That was the Molotov cocktail recently thrown by a trolling editor apparently in search of combustible material (link not provided–no sense encouraging trolls).
He found it in the form of a rock consultant, who predictably wanted to defend rock’s reputation along with the sizeable cash flow it provides.
Unfortunately, two wrongs don’t make a right.
The question was silly, only posed to serve as an ignition source. Worse yet, the defense was misguided, failing to answer the question, or the more meaningful question behind the question.
No format has ever died.
Formats are like bacteria. They evolve faster than they can be killed.
Each format can be traced back through a series of prototypical formats that preceded it. Formats continually evolve while retaining a good bit of the previous formats’ DNA.
It’s just like natural evolution. We all can be traced back to the original primordial ooze, and some like consultants can be traced back with very few intermediate steps.
The only reason we distinguish between bacteria, cheetahs, and ourselves is so paleontologists know what drawer to store the bones in.
They even invented a fancy name: taxonomy. Taxonomy, the Dewey Decimal System of life, divides the natural world into arbitrary unnatural categories.
Not to be outdone, radio divides programming into arbitrary formats.
As far as we can tell, the original purpose of format labels was to help record companies decide which stations to call to work a record.
Format labels don’t help radio stations or listeners. We’ve yet to find a listener who decides to listen (or not) based on what R&R (R.I.P.) called the station.
As an aside, the fluid amoeba-like nature of formats makes the notion that people “create” formats a slippery one. One can author a label (think Mix, Hot Hits, or Jack), but only God can create a format.
Mere humans and consultants can only make Recombinant DNA and give it a name.
In the days before Mr. Mike translators counted, there were 10,000 program directors, all independent, virtually uncontrollable, programming 10,000 fire-breathing RF emitting entities all providing entertainment. At least the PDs thought they were entertaining.
That PD independence meant there were something like 9,999 different sounding radio stations.
Anyone in radio back in the 1960s and out of rehab will back us up on that.
He never fully succeeded, and as others reversed his efforts, radio started getting more and more formats, perhaps to help create more record rep jobs...and more lavish conventions.
While radio is now down to about five program directors, and an equal number of record reps, we now have 13,000 emitters, even 13,003 if you count successful HD stations, so the taxonomic task remains unsolved. Perhaps unsolvable.
Which brings us back to our bomb thrower and Rock.
First, Rock is not a format. It is a convenient–-some might even say lazy label that loosely describes a body of music lacking a meat-wearing lead singer.
Rock is to a listener what pornography was to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, they know it when they hear it.
More specifically, people know Hard Rock with the emphasis on hard when they hear it.
This notion that we can lump the Eagles, Alternative, and Metal all together, call it Rock, and then debate whether it is dying is as arbitrary as calling Archaeopteryx lithographica the first bird.
The second problem is using Arbitron ratings to assess the health of a format.
How can both stations soaring in the troposphere with double digits and stations clinging to the right side of a one share be assigned the same format? And be given the same health status?
Its like creating an “average” injury report for a bus accident with a couple of deaths, a few people with serious injuries, and many minor injuries.
“How’s everybody on board doing?”
This is the problem with the response of Rock’s defenders. To “prove” that Rock is far from dead, they point to a few highly successful Rock stations:
But if Rock is dead, you're going to have to explain that to Greater Media in Detroit and Philly where their two Rock stations are usually Top 5 25-54 adults and often higher.
A factually accurate statement that says absolutely nothing about the health of Rock-–like highlighting the bus accident’s minor injuries and ignoring the deaths.
Last month WCSX had a 5.1 and WRIF had a 4.5 share (insert Arbitron disclaimers here).
A total of 84 other Rock stations didn’t fare as well. The average station scored a 3.7, and half of the field were below a 3.6. Seventeen stations couldn’t crack a 2 share.
Hell, the leading Classical station beat 39 Rock stations, and the Classical station is found on the left side of the few remaining analog dials!
Ah, the warm glow.
Other rock defenders channeling Mark Twain reminded us that there has always been talk of formats dying. (You post-literates need to Google: “Reports of my death are greatly”)
That defense misses the mark as well. Like Mel Gibson, all formats go in and out of fashion. Even if formats never die, debating the health of a format is legitimate and something the industry should do more often.
To really assess the health of Rock or any other format, we can’t just point to a few highly successful stations. It take a much more thorough examination of all the stations in a format, and over time.
An exercise that we will illustrate in our next post.