Numberscruncher: Who Needs the Radio?

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

When I was a kid, I had to listen to whatever the DJ picked.

One of the odder decade-end lists was Nielsen’s list of the most-played singles on radio between 2000 and 2009.  It’s a head scratcher – “Drops of Jupiter” got more play than “American Idiot” or anything by Coldplay? Usher was bigger than Beyonce or Justin Timberlake? In what universe?

It’s a list that reflects radio programmers who are out of touch with what real people are listening to. In the first decade of the 21st century, the radio broadcasters consolidated to make more money. Led by Clear Channel, which owns 894 radio stations in the United States, the goal was to offer standardized programming everywhere. Clear Channel also promoted concerts and bands, so it offered a seamless package for advertisers.

The problem is that the listeners revolted. No matter how many times they had to listen to it, a line like “the best soy latte you ever had” never inspired drivers to sing along at the top of their lungs. Besides, Clear Channel stations were so packed with commercials that one was lucky to hear a song at all.

So what happened? People at home turned to the Internet. Why listen to yet another ad for herbal impotence preparations when one could hear good music from Santa Monica or the U.K.? It’s ironic, because in the early days of the Internet, the thought was that radio was the perfect complementary medium because you could have it on in the background while you were online. Of course, that’s when we were all using dial-up.

Clear Channel, meanwhile, is losing money, although that’s in part due to debt and restructuring charges from a 2007 merger with Bain Capital and Thomas Lee Partners, two private equity firms. Sirius XM had 18.5 million subscribers as of September 30 of 2009, all of whom were paying about $10 a month (or driving a new car) in order to avoid the dreck of some Morning Zoo DJ telling poo-poo and pee-pee jokes. Sirius is profitable, although not by much; its $500 million contract with Howard Stern cuts into results a bit.

Apple introduced the iPod in 2001 and has since sold more than 220 million of the devices. They are used with iTunes software, which makes it easy for people to listen to their own music when they are at their computer, running on the track, or in the car. Radio Shack sells cigarette-lighter adapters for people with old cars, and most new models have a USB port. Even boring corporate Blackberries have music capabilities so that a road warrior can hear her own music in a hotel room, not whatever the local Clear Channel affiliate wants her to hear.

The result is that all the decade-end music charts are screwed up. They don’t reflect what people listened to. School kids didn’t learn about Soulja Boy on the radio; their friends told them to go home and find the video of the Crank Dat dance on YouTube. Then they watched Dora the Explorer do it. Radio never entered into the equation this decade.

Back in the olden days, the Clash, the Kinks, Rush, and the Ramones wrote hit songs about the magic of radio. That sub-genre of songwriting is dead. Clear Channel is dying.  Long live rock.