Why does commercial music radio suck so bad?

Why does commercial radio suck so bad?

I’m in a medium sized radio market on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It’s always the same songs over and over again hammered to death in strictly defined “genere” cohorts. Country, oldies, 70’s, 80’s, power rock etc. etc. There are hundreds of thousands of wonderful songs in the world and yet only the narrowest slice of music gets tapped for a beatdown until everyone is sick of it.

In “If I were King” moments I think to myself that I could program better song selections than the ooze that occupies practically every number on the dial but would people be appreciative of my eclectic wonderfulness? Do the masses really want mind numbing sameness song after song? I can’t believe they really do.

Is this the only commercial radio model that makes real money? Is it because advertisers will only pay for precisely targeted demographic groups? Why is it just so awfully awful?

Ratings, pure and simple. People prefer to hear what they’re familiar with (and avoid music that’s challenging). You program that and you get the most listeners for your money.

If you try to leave the mainstream, you’re playing to the wrong ends of the bell curve.

Here’s an article in Salon that describes one of the problems. There are a few more that Salon did but I can’t find them right now.


Reasons you’ve cited, and the fact that the FCC has loosened rules about how many stations one entity can own.

Lots of stations across the dial are owned by the same couple of companies - Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel Communications.

Unlike TV, where the number of stations is ever-growing, and the internet, which can grow essentially boundlessly, radio is limited to a relatively small number of bands.

You really have just a couple of players owning most of the dial in many markets.

What’s even more depressing, in an article at MSNBC that’s now gone, is that some stations have DJ’s that pretend to be local by taking shows from other markets, editing out local references, adding new local references, and shipping them off. It’s about 1/5 the cost of a real DJ.

A station in Boise, ID, has every show but one that way - they tell people to call in when they can’t, have had interviews where people lied about where they were, etc.

When I read the thread responses I started to lament the death of decent commercial radio. Even though I was too young to appreciate free-form when it was in it’s heyday…I have heard tapes of some great shows from the likes of Jonathan Schwartz, The Nightbird, Rosco, et al.
WFUV, in NYC (college radio) has a progressive format weekdays and personalities like Vin Scelsa do some great shows (Idiot’s Delight).
Your post reminded of a Song by a folk artist, Mike Agranoff, who metaphorically compares the death of radio with the dropping off the ball in Times Square on New Years Eve 1969. Here are the liner notes & lyrics…

When the broadcast room’s a living tomb of cracked acoustic tiles,
And you’re left alone with your microphone and your playlist and your dials,
And the hands upon the studio clock pass midnight, creep towards one…
Then it’s time to take the air once more; the graveyard shift’s begun.

The day shift and the engineers have all left hours ago.
You close the heavy soundproof door and set your board aglow.
Cue the first two records up; settle in your chair,
Uncap and flip the “transmit” switch, and you are on the air.

There’s magic in the radio, enchantment in the ether.
A power born of mind and brain, and yet a part of neither.
A power to be reckoned not in kilowatts or joules,
A means to let a single voice touch half a million souls…[Edited out middle 40 paragraphs and complete liner notes due to copyright rules followed on this Board-Czarcasm]

…There was magic in the air that night, enchantment in the ether.
A power born of craft and pride, yet so much more than either.
And all across the country sat the overnight hard core,
And shared the Sandman’s magic, till at twenty after four,
He stopped to say goodbye, as they were breaking down the door.

New Year’s Day dawned cold and grey with just a touch of sleet,
And many a jock by nine o’clock found himself on the street.
Me, I came off cheap. A reprimand was all I got.
But New Year’s Night, a new voice broadcast from the Sandman’s slot.

Since that night the radio’s become my occupation.
I’m now a big-shot D.J. at a major FM station.
But when the hours start to drag, and the night is going slow,
I cue up an album side, crank up my headphone stereo,
And tune into the Sandman… now on National Public Radio.

When the broadcast room’s a living tomb of cracked accoustic tiles,
And you’re left alone with your microphone, and your playlist, and your dials,
Though the airwaves seem a graveyard of lifeless whitened bone,
There’s always someone listening, and you’re really not alone.

2 reasons.

  1. Because pop culture public tastes suck so bad.
  2. There is no need to spread the wealth when you can keep it all in the family. If Clear Channel is in bed with the record companies who only release and promote a few new bands each year, the ones that they predict will be hits, then it’s much easier for everyone involved to just work with a manageable volume of similar-sounding material, avoid risks, and suppress independent/indie attempts from bubbling up to the surface. Or at least decline to give them a chance. If they happen to make it big enough to get a following, the big boys will offer them a contract anyway, so let someone else take the risk initially.

Commercial radio starts making sense when you stop assuming that the music is important. It’s not a venue for music. It’s sort of like the American school system - it’s nonsensical until you realize that it’s not intended to impart knowledge onto people.

Radio isn’t a medium for music, it’s a medium for commercials. The problem is, no one will tune in to commercials, so they play music in between them. And the music has to have one purpose - keep many people from turning off the radio. Not to sell records or give exposure to artists, though that’s a side benefit the record companies get from it. The radio station doesn’t care if it’s making hits or helping new bands, they just need to sell Pepsi and Amoco spots. IT needs stuff that is familiar enough that people will tune in, but bland enough that they won’t bother to tune out. And they need to keep a majority of listeners tune in.

Radio is music by democracy. Just as government by democracy has resulted in a watered-down, bland product that is terrified of doing anything drastic, so is radio.

Most people are trapped deep inside a cave, where they are chained in place, and there’s this fire behind them that projects images onto a cave wall. What most people perceive as the reality of good music is actually very far removed from the eternal form of good music. The people in the cave only see the shadows on the wall. They are confounded by the images that manipulative record companies are carrying around behind the fire, which projects images onto the cave wall that confuse and amaze the prisoners. The people are unable to recognize the mediocrity of this distorted reality. As far as they know, Kid Rock is better than early REM and Aerosmith is more brilliantly creative than XTC…that is, for those of the cave dwellers who have even heard of XTC. Some of the cave dwellers even believe that Vanilla Ice invented the tune for “Ice Ice Baby”. :rolleyes:

so I get these calls periodically from a pollster asking me my opinions on the latest “alternative” rock. You know the drill, rate the song 1-5 and are you somewhat tired, very tired or not tired of hearing it. I hardly ever give anything a 4 or say i am not tired of hearing something. I have never given a 5. When will they start listening to me?

Whats worse, I am allowed to say that i am not familiar with the song. In which case I have a sneaking suspiscion that this is a flag for the stations to NOT play the song, even though I would put up with ANYTHING, once, as long as it wasnt beaten into the ground. Hell i’d even listen to a new Creed song, once. Well maybe not, but I would listen to a new Kid Rock song, once.

For what its worth there have only been 3 “5” songs I have even heard on commercial radio the past 3 years (1 great song a year, thats depressing.) they are:

Tangerine Speedo
Voodoo. <— Thats the only one that got airplay. Its also the ONLY song i have ever NOT got tired of listening to on the radio. Its a damn awesome song.

Why do they suck? I think part of it is the companies are in bed with the labels, part of it is bad public taste, but also, a lot of it is just lazy or scared program directors. If some of them just grew a pair we might hear decent music. Here in Orlando 104.1 has a 3 hour slot on saturday nights they play amazing music on (like, indie except from bands i have at least HEARD of.) Of course thats when no ones listening anyway :slight_smile:

I havent listened to commercial radio in several weeks. Heck I listen to public radio classical because they have better selection, altho not as good as i would like, far too much beethoven and bolero not enough baroque and renaissance. That and college rock stations on the internet but thats only at work where i have broadband.

When they ask me what stations i listen to in the poll, I tell them “90.7, WMFE, and 90.5 WBER.” I dont tell em that WBER is actually in Rochester and I listen on the web. they never figure it out.

If this were a post about fat girls, I wouldn’t have to say this. But it’s not. So I do.

Tastes are subjective. Other people may like something you dislike.

Thank you, and goodnight.

From one of my favorite sites (fyd.fuxored.net):

Radio could be doing a lot more than it is for the benefit of society, but hey we aren’t communists are we?

Actually the pop culture public is not that bad, its just that the guys in suits decide what is played on the many groups of radio stations that they own in their multiple markets, not the DJs (too bad). The sad part about it is that the people who decide what gets played often isn’t selected on musical merit.

You want to know why the music sucks? It’s because of the system between the major labels and the stations (I’m talking a top-40 station, now more like top-20). It all goes back to who buys the music from the store- teenagers, they buy by far the most music of any age group and industry leaders bend over backwards to get their business. This is the reason why we have these terrible corporate excuses of bands, which find their way to the station as “the next thing” (which is really the last thing). If people actually show that they like a CD by buying it then the numbers will eventually make their way over to the station. A very good example of this is the “O brother where art thou” soundtrack which sold 3 million copies on word of mouth, with virtually no marketing support from the label or spins on radio. It was only after winning the best album of the year at the Grammy’s that it began getting spins in Chicago during the coveted “drivetime” slots. People are tired, very tired of today’s music. Just wait, big changes are coming and heads are starting to roll. Good music will win out eventually.

(sorry to pick on you sidle)

You are generally right, but the record labels do release and promote a lot of bands- promoting some more than others. The fact is that labels barely break even every year (now they are beginning to lose money) because 90% of bands they release fail to recoup the cost of making the album which is generally in the neighborhood of 250k-500k for an unknown artist. Its the 10% that make it (break even, maybe a little more) and the 1% of the Britney type that brings in the cash (again its a preteen/teenager market). You know by and large who gets the short end of the stick? The artists, but thats an entirely different topic- take a look at a typical recording contract sometime, its VERY exploitative.

As far as the indie labels go, they are becoming more and more scarce, because as soon as they begin to turn a profit they are usually bought up by a major (BMG, SONY etc.), and you may not even know that the label is technically no longer an indie.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there is a very large change in store for pop music. The record/radio industry as we know it is imploding under its own weight of bad taste, and the executives are just beginning to realize that people are not stupid and that they actually have decent musical taste, no matter what they promote and spin through their outlets.

Ride out the storm, good music is coming back to the airwaves just give it time. Until then go buy a Radiohead album.

I can’t stand commercial radio. The only radio I own is a small battery powered one I keep in my emergency kit.

Then again if there IS an emergency, I highly doubt I’ll be in the mood to listen to Pink.
The ONLY radio I listen to now is indie internet radio like www.ampcast.com/radio - the music and DJ’s are indie and it’s so much more fun to listen to. Plus you have direct interaction with the DJ’s via chat. Oh yeah… and no FCC to bother the DJ’s with content.

It makes regular radio seem tame and boring.

the age old process was this: Cume listeners(or long periods of time per day listeners) are the minority…the majority of listeners are usually measured in 15 min. increments(for ratings purposes)…on any given day your audience may ‘turn over’ multiple times. SO you can play a condensed playlist of only the TOP songs and MOST people won’t get burned out (in theory)because they’re not ‘constant’ listeners. Unfortunately, for those who would like to be constant listeners the burn out factor goes through the roof. However, if the ratings show it works—it’s gonna be the rule. Because ratings gets business $$ and that’s the bottom line. The rest of us suffer as a result!

I actually like zombie threads sometimes. It’s interesting to see how things have evolved in sixteen years. Commercial radio is probably still terrible, but now we have a lot more ways to hear new music. Whether that’s led to better quality of music available, or even more diversity, is debatable. However, I know I can find enough I like to listen to, and so I can at least pretend that the terribly generic stuff that is popular doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Popular” however is not necessarily comparing apples to apples these days. It is easier to get into the Top 10 albums these days than it was before because the biggest selling albums sell a lot less than they did in the early 2000s because of the ability to stream, the ability to buy singles, and the ability to find new music.


Thread relocated from IMHO to the newfangled Cafe Society.

And ampcast is now gone.

lol…remember back in the day when radio was almost still relevant?


one of the last great stations on earth.