I was recently stuck on a long drive by myself through a less-than-scenic part of the country. For a time, I plugged my iPhone into the AUX jack on my Dodge Caliber, enjoying some of the radio apps we've created for stations as diverse as The Coast in Mendocino, as well as WWOZ, the great Jazz station in New Orleans.
But then I noticed the car entertainment system included satellite radio. And I hadn't listened for some time and had more than three hours left in my driving journey. And so I dug in.
And the good news was that I heard a lot of songs you simply don't hear on commercial radio anymore. And at times, that was exhilarating.
I perused many of the Sirius XM music channels, and heard lots of songs I simply had not heard in a long time. The Elvis channel was fun for a few minutes. (Where else are you going to hear the King these days?)
And by flipping though the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, First Wave, and Classic Rock channels, I was able to catch songs like these:
- Sam Cooke - "Wonderful World"
- Kinks - "Jukebox Music"
- Gene Pitney - "It Hurts To Be In Love"
- Stevie Ray Vaughan - "Empty Arms"
- Siouxsie & The Banshees - "Cities In Dust"
- Bruce Hornsby - "Valley Road"
- Bobby Darin - "Beyond the Sea"
- Moody Blues - "I'm Just A Singer"
- Michael Jackson - "Beat It"
- The Cure - "Friday I'm In Love"
- The Go-Go's - "Vacation"
- Johnny Rivers - "Seventh Son"
And this was just a taste of the songs that - at times, embarrassingly - I turned up the radio to excessive volumes. And conversely, when I heard songs that are quite common on commercial radio - Boston's "Long Time" or the Stones' "Miss You" - I kept looking for something a little different.
What's wrong with my list of "turn it up" songs above? Well, you can question my "guilty pleasure" tastes, but the reason you don't hear them very often on terrestrial radio is that they either don't test or there simply aren't mainstream formats that provide them a home. Yes, I realize that some markets have a Triple A station where some of this music may be heard. But in the main, there's simply not a place for most of this material on commercial radio, in spite of the fact these songs were all hits at one time or another.
If anyone understands how this process works, I do. I'm involved in music sorts where there's mounting pressure to not make mistakes in PPM or the diary. Thus, stations play the same 250-400 songs until there's money for the next test. In the terrestrial radio wars, it's hard to argue this logic because it just works.
But in the wider battles that we speak of frequently in this blog, this "play it safe" mentality is a big part of the reason why iPods and Internet radio have become more and more popular over the years. If you want to hear something different or new, it's less likely to happen on terrestrial radio. And perhaps as the competition becomes more diverse, this may be the smartest role for commercial radio to adopt.
For starters, the proliferation of free Internet radio is one of the reasons. Streaming technology has leapfrogged the subscription satellite model. And the control factor of iPods is another. Even though there are many more channels on Sirius XM than in any commercial radio market, it's still radio. On many channels, there is still a DJ, a format that emulates terrestrial stations, and no ability to control the experience or even to participate for consumers/subscribers. While there was an occasional listener mention, I heard no real connections to social media or audience interactivity throughout my several hours of listening.
But it gets worse. In order to find the aforementioned group of songs, I was forced to frantically button-punch among these 7 or 8 channels. It was nearly impossible to stay with any of these specialty stations for more than a couple of songs. They either don't make a lot of sense formatically, or they play lots of bad songs along the way (because they can, I suppose), and their categorization is just odd.
Who says consumers are most comfortable listening to discreet decade stations? Doesn't taste tend to run more genre or style based? And this silo approach to formats almost forces wild button punching because every channel gets monotonous after a short time.
And the DJs? They're no better than what you hear on commercial stations in medium markets. And maybe not that good. The production? OK, but not stellar.
So what provides value in exchange for someone's hard-earned money?
On top of that, some of the messaging is just lame. I heard a jock chiding "terrestrial radio stations" for playing stand-alone :60 spots and for not being adventurous enough. It made me wonder why there's even a reason to make these types of Brand X comparisons? In the same break, he inferred that it was impossible to go back to terrestrial after you've experienced the quality of satellite radio.
If that's the case, I've just done "the impossible." Once I got within range of Detroit radio, it was comforting to hear a local jock talking about what was happening in Detroit this weekend, providing Tiger updates, and playing listener suggestions.
Now if someone would just play "Industrial Disease."