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Technology Offers Challenges to Radio

BY JAMES NASH

For radio to prosper in the age of the iPod, it needs to reach people such as Megan Delehanty.

The 21-year-old University of Southern California student listens to music at least three hours a day, regularly shops for used compact discs, browses music-oriented Web sites and has thousands of songs stored in her iPod.

What about radio? Delehanty said she would barely listen each day, if it weren’t for her part-time job at KDLD-FM (103.1).

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Struggling with stagnant revenue and audiences, radio stations in Los Angeles and across the country are grasping for ways to appeal to listeners such as Delehanty. They offer non-music programming for instant download, limited advertising and experimental formats that jump from genre to genre. But Delehanty, who is completing a degree in music, remains skeptical.

“All of my friends have filled up their 40 gig iPods (holding roughly 10,000 songs) and that’s still not enough for them,” said Delehanty, whose own employer, known as Indie 103.1, appeals to a loyal audience with a play list that ranges from familiar artists such as U2 to obscure ones such as Macrosick.

“Radio is trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and since I have other content available to me, I don’t think I have to tolerate playing the same song twice in an hour and listening to someone yelling,” she said.

Delehanty added, “It’s almost like they think the listeners aren’t as smart as we are.”

With more than one in five Americans between 18 and 28 owning an iPod or other portable MP3 music players, radio faces unprecedented competition from devices that allow people to function as their own program directors.

Radio boosters say they aren’t worried, noting that iPods are no more a threat than vinyl records were in the 1950s or CDs were in the 1980s.

Indeed, a study by Arbitron Inc. and Edison Media Research found that owners of iPods and other digital music devices listen to radio, on average, 2 hours and 33 minutes each day, compared to 2 hours and 48 minutes for those who don’t own the devices.

Radio and digital music complement each other more than they compete, said Mary Beth Garber, the president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association. “They play very different roles in people’s lives,” she said.

Still, there’s little denying that the industry is mired in a slump. Total revenue increased less than 3 percent in 2004 from a year earlier, according to the BIA Financial Network. The media consulting firm projects growth of 3.3 percent this year.

While Los Angeles is doing slightly better than the nation as a whole in advertising and audience, the proliferation of new technologies represents a threat in all markets. In the past, a station’s competition consisted of other stations now it includes satellite networks, iPods and Internet audio.

“Radio is facing its greatest threat of competition in its history,” said Frederick W. Moran, an analyst for Stanford Group Co. “Prior to the dot-com bubble and the rise of the Internet, radio was a fairly unique and protected medium that expanded during periods of economic growth and held its own during recessionary periods. Since 2000, radio has failed to grow.”

While radio clings to its existing audience, it’s also losing ground to technologies that give listeners better sound quality, more power to select the music they like and even more portability.

Chriss Scherer, the editor of Radio Magazine, said broadcast radio will continue to have an audience of those who prefer the ease of listening to downloading music, but that audience is likely to shrink.

“Unfortunately radio is in a reactionary phase rather than proactively leading the way,” he said. “From the dawn of its existence, radio was always at the forefront of technology and now unfortunately that has changed.”

Many broadcasters are embracing new technology, if only out of necessity. Several local stations have been offering non-music programming for downloading from their Web sites, a technology known as podcasting. An even larger number of Los Angeles stations provide streaming audio on their Web sites. Due to copyright laws, stations cannot offer music via podcasting, but they can stream the programming on their Web sites, which is more difficult to bootleg.


Counterprogramming

Broadcasters also have tried to counter the iPod phenomenon by broadening their play lists beyond a single format. That approach drives the genre-hopping JACK-FM format, its more female-oriented cousin JILL-FM, and a new country and rock hybrid known as HANK-FM. So far, Los Angeles has only one of the three: KCBS-FM (93.1) switched from a classic rock format known as Arrow to JACK in March.

JACK skims the top hits from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, as well as recent years from the pop, rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop formats and then plays them seemingly at random. A song by 1970s rock stalwarts Led Zeppelin could be followed by a rap hit by the short-lived 1990s act Arrested Development.

To some listeners, the JACK format is just another corporate template that will quickly lose its freshness. Delehanty, for one, says JACK doesn’t offer her anything her iPod doesn’t. Jerry Del Colliano, the USC professor who taught a class Delehanty took last semester, said many of his students scoffed at JACK’s slogan, “Playing What We Want.”

“One of the kids said we can play anything we want on an iPod,” Del Colliano said. “We don’t want to be talked down to. We don’t like the arrogance of radio.”


More Choices

Jeff Federman, the general manager of the JACK station in Los Angeles, said the slogan was meant to be tongue in cheek. Federman said the approach isn’t so much a response to iPods as it is a way to give listeners more musical variety and more surprises.

“When you go into a bar and you hear hit after hit, it’s easier than putting a quarter in the jukebox and flipping through records,” Federman said.

KCBS has gained market share since switching to the JACK format. And while purists such as Delehanty prefer the eclectic approach of Indie 103.1, the station had less than half the market share of JACK-FM in the spring 2005 Arbitron ratings.

Delehanty said she finds no reason to listen to JACK as long as it plays only familiar songs. She would prefer to hunt for new music on Web sites such as Epitonic.com and Pitchforkmedia.com, which offer free music downloads, and Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes, a subscription-based service.

The sites focus on music from emerging artists who typically don’t appear on mainstream radio play lists. For example, Epitonic recently featured songs from The New Year, Enon, Blonde Redhead and The Capitol Years.

Delehanty said she has no bias against traditional radio, noting that she regularly listens to the station where she works as well as KCRW for its eclectic, story-driven program “This American Life.”

“The success of radio is going to be based on the quality of the content,” she said. “If the content continues to be relevant to the listeners, radio will continue to survive.”

Radio supporters say the medium can remain relevant both by embracing the Web and by playing up its unique strengths: real-time news, weather and traffic; interesting on-air personalities; and the ability to expose listeners to different artists and musical styles.

Said the Southern California Broadcasters Association’s Garber: “Radio still has a role in people’s lives.”


James Nash writes for the

Los Angeles Business Journal.

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