Beer Summit: The Relevance of Radio

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“What’s your favorite radio station?”

It’s a question that most music fans used to be able to answer almost without thinking. Whatever your favorite genre, there was probably a local station you could count on to deliver the goods. You listened in your bedroom and in the car; you knew the DJs like they were your friends; maybe you even waited by your stereo, tape deck at the ready, to record your favorite song or capture that moment when a brand new song from one of your favorite artists reached the airwaves for the first time.

Things have changed, to put it mildly. Listener frustration with radio is nothing new—hearing songs you were tired of or didn’t like was always part of the bargain—but as focus groups and corporate mergers have crowded variety off the dial, new technologies have afforded music fans with dozens of new alternatives. Whether it’s Pandora, Rdio, or an iPod stuffed with mp3s from your favorite blogs that we’re listening to, the fact remains that we have greater control over our music than ever before.

So where does radio fit in all this? It’s a big question, and to help untangle some of the issues surrounding it, we turned to two people who have plenty of experience with the industry: Bruce Warren, program director for Philadelphia’s WXPN, and George Howard, consultant for Wolfgang’s Vault (Paste’s parent company) and former president of Rykodisc.

This conversation we’re having today grew out of a Twitter exchange from a few weeks ago. George, in essence, you said that brands like Daytrotter and Paste matter because they offer a curatorial service that radio lacks—and Bruce, you sort of took issue with that.

Howard: [Laughing] I can’t imagine why.

Paste: So I wanted to get you guys together to discuss this in a less constrictive setting, where we could talk about the challenges facing radio and what you expect to see in the future.

Howard: It’s a good topic, and I’m sorry for my lack of Twitter etiquette. I do remember that tweet, and I think I did sort of come around and add some caveats—stations like XPN do serve a curatorial purpose. But yeah, again, Twitter.

Paste: Bruce, what do you think are the main challenges facing radio as a whole? I know there are a few caveats that do apply to your station in particular, but let’s start by identifying the issue in broad terms.

Warren: It’s the competition, you know. The multi-platform world we live in offers music fans—consumers—more choices than ever. So the question facing radio, and XPN and its peers in particular, is how to figure out a way to meet people’s needs where they are.

I think the starting point is to recognize that that exists. The historical radio model is still the bulk of our bottom line, but again, you have to meet people where they are—whether that’s on Twitter, or Facebook, or through downloadable podcasts, or any number of things, that has to become part of your world. Your consumers, your fans, are going elsewhere for stuff, and that’s something we have to recognize.

Personally, I’m not radio-only. As a user, I’m all over the place—I’m familiar with Daytrotter, and I follow up to 500 music blogs a day, so I’ve created a virtual world of musical discovery for myself, of which radio is an important part. And that’s my whole thing—there are people out there going, “The Internet, the Internet, the Internet,” but naturally, I’m a cheerleader for radio. I’m gonna stand up and say “Don’t forget radio.” But at the same time, there are these other options that people have a lot of respect for.

Paste: Do you feel that stations like XPN have been victimized by the broader segment of the industry—the Clear Channel part of the dial—that has created the impression that radio doesn’t really care what you want to hear?

Warren: I don’t know, and I say that for two reasons. I’m a realist, so I guess on some level that’s happening, but on the other level, I wake up to the world of XPN listeners and potential fans, so I realize what kind of value we’re offering.

Paste: But when most people think of the radio, they aren’t necessarily thinking of a station like XPN.

Warren: No, you’re right. They’re thinking of, you know, a song like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”—on commercial radio, in Philadelphia, I can tell you it’s in heavy rotation at Hot AC, Top 40, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the hip-hop station started playing it. So yeah, I think most people think of commercial radio as a place where the same 40 songs are played 10 times a day.

Paste: George, you dealt with radio from the other side for many years, as a label head trying to get your artists onto those playlists.

Howard: Yeah, and it was an interesting dynamic. Being on the supply side, people like Bruce were the ones who were the gatekeepers. Bruce, I suppose you have a cognitive sense of the power you hold in terms of what labels will do to get your attention—you must, at this point. But the amount of time spent in marketing meetings with the promo guys to figure out how to do that, it was…in hindsight, it was sort of crazy.

That was eight to 10 years ago, so a lot has changed. But at the time, before the Internet sort of took over, pre-social media and streaming, there was really no other way to get the word out. You had press and you had radio. And I think the reason I got so excited about social media when it started to emerge was because it filled that gap. The big misnomer about social media is that fundamentally it’s anything new, and it isn’t. It’s just about the ability to shift the burden of promotion from the company that’s creating a product to the audience—you know, fans sharing with their friends. It extricates the middle person.

So when I was at Ryko, Bruce was a middle person of sorts, between us and the fans, and I think the big threat to radio now—and the big opportunity for the labels—is that people will sort of go around that middle person. But we’re at a really interesting moment, with Apple’s introduction of its cloud service. I wrote an article for _Paste where I discussed the features I was hoping to see from it, and the one thing I remember saying that I think was sort of any good is that all this streaming is a very lonely experience.

That’s what bugs me. I do all this work by myself in an office, and when I’m just streaming something, I deeply and profoundly miss the interjections of a DJ. Some kind of communication. So for me, the ideal service would provide not just a curatorial service, but a contextualization—like XPN provides. I think that’s what we’re missing. I’d like to see some streaming service start to weave that in. If I could program my own stream and pull from this DJ, this news report, and intersperse that? That’s when I think we’re on to something. I don’t know how you do that…

Warren: Yeah, there aren’t really any technical challenges around that. That’s possible. But it comes down to the legal stuff, which, as you know, is a major challenge. As to your point about contextualization and curation? Yes, that’s what great radio stations can do. What great DJs can do. And actually, I think it’s what great music websites can do.

Let’s use Chris from Gorilla vs. Bear as a really great example. Just imagine the site as a radio station. Every day, I’m getting amazing curation, and also contextualization with that. I don’t have as much of a visceral experience as I would if I tuned in Dan Reed on WXPN every day from four to seven, but as you said, that virtual world is essentially lonely.

Paste: I want to get back to what you were saying about gatekeepers, George—those middle people. The Internet sort of leveled the playing field in that regard, but there’s room at the table for everybody. And when you talk about it in terms of bands and musicians building a sustainable career, yes, radio is less a part of that now. New bands are always asking me how they can get their record on the radio, and I always tell them that if you have a list of 10 things you need to do to have an impact on your career, you should put radio at the bottom—because, to your earlier point about the changes in the industry, 10 years ago I had access to maybe 30 new records a week. Now I have access to over 100—the competition is crazy out there. So to think you can rely on radio play to get your career going? It’s not as important anymore. But when it happens, it can have a lot of impact.

Howard: For sure. And I suppose there’s room at the table. It’s the old line about how the barriers have come down, and now, with a $1,000 laptop and the right tools, you can make a theoretically competitive-sounding album, so now we’re just bombarded with stuff. Daytrotter is getting to the point where it’ll be posting four sessions a day, with the goal of getting people to make repeat visits during the day, and at some point, someone’s going to get to the point where they can put a stake in the ground and say, with some authority, “You must listen to what we’re offering. You can’t miss it. We believe in this artist, and eventually our listeners are going to hear it.”

How do you do that in the social media world? I guess you have people who are influencers—if you’re following Zoe Keating and she says “I love this artist, check this artist out,” she can do that. But I can tell you the conversion rate on that type of stuff is de minimis_. Just because John Mayer tweets that you should listen to some artist, the actual clickthrough and effect is almost nothing.

Again, I don’t see any of this as new. Social media and blogs are just fanzines, and they have about the same level of influence.

Warren: I totally agree with you, and I’ve been saying for a long time that blogs are the new fanzines. But let’s get back to what you said about putting a stake in the ground and having an impact on someone’s career. How would you define “impact” at this point?

Howard: Well, I think it’s having a disproportionate influence in terms of being able to compel people to engage with an artist. I purposely didn’t say “buy their music,” because it can be more than that—getting them out to a show, or following that artist on Twitter. Whatever. Something that makes somebody, for one second, strip away the noise that’s coming at them from all these different directions and focus on an artist. To engage with them, listen to their music, add them to their Rdio playlist, go to their website. That would be an influence.

As far as the transactional component goes, eventually we’re going to have to face the fact that music has reverted back to where it always should have been, absent that weird blip from like ‘75 to ‘95, where it was able to sustain people financially by itself. It doesn’t. It can’t. It doesn’t work, any more than being a poet works. You’re going to have to do something else, and nobody wants to admit that—and I’m an optimist.

So anyway, you engage people with the music. Where it leads from that, I’m not sure. People have gotten mad at me for pointing this out, but as we move to a streaming model, artists who used to get $7 for a download is now going to get .0003 cents for a stream. That won’t work! You cannot monetize a career that way. So even with people who do have the influence to make these connections—I look at artists like Dawes or Local Natives, bands that sites like Daytrotter were able to have a hand in successfully promoting. You know, absent something like a Chevy commercial that’s going to bring in a bunch of money, these guys are working day jobs.

Warren: Dawes and Local Natives are good examples of bands that Daytrotter and XPN both share massive love for. But also, on a certain level, the tastemaker websites all gave both of these bands very early support.

Howard: I don’t have access, for good or bad, to SoundScan at this point. What did Local Natives scan? Do you know, Bruce?

Warren: I don’t. But if I just use Philadelphia as an example for both of those bands, within 6-8 months, just because of us putting that stake right through the heart of the city with their music—the last time Local Natives played here, they sold out two major venues. We’re talking 1500-1800 seat venues.

Howard: And that’s a really important point—that’s because of you. Undeniably, absent XPN, they’re playing to 50 people. But because of XPN banging ‘em, they get 1500. Now, I wonder—the next night, they go on to Annapolis or something, and now Philadelphia becomes an outlier. They aren’t playing venues that large everywhere, right? And that’s the power of AAA radio right there. But how many bands per year do you put that stake in the ground for?

Warren: I could say 20, maybe? But only maybe five of them actually connect.

Howard: Right—I was always on the wrong side of that. [Laughs]

Warren: What helps with Dawes and Local Natives is that they’re both excellent live bands. I remember a couple of years ago at SXSW, the buzz on both of those bands was intense because of their live performances. I’d walk past a Dawes concert and hear people singing along at the top of their lungs—people freaking out at a Local Natives show. So, you know, regardless of what any tastemakers say, bands have to deliver on that live experience.

Howard: I couldn’t agree more. And to return to your hypothetical list for that new artist looking to impact his career, I think numbers one through seven are a great live show.

Warren: Especially now that, as you say, monetizing these careers is becoming harder to do. At XPN, we always like to say we want to help artists quit their day jobs. You aren’t going to make a lot of money streaming your record, and you aren’t going to make a lot of money if you have 20 people showing up to see you play, so what else is going to be that differentiating factor?

The other thing is, there are often times that we really get behind bands, and play the shit out of them, and nothing happens. We look at SoundScan, we look at local ticket sales, we look at all the numbers, and sometimes I have to scratch my head and say, “Damn, we’ve been playing the shit out of this record for four months now, and nothing’s happening. What’s going on?”

Howard: It’s that moment where you guys play something, somebody becomes a fan, and for whatever reason, that new fan is able to convert three of their friends into fans. That’s when you get the orders of magnitude you need to be able to blast it out. If it’s just XPN banging on something, you might get 200 people, but until that shift…

And where is it? That’s the grail. I mean, Arcade Fire. Again, great live show, but at what point did that happen for them? Fleet Foxes. I’m sure XPN was early on them. At what point does that ripple out? I’ve thought about this from every angle. You know, maybe it’s the name of the band. Josh Rouse—not a great name for an artist. Never really had that ripple effect. Really good artist; should have been more popular than he was. I mean, he’s had a fine career, but he’s never really had that “Dawes moment.”

Figuring that out, reverse engineering how that happens, that’s what we’re always chasing.

Warren: Another band we’ve been having a lot of success with—and they’re also enjoying some success at the national level—is Fitz and the Tantrums.

Howard: Yes, and I have one or two people a week ask me if I’ve heard of them. I send them right over to the link for their Daytrotter session. That’s another one where it transcends you guys banging it out to just normal people who aren’t necessarily in the business saying “You’ve gotta hear this.” And kaboom! Why? They aren’t empirically better than bands that don’t do that.

Warren: There’s no scientific answer here. But it’s the song, it’s the live show, it’s the thing that causes people to spread the word. And it’s like that for us as radio stations, too. You can spend all the marketing money on awareness for a radio station—you can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on billboards and bus campaigns. But the number one way people discover new radio stations is word of mouth.

Howard: Of course—and this is the illusion, and maybe the problem, with social media. It’s where I think social media has gone off the rails. The promise of the medium was “I’m going to follow Bruce Warren so that when he talks about something, it’s almost like he and I having a beer, and when he says ‘Check out Fitz and the Tantrums,’ I’m going to listen.” But it’s been completely co-opted, and now it’s almost purely just another forum for press releases.

I try to avoid that, but we’ve reached a saturation noise point, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that we have IPOs starting. LinkedIn, Groupon—I imagine Twitter’s going to IPO. It’s a bubble and it’ll pop, and it’s not what it should have been. It’s not what I hoped it’d be. It’s not like sitting next to someone at a bar. It doesn’t do that. I wish it did, but it’s just noise.

It comes back, I think, to having a point of view. XPN has one, Daytrotter has one, and when you can find one that aligns with your psychographic…I guess that’s why some people read the New York Times and some people read the Washington Post. [sighing] I don’t know.

Warren: The word “psychographic” is really key, I think. Obviously, I’ve been in public radio for a long time now, and that’s what it’s all about—aligning your values with your potential audience. You know, it’s funny, we recently hosted a webcast of the Roots Picnic, and there was more than a handful of listeners wondering why XPN was broadcasting a performance with Wiz Kalifa and the Roots.

So there’s a piece of the psychographic in my head that says “Wiz Kalifa is fuckin’ cool, and our listeners need to know about him if they don’t already,” and to align ourselves with bands that are on the bill like Ariel Pink and Little Dragon and Edward Sharpe—all of whom we play—with the Roots, that was a cool thing. That’s a psychographic thing. That’s values. A sense of understanding a little bit more about the world around you; a sense of discovery. For me personally, I try and build a trusted circle of sources I share those values with.

Howard: The problem with that is that it can become something of an echo chamber. And I think that’s sort of the bitch about NPR, generally—the values are so tightly aligned, programmer to listener. Again, I think you’re an exception to that rule, and I think the Wiz Kalifa thing points to that. You know, taking Ariel Pink and the Magnetic Zeros, which are sort of all part of one thing, and then adding something that’s one standard deviation removed from that.

That’s good, because that’s how you stay away from the place where people go, “Dear Lord, if I hear David Gray one more time, I’m going to shoot myself.” You said the same thing at the top about Top 40 stations, with Adele or whatever. In theory, that’s where people run for the hills and say “I’m going to program this myself. It’s going to be Elton John into Jay-Z into whatever.” But then you get into your own internal echo chamber, and you’re just listening to things you’ve always listened to, and you’re sad and lonely.

At the end of the day, what we really want is to be turned on to something great that we don’t already know about. We want someone to send us some damn music that makes us feel the way we felt the first time we heard the Jesus and Mary Chain, or the Clash, or the Smiths—name your band. That’s what I want. That’s what I search for every day.

Paste: But do you think the majority of music fans feel that way, or are we part of a small minority?

Howard: I think that’s a human emotion. It isn’t just about music—it’s about stuff. We’re hardwired for it.

Paste: But then how do you explain, say, Adult Contemporary radio?

Howard: That’s for dentist’s offices!

Paste: Right, but there are a lot of really passive music consumers who are perfectly content to listen to the same songs they know, and will rarely, if ever, seek out something new. Do you think we outnumber them?

Howard: I think they’re wrong. [Laughter] No, and here’s why I feel that way: because the AC business model isn’t doing well. I think if you look at XPN, they have a pretty rosy future, and I don’t know that these AC stations do. As these streaming services grow, it becomes cheaper to stop paying ASCAP or BMI and just…

Paste: Have your administrative assistant bring in her iPod.

Howard: Exactly.

Warren: I have a sister who’s about the same age as me—she’s a year younger. I’ve tried to get her to listen to WXPN for years. We grew up listening to the same music, and at some point, we just split. She’ll call me up and say “Bruce! Yes are coming to town. Wanna go?” [Laughs] She’s just like me, sort of. We grew up loving and discovering music together, and she stopped. And there are a lot of people like her.

Howard: Of course there are. Yes, we are the minority. The people who still have that hunger. I mean, we have wives and kids—it isn’t rational to keep searching like this.

Warren: Right, we’re crazy. And it’s interesting. When I go to work in the morning, there are all these people, all these markets, all these conversations happening. But the only thing I think about is my conversation with our listeners, and how to build that community.

Yes, George, we have an incredibly rosy future. We’re going through an incredible period of audience growth on every platform, and we’re spending no marketing money. I think once people discover those trusted sources, if they can cut through the noise, they’re going to find stations like XPN, and they’re going to find sites like Daytrotter.

It goes back to your point about the voice. You need a singular voice that can cut through, and once people hear it, you’re going to be best friends.

Howard: I think it goes back to another word you used: conversation. The one book that’s informed my views on technology more than any other is The Cluetrain Manifesto, and it includes a chapter called “Markets are Conversations.” What happened was—to go back to those AC stations, and I don’t want to demonize them, but we’re using them as sort of a metaphor—is that there’s no conversation there. With XPN, there is a conversation. You guys are trying to program something so you get some feedback from your customers, and vice versa.

I hadn’t thought about this while I was preparing for this talk today, but I go back to the sort of loneliness of the online streaming experience. It’s that absence of conversation, perceived or real, and your growth, I would say, is absolutely consistent with the fundamental tenet that you view your market as a conversation.

That’s what social media was supposed to be—not a one-way discourse. And the people who get that right, those are the companies that work.

Paste: One idea we keep circling back to here is the notion of the “grail”—of somehow isolating that one thing that makes people stick to your site, or your magazine, or your radio station. It’s a natural instinct to want to figure that out, but it always has unintended consequences; at radio, it led to the rise of focus groups dictating playlists, which led to guys like me taking the antennas off of our cars.

We’re at an interesting point here. George, as you say, the conditions we’re facing aren’t new, but we are at something of a crossroads, where the new choices created by this technology can either lead to something really cool, or they can produce a new variation on the same old mistakes that contributed to the industry’s current problems.

Howard: As streaming music becomes more affordable—which will, again, make it harder for artists to earn a living—it’ll encourage people to get out there and try and become those trusted voices. Some of them will, and I think that’ll continue to erode at the non-conversational, focus-group-esque entities. And that’s not only true for music, but for movies, books, radio and everything else.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t always be Hangover II-type, focus-grouped entertainment, but there will be an increasing array of alternatives, and it will be easier to find them. I’m delighted to hear about XPN’s growth, and I think that rosy future will continue for the XPNs of the world, so long as there are people like Bruce at the wheel—people who understand that markets are conversations.

Brands, if they exist at all, exist purely because of trust. People trust XPN. You break that trust, and with the myriad of alternatives out there, they’re gone. And they’re never coming back.

Warren: Trust, authenticity, conversation. Those are crucial. And here’s the other thing. My boys are 14 and 12, and I want them to still be able to turn on commercial radio and hear something and say “Wow, this is great!”

Forget what we know about the stuff behind the scenes. Great radio is the ability to hear this voice—to take you to a place and turn you on to music. That’s an amazing thing. My kids listen to XPN, and they listen to Q102 in Philly. My 14-year-old loves Elvis Duran. He wakes up two hours early every morning so he can listen to the show. I love that! That’s a great thing. And I hope that his generation can still appreciate radio moving forward, because that’s a great thing.

Howard: But that’s what I mean about the technological challenge—and I don’t think I articulated it well earlier—of interspersing that voice into a stream. It’s sort of hard to imagine, but I don’t think it’s impossible for me, for instance, to say “I’m going to listen to X, Y, and Z this afternoon, but I’m also going to program in this Bruce Warren podcast that’s going to show up at certain points, and I’m going to hear him talking about something else.”

That would change things fundamentally, and I can imagine it working as an automated experience. Someone could go to the XPN website, and just sort of a la carte their way through—pick the things they want to listen to. The radio station that gets there first is really going to have something, because right now, whether it’s streaming or terrestrial, it’s still a model that was invented in the ‘50s.

Warren: Right. It’s ripe for reingineering.