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Is iPod killing the radio star?

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MTV’s airing of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles, in its 1981 debut, marked the beginning of radio’s demise. Through 1990s, conglomerates bought up the market, limiting listeners to several stations playing essentially the same songs. The popularity of iPod further eroded the market share, and stations are responding by changing their formats… and pretty much anything goes.

A local station in the Bay Area is playing “whatever,” while another advertises it’s “anything goes.” You shouldn’t be surprised to hear Avril Lavigne alongside Radio Head, or the Talking Heads, or Talk Talk or even Gwen Stefanie. And eighties music is making a comeback, but it’s nothing like the 1980s format. Once 91X, a modern rock station in San Diego, played a Quiet Riot song to the disdain of listeners who tuned in to hear the latest English Beat song. Anomalies of that sort didn’t happen often back in the 1980s, but, today, one regularly hears Depeche Mode and Van Halen in the same hour. That’s not eighties music; that’s a mutation.

While one might call the new format progressive–we don’t need no stinking categories–one might also call it desperate… a desperate attempt to recapture the market from iPod. It’s what’s on those personal playlists, stored on your iPod or mp3 player, that’s giving stations the idea to play just whatever.

A typical playlist on an mp3 player is eclectic. It reflects the personality of the owner. My mp3 player features the entire catalog of Johnny Cash and U2 alongside albums from Black Sabbath and early renaissance composers. Streaming radio is even more eclectic, as services allow users to establish a theme around which he or she selects songs. You’d be amazed at what you get mixing the Go-Go’s with Bob Dylan.

Radio is anxious to catch up, mimicking what it thinks is on your iPod. The new format is clever, but it’s still radio for the masses. It’s the same old thing, only more random, and randomness has nothing to do with choices. For the new format to work, it has to reflect the personality of either its listeners (good luck) or else its programmer. In the latter case, radio will have to give its DJs the freedom to really choose, and not just from some pre-assigned list of hits across the ages. (I swear, I’ve heard the same damn Nirvana songs on nearly every station.) The question remains: Is radio capable of personality?

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    I listen to the radoi more out of habit than I do out of desire. This week I am gettting the FM transmiiter so I can listen to my iPod in the car, that should about do it for entertainment. To be fair, WMNF in Tampa is so eclectic, I actually do find new groups to listen to from their broadcasts. A radio station like that is morethe exception than the rule though. Once I lave here it will be almost entirely iPod.

  • Eric Olsen

    there are the “Bob” and various other “name” stations, which are wildly eclectic as well. Good observations Mark and I agree it’s the iPod mentality, along with the rigidity of commercial radio narrow-casting, that is driving this change. Thanks and welcome!

    I move this over to Culture because it’s more about media (ie radio) than it is strictly about music

  • Pete

    …once I bought an iPod, I stopped listening to radio except for news, traffic, and weather. I’ve grown weary of the twenty song rotation and radio personalities w/out personality. I’m not sure who came up w/the idea of playing a song to death but s/he should be put in a room and forced to listen to a week’s worth of programming (ack)…

  • The recent format shift of New York City’s venerable rock oldies station, WCBS-FM to the “Jack” format bears mentioning. WCBS was an institution for over 30 years, with pretty much the same playlist until fairly recently when it expanded far more into the 70s and even early 80s for content, but its main claim to fame was it was the successor to the old great NYC Top 40 stations, and many of the personalities from those stations (Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram) were the on-air talent. Unlike most oldies stations, WCBS did have one unique program called “The Doo-Wop Shop”, which was probably the most in-depth deep dive into that genre. That program was sadly killed off within the last few years.

    Not that WCBS was perfect – the playlist was criminally ignorant of the Stax canon, and the Yardbirds probably never got an airing there. Lots of stuff that should’ve never been resurrected (The Bobettes’ “Mr. Lee”, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack”) got played all too often, and hearing an Otis Redding song other than “Dock Of The Bay” was an impossibility.

    However, WCBS was at least for a rock station in NYC, relatively well-positioned. The last Arbitrons that I could find had them at #8 (for comparison, WAXQ, the classic rock station where most of the old talent from the glory days of WNEW-FM and WPLJ ended up was tied for #15). I’d imagine the demographics of WCBS-FM’s audience were turning advertisers off, as a good chunk of that audience remembers Elvis from the first go-round. However, that brings up an interesting comparison. WQXR, NYC’s only classical commercial statement, is way down in the ratings, tied for #18. WQXR’s demographic is veering dangerously toward the Polident and Depends crowd (however, it’s also the upper income opera attending crowd from the Upper West Side that WQXR’s corporate parent, the NY Times, caters to). As to the Times’ motivation for keeping WQXR operating, I can think of several possible options (it’s perhaps the worst classical station I know, overly skewed towards opera in my perception, heaven forbid your tastes in the genre run to Baroque), but surely on an apples to apples bottom-line basis, there’s more justification for a format change at WQXR than at WCBS (and mind you, I am not advocating anything of the sort – commercial classical radio should be there, especially in NYC. It’s just that WQXR is stodgy and annoying to listen to).

    Then again, I gave up on classical radio when WNCN’s second incarnation vanished, and on rock radio when Infinity killed WNEW-FM. There isn’t and hasn’t been a commercial jazz station in listening range of NYC in living memory that’s heard of Sonny Rollins or Stan Getz. Sigh…..


    I listend to WCBS and WABC while growing up. Being able to hear Led Zep, Little Feat and Willie Nelson all in the same 1/2 hour led me to a much wider appreciation of music.

  • The radio station that services my nearby college town, Davis, but located in Sacramento I guess fired all of their DJs. I went away for a weekend and found nothing but music and no live human voices. It was strange, but it was nice to wake up to music than the mindless words of DJs in the morning. I think radio still has a market where I think music can still find audiences based on location than just similar genres and bands. Some music can really be appreciated in specific locations (but still liked elsewhere). Bands have homes, and with the countless new bands out there, local radio is still the place for them, not just with zeroes and ones hoping that someone will click on them.

  • In Missoula, MT, where I live, there is a great radio station, KBGA that has real live DJs 24/7. We play what we want, but are required to play one or two songs from a selected rotation per hour durning the hours of 6AM-6PM. After that, anything goes.

    If it wasn’t for KBGA, I wouldn’t listen to the radio anymore. The corperate crap that is constantly pushed upon us by Clear Channel et. al. is repulsive and monotonous. And the DJs know nothing about the music they play. Or they don’t care.

    I too miss the days of when the DJ DID play music he liked, and was able to get excited about a new band he just discovered. The days of a DJ breaking a band are over. ASnd it is a shame.

    As far as radio being able to compete with iPod and Podcasts and streaming radio online or even satalite radio — if they don’t re-think their business model, they are doomed.

    Even talk radio knows it’s in trouble, as evidenced by Clear Channel’s recent Radio Free Ohio debacle.