Today I'm glad to welcome back Jacobs Media's Keith Cunningham for a guest entry:
Has Rock Radio Lost Its Nerve?
Did you hear about the station that did a Mark Foley weekend? They gave away lotion, boxer shorts, and tickets to see Panic! At the Disco whenever an inappropriate text message was heard on the air. Is that crossing the line – or is it the kind of programming stations need to be creating?
Back in early 2001, I wrote a trade column that ruffled some feathers. The premise was that Rock radio was being programmed by the advertisers. You know what I mean – Rock radio was slowly but surely being forced to sanitize its product and handcuff talent in the interest of avoiding controversial content altogether – to please some advertisers. Economic pressures were building. I know I wasn’t the only one feeling the pain – most programmers and sales pros were there with me.
At the time, I had just resigned after programming a Top 5 market station that was #1 with Men 18+, and the morning show was beating Stern. My resignation was due in part to my GM telling me we had to "change" the morning show and the station because advertisers felt it was too controversial. Translation: The local distributor for one big beer client didn't like the station; he thought it was too risqué. That left me scratching my head and asking myself – how is it that advertisers want our audiences, and the audiences obviously want and love our stations, but now we have to change our big brands because a few clients think they’re too edgy?
It would have been more understandable if FCC fines were waiting in the wings or if ratings were in the crapper, but they weren’t. Sadly – Rock radio was caving to the pressure and beginning to water down its brands. Isn’t that exactly what Rock isn’t supposed to do? Isn’t Rock supposed to be rebellious? Isn’t Rock supposed to punch pressure in the face and tell it to “F*** Off”? Isn’t that what the listeners want and expect? For the record, that once Top 5 market, #1 with men brand did change - they let the morning show go across the street, they lost their edge in other dayparts, the ratings plummeted, and now it’s a Spanish station.
Would HBO do this? Would ESPN? Would Maxim stop being edgy, or cover up their models? Ironically enough, the same advertisers that were complaining about Rock radio being too edgy were advertising in Maxim and FHM, WWF programs, and in most other male-targeted entertainment.
It was clear to many of us back then that at the expense of listener satisfaction and the product itself, Rock was going limp; Rock was losing its nerve.
We all understand the concept of pleasing advertisers, but at what cost? If it’s at the expense of the listeners and the product itself, it’s suicide. And for years, while Rock radio was being self-censored, all of our non-radio competitors have been enjoying major success in creating edgy content for Men. And although satellite radio isn’t off the mat yet, we’re nuts if we think their attempts to reposition terrestrial radio haven’t been effective. Perception truly is reality.
And think about this: If you walk into any 7-11, you’ll find half-a-dozen magazines at eye-level showing partial nudity. Most of them sell millions of copies each week or month. But some radio stations aren’t allowed to show these types of photos on their websites. So dating back to around 2000, Rock’s white flag began rising faster than Foley’s pants in a teen chat room (sorry, couldn’t resist, but don’t repeat that on the radio these days, you’ll get in trouble).
And then the bomb dropped. Janet showed her nipple. I’ve never been so happy and pissed at the same time!
Janet's unidentifiable and not even fully nude breast, along with new advertising pressures, created a climate where Rock programmers and talent became scared to death of offending anyone. Then companies started telling DJs they would be liable for anything they may accidentally say.
I know I’m not saying anything that others haven’t thought or said before, but fast forward to today and the climate for radio hasn't changed much at all. But on the contrary, the lingering effect is that Rock radio has become even more milquetoast in many cases. And for what’s quickly reaching a decade, Hip-Hop has been the edgy and topical format for hipsters, not Rock. And even AM talk has more “edge” and ‘tude than many FM Rockers. Just click here to read a high-profile, LA Times piece on KFI’s AM Show host Bill Handle. The column points out that the controversial bent of Bill’s show has helped it achieve #1 status (12+ English) in Los Angeles for 10 out of the last 11 Arbitron Books.
So what prompted my coffee-induced diatribe today was that one of the stations I consult, 107.7 The End/Seattle, just did a Mark Foley Weekend. And as they were ramping up for the weekend, there were many who thought it was too racy -- many who thought it would be too risqué to do such a promotion. I understand where the concerns stem from -- but are we kidding ourselves? Have we really lost our nerve?
A Mark Foley Weekend is not too risqué or racy -- it's satire, it's funny, it's topical, it’s mocktacular, it's not actionable by the FCC, and it's not hurting anyone (except maybe an alleged Page predator). A promotion like that causes TALK – and we’ve got to do more of it.
And as I was running this debate through my head, it struck me so clearly that for the past five-or-so years, Rock radio has been handing all the laughs, all the controversy, and all the viral marketing to Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, SNL, Magazines, Cable TV, bloggers, AM Talk, Satcasters and Internet stations or websites.
And as we’re now seeing very clearly, big corporations are now chasing eyeballs on sites like MySpace, even though the content can be risqué and controversial. As has always been the case since the dawn of advertising, money chases a hot advertising vehicle. MySpace does not apologize for its content.
So, if you can’t tell, here's what's on my mind, and I’m sure it’s on many of your minds as well: Rock radio needs to stop being so paranoid and milquetoast. We don’t want FCC fines and we all know we have no clear definition of where ‘the FCC line’ is, but Rock needs to responsibly get its nerve – and swagger – back. If not, Rock radio may dip to being a 3rd or 4th entertainment preference with Men.
And for those that are curious, I followed-up with Lazlo after his Mark Foley weekend to see how it went. Here's what he had to say.
“The weekend went great. We forced ourselves into the conversation. Some complaints. Some compliments. The end result was talk. It isn't easy to get people to talk about radio anymore. T&A just doesn't cut it. It has to be smarter and more offensive. It has to offend some people on different levels. It has to attack party lines or a core belief system. If you are going to do it, really do it – push it. Lesbians making out isn't offensive. In today’s world it is sleepy.”
Kudos to Lazlo for having the Rocks to step-out and show some nerve. It’s working for The End, much as it’s working for Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. The more edgy and controversial he gets, the more his ratings skyrocket. Here’s hoping the type of stuff that actually creates talk will once again become the norm for all of Rock radio.