Final January, Larry Rosin, founding father of the radio consultancy Edison Analysis, tapped out the rhetorical equal of an SOS. “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that up to date music is in a disaster at American radio,” he wrote. Pop radio stations have floundered within the scores within the final decade, Rosin famous, whereas all issues traditional — “gold,” in radio phrases — are on the rise. “American music radio is quickly turning into a kingdom of gold,” he added. “One principally hears the hits of yesteryear.”
However one phase of the airwaves seems to be bucking this pattern: A handful of public radio stations devoted to enjoying new music have loved notable scores bumps lately — particularly KUTX in Austin, KEXP in Seattle, KCMP in Minneapolis, and, to a lesser diploma, WXPN in Philadelphia. Throughout this “disaster” for brand new music on the airwaves, these stations have excelled at discovering, and holding on to, listeners excited by the prospect of discovering a observe from an artist they’ve by no means heard of.
“As consolidated business radio conglomerates have sacrificed localism and numerous playlists within the curiosity of severely slashing jobs lately, it’s no shock that music listeners are turning to high-quality and numerous public radio options,” says rachel stilwella music and media lawyer who represents music business coalitions earlier than the Federal Communications Fee.
KUTX has led the pack within the final two years. For a number of months final summer time, KUTX was the second highest-ranked music station in Austin, in line with Nielsen scores, lagging behind solely KBPA (“Grownup Hits”). This scores prominence is a current improvement. Throughout 10 months in 2019, KUTX’s common ranking was round 1.8, that means that 1.8% of the town’s listening inhabitants tuned in. Throughout 10 months in 2022, that quantity jumped to five.7, leapfrogging Austin’s major pop and nation stations.
KUTX “hit a stratosphere no one has ever hit earlier than on this format,” says Mike Henrya four-decade-plus radio veteran and the founding father of radio consultancy Paragon Media.
A number of of KUTX’s friends additionally soared. As 2022 got here to a detailed in Seattle, the one music stations outranking KEXP play Grownup Modern and oldies. (KEXP’s common ranking grew from round 1.1 in 2019 to roughly 3.7 in 2022.) The 2019 common ranking for KCMP Minneapolis was round 2.8; in 2022 that grew to roughly 4.2. WXPN in Philadelphia has additionally seen a small bump in scores.
Whereas many new music radio codecs are seeing declines of their share of listeners, “we’re seeing non-comm radio audiences maintain — and in some conditions develop,” says David Safar, managing director for KCMP. And through a median week final 12 months, the entire prime 10 songs on KCMP, KUTX, KEXP, and WXPN had been from 2022.
Business radio’s rising aversion to new artists and cussed insistence on enjoying a couple of songs as in the event that they’re the final tracks left on earth was documented as early as 2007, if not earlier than. Representatives for the three largest radio chains didn’t reply to questions on new music’s position of their programming. However promotions executives level out that these stations are depending on promoting, and traditional radio knowledge dictates that listeners usually tend to fiddle the dial in the event that they hear one thing overseas to them. Because of this, promotions executives say many business stations could maintain simply 15 new songs (“currents”) in rotation at this time, with additional concentrate on a handful of precedence tunes.
On prime of that, business radio has by no means been extra untethered from its listeners. In 2017, the FCC eradicated the “most important studio rule,” that means radio firms had been now not required to keep up any presence in native markets the place they’d stations. Many selected to depend on much more on DJs voice-tracking a present in a single metropolis after which broadcasting it tons of of hundreds away. (Reps for the three largest chains additionally didn’t reply to questions on their help for native music.)
These shifts “opened the door for brand new individuals to find public radio,” which has been patiently ready within the wings, says Henry of Paragon Media. “It has huge playlists with selection put collectively by native DJs. It nonetheless performs plenty of new music.”
Public radio stations are non-profits; as a substitute of relying solely on advertisers, they lean on the largesse of their listeners, who typically present greater than half of their budgets. This forces these retailers to take the tastes of these listeners into consideration — ignore them, they usually’re prone to be stingy with donations. Matt Reilly, program director at KUTX, says his station performs a tune 20 to 25 occasions per week at most; in any other case, “we hear about it fairly shortly.”
Much less repetition mechanically means there’s room for extra variation. What’s extra, these stations take satisfaction in stepping as much as help unknown acts: “We add new songs that are not being performed by some other radio station wherever, not to mention in our market,” Safar says. At a time when radio promotion more and more looks as if a Catch-22 — stations will not play music that is not standard, but it surely’s arduous for artists to get standard if nobody will play their songs — non-commercial retailers are “the one type of publicity the place the sonics imply greater than the metrics,” in line with one veteran promotions govt.
Public radio’s fundraising mannequin additionally helps guarantee they continue to be defiantly native: The place higher to search out expertise and solicit monetary help than in your individual yard? There’s just one rule for DJs at KEXP in Seattle, in line with kevin cole, the station’s senior director of programming: “We play not less than one native artist an hour.” KCMP has performed the Minneapolis power-pop duo DURRY greater than 380 occasions this 12 months, for instance, dwarfing the spin-counts from the one three different stations which have performed the group.
Henry likens public radio’s current success to that of a long-running band lastly experiencing a breakout second greater than a decade into their profession. “So many of those stations have been doing what they have been doing for a very long time with out getting notoriety past vital acclaim,” he says. “It is cool to see excessive scores and get that exterior validation.”