There was a lot to talk about on radio in 2017. Amid a frantic news cycle, news/talk topped all formats 6+ for a second consecutive year. Looking forward, the format will likely remain blow torch hot, alongside further gains in adult-leaning music formats, particularly classic rock, according to Inside Radio’s panel of programming and consulting experts.
Alternative is also stirring conversation, both because of recent format launches by Entercom and iHeartMedia in a number of markets—and discerning what it may mean for CHR, which is suffering from a decline in ratings amid what some see as a weak music cycle.
Programming in 2018 also calls for some deep thinking on the part of broadcasters, including the importance of utilizing new forms of research to hold onto both listeners and advertisers in an increasingly fractured media platform landscape.
“Programming in 2018 is certainly much different than programming in 1983 when I started at radio,” says Tom Poleman, iHeartMedia’s chief programming officer. “At iHeartMedia, we now have the benefit of an enormous amount of user data coming from the iHeart [streaming] app. We look at thumbs, streaming and playlist data weekly as early indicators for what makes it on to broadcast stations. That, in conjunction with other third-party data and call-out research, gives us more intel than programmers have ever had.”
That use of ever-smarter data is now part of an industry-wide effort “to improve both the listening experience and advertising experience of our stations, with better content, more of it and a finite focus on the listener to push our numbers upward,” adds Cumulus Executive VP/Programming and Content Mike McVay.
And then—beyond data—there is the importance of conjuring new ways to protect radio’s assets. Meruelo Media VP/Programming Jimmy Steal suggests that in 2018, “As programmers, we need an intense out-of-the-box startup mentality to shake us free from our normal thinking confines. We’re living in a time of great disruption. We’re trying to satiate a generation who not only expects their content on demand, but also expects their favorite media brand to make a statement about its users. If Apple is ‘I’m cool’ and Nike is ‘I’m inspirational,’ what is radio?”
Keeping News/Talk Healthy In 2018
By the numbers, Nielsen’s PPM survey from January to November 2017 saw news/talk grow its 6+ share from a 9.6 in 2016 to a 9.9 in 2017. While not as big a leap as 2016’s 8.9-9.6 move, it marked the format’s second consecutive annual uptrend—one that most believe will keep it entrenched for the coming year.
“I think 2018 is going to be a very good year for news/talk,” offers Alan Burns, founder and president of the radio consultancy that bears his name. “The Mueller investigation is going to heat up and generate more news.”
In addition, Burns suggests that radio has an open invitation to foster greater interest from Millennials in the format, “if we can keep them involved and engaged in radio right now, and create some version of news/talk that is friendlier to their values.”
In fact, for N/T to continue its good fortune, broadcasters now need to look beyond the bravado that is pervasive across much of the dial’s news/talk stations. Says Dom Theodore, founder/CEO RadioAnimal Media Strategies, “The craziness of the news cycle could be a boon for talk radio if we are truly honest and authentic brokers of news. Conservative talk radio is still trying to figure out what to do about Donald Trump. The audience is fractured, between those who are ‘all-in’ on Trump no matter what he says or does, and the ‘principled conservatives’ who can't reconcile his behavior and populist tendencies with constitutional conservatism. I predict it's only going to get worse in 2018.”
Two suggestions then for the continued health of N/T radio in 2018. Offers McVay: “Listeners still want to know what’s happening every day as they start their day, but we need to encourage our talent to provide more than political talk. Change that subject line from politics to relevant talk.”
And then, says Townsquare Media’s senior VP of Programming Kurt Johnson, it’s all about local news/talk to make the format succeed. “Local is the key for news/talk. We do very well by focusing on the information appetite of our market. A great example is ‘New Jersey 101.5’ (WKXW), where our local air staff constantly talks to, with and about New Jersey—and the station is a perennial leader.”
CHR’s ‘Extreme’ Cycle
Looking at music formats in the year ahead, CHR is enduring what our pundits see as a dry spell—particularly when it comes to playlist tempo. And listeners have taken note. The format dropped from No. 2 to No. 3 in 2017, according to Nielsen, as AC took its runner-up slot. CHR back-pedaled in both 18-34 (12.2-11.6) and 25-54 (8.8-8.5).
“Most of our clients are contemporary pop music stations—top 40, hot AC, AC—and the music cycle for that segment, starting with top 40, is very weak,” Burns says. “Usually the fall releases give you almost a year’s worth of future hits, but fall  was disappointing,” including the new Taylor Swift album.
He adds that CHR “is not getting the kind of energetic tempo it needs to be at its healthiest, with Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Kesha and other ballads, all on top of each other. That could be good for hot AC, country and/or rock, which can offer more energy. It will also help mainstream ACs, because they can handle more slow hits at one time.”
Townsquare’s Johnson echoes challenges at CHR. His advice: “Well-programmed stations that are playing the hits and making great choices on point for their listeners will ride it out.”
Theodore is also concerned about CHR, telling Inside Radio, “Just as I predicted going into 2017, we saw the top 40 cycle continue to evolve into the extremes, with center-pop struggling and the ‘edges’ producing the bigger hits. So CHR is having to marry ‘Rockstar’ from Post Malone and ‘Perfect’ from Ed Sheeran, with very little in the middle to bridge the two sounds. I think we will see more of the same into 2018, with a pop rebirth on the horizon as the extremes become fatiguing.”
With ratings down, CHR programmers need to focus on developing core artists and recognize the overexposure of EDM, according to Greg Strassell, senior VP of Programming for Hubbard Radio. So now, “Apply filters: Does this song help develop a core artist? Does this song bring in variety to my list? Does it stand on its own as a legitimate hit?... There is a ton of data out there to support many songs; the key is to know your brand, know the balance, use your instinct and passion to balance.”
Meanwhile, just up the demographic dial, older-leaning music formats are doing well. For 2017, according to Nielsen, classic rock had a dynamic presence in 2017, expanding across all three major demos: 6+ (5.1-5.4), 25-54 (5.4-5.5) and 18-34 (4.5-4.6). Strassell says, “I have seen no abatement of the strength of classic rock, classic hits and adult hits. Classic rock has been embraced by a new generation who are looking for authentic rock.”
Adds rock radio consultant Alex Demers, “We still see tremendous upside in both classic rock and classic hits. While demo creep is a challenge, maintaining a contemporary presentation while still playing the classics has helped us introduce the music to a new generation of listeners.”
The Alt Movement: A Friend To CHR and Hot AC
And then there is alternative. The format fostered marquis headlines in November following Entercom’s back-to-back “Alt” launches in New York, Dallas and Orlando/Daytona Beach and iHeart’s “Alt” introduction in Detroit.
On a national basis, was there a lack of alt rock? Demers is going with yes. “The quality of new alternative music available has improved dramatically over the past several years and it’s taken the industry some time to catch up and build products to capture the attention of alt fans,” he says. “There’s no question that there’s an opportunity to develop a national ‘network’ of stations in a key, contemporary format, especially when it comes to developing partnerships to create special events and unique listener experiences with the music industry.”
Others are less convinced of an alt “phenomenon.” Sean Ross, VP/Music & Programming, Edison Research, offers, “It’s a franchise in any market, and the enthusiasm that owners bring to it will have a lot to do with whether it’s a 3-share franchise or a 6-share franchise.”
Adds Troy Hanson, Cumulus Chicago VP/Operations and the company’s VP/Programing Rock, “I look at the recent flips as being more long-term platform strategic reach moves versus there being an undeniable overabundance of hits at the format right now. Yes, it was lacking presence. It’s great to see the format living in all the major markets.”
McVay stresses that while modern rock may be seeing a format rebirth, “those alternative songs that do the best are those that are most mass appeal. Successful alternative stations are 60% male and 40% female in audience composition.” Indeed, those more mainstream appeal titles have the potential to lend a hand to other formats, as well—which could help the radio dial as a whole (hello, CHR).
Says Strassell, “Contemporary music fans are looking for variety and hits and they have found some of that at alternative. The doldrums at CHR may have sent some audience to alternative looking for variety… I am really hoping that it helps bring new artists to rock, CHR and hot AC.”
Hanson agrees: “I predict that hot AC will see a nice growth pattern with the aid of all the recent alternative flips… As the guitars have turned down a bit at alt, it allows more crossover friendly material, which has allowed for more females to sample that format, hence the large sharing between the two formats.”