrella term for some very different stations.
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: You have anything else to add that you think we haven’t covered?
NotJoeysIM: Not really…
FlowerSniffinKittyPettin: If only you were willing to say [REDACTED] and/or [REDACTED] on the record.