By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
In early October, WBEL Beloit, Wis., switched from a ‘60s and ‘70s based Oldies format to a ‘90s-based gold approach as The Beat. It wasn’t a guaranteed win by any means. The first ‘90s station was launched nearly a decade ago, but the multiple working parts of the format (Spice Girls, Hootie & the Blowfish, Nirvana, Puff Daddy) still challenge programmers.
The ‘90s seemed more like one of those niches that was better satisfied somewhere other than an FM signal—even WBEL’s two FM translators. There was already Sirius XM’s ‘90s On 9 channel. And typing just “nineties” gets you about 50 different online radio stations and side channels at TuneIn.com.
But about three weeks ago, GM/owner Ben Thompson sent me an e-mail. “Response has been great. I stopped for a drink in Janesville Monday night with a friend. I got stopped probably 6-8 times at the bar with people asking ‘you’re from that new ‘90s station?’ Everybody was saying how it’s their new favorite station, and how they haven’t changed the dial in their car since they discovered it.”
That Thursday, there was an all-day business expo in Janesville, Wis., and Thompson had a steady stream of visits from advertisers “because they were already listeners.” Friday night, he went out and got approached again by strangers. (This time the bartender heard two people talking about the station.) People regularly tell Thompson that they sat in their car to hear the end of a song.
The Beat was added to a buy that already included two sister stations in the cluster because it was the only station a sponsor’s wife listened to. Another advertiser came back on board for the first time in a decade because he’d seen the billboards for the launch and had been listening ever since. A new sponsor tried to tell her friends about it, but they all knew. Another advertiser went in for a routine medical procedure and heard the station playing as the anesthesia kicked in.
Too much information? This isn’t a pitch for the all-‘90s format, although WBEL’s reaction does reinforce my already growing sense that the pop ‘90s are making their move now. The wonder is in that it happens. A radio station gave listeners music that was missing from the radio and they responded. They could have found the music somewhere else. But there was still something exciting about hearing it on the radio.
There is wonder also in the Big Radio operation in general—eight small-market stations that have more staff than some larger-market clusters. Every shift is hosted locally. There is a local news department. And the station has billboards, even in an unrated market.
To be clear, these aren’t the 12-to-24-year-old listeners whom broadcasters (if they’re honest with themselves) most worry about losing. The listeners who are excited now by the prospect of a Spice Girls reunion are from the last generation before file sharing, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora and Spotify. Top 40 radio couldn’t always figure out what music to play in the ‘90s, but only MTV existed as an alternative in their market, especially if their market’s CHR had actually gone Alternative. But younger listeners aren’t the only ones finding their music elsewhere.
But now consider Newcap’s CFXJ (The Move) Toronto. Two weeks ago, the Move was doing a rhythmic gold format—largely Hip-Hop and R&B throwbacks but also some dance and rhythmic pop. Last week, the currents came back. And at this moment of strength for R&B and Hip-Hop, and in the backyard of Drake, the Weekend, and Alessia Cara, that station heard from listeners as well. (In this case, it was a more than 100% rise in social engagement.)
Station launches are harder these days. There’s not always marketing behind them. With more competition and other shiny toys, the mere fact of adjusting your music cannot be counted on to galvanize listeners into spreading the word at the water cooler. For every story like these, there are other failures to launch.
But it starts with believing that the right programming makes a difference. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column called “What Top 40 Must Do Now” and got a few comments from former radio people that Top 40 had lost the attention of younger listeners and could never recover. We won’t know about that one until the records get better. But I’m still hoping the records will get better.
That’s why it’s important to hear stories like these. A radio station brought something amply available to the airwaves, and the audience still responded. None of radio’s other challenges disappear. But your sense of making a difference with the right programming doesn’t have to be one of them.