Why music radio is dying

The Rock face of the Music Radio island is eroding away, as station after station falls into the vast digital sea. Here’s a story in Radio Ink about how two FM rockers have been replaced by news and sports broadcasts that were formerly only on the AM band. (The illo for the story is a hideously discolored mug shot of the aged Mick Jagger.) But Rock isn’t the only music format that’s in trouble. All of them are.

For most of the last century, music and music radio were Xtreme symbiotes. To be popular, or just to be known to more than your local club or coffee house, you had to get your music on the radio. (For some great cinematic history on this, rent Coal Miner’s Daughter, just to see how Loretta Lynn established herself as a singer.) That’s because you also needed to sell what the radio played, which were recordings. All of those were on plastic discs.

Most music we hear is no longer on discs, or even on the radio.

Radio’s biggest advantage since the beginning was being live. This is why it’s still essential for talk, and especially for news and sports — the three formats that are winning on FM and keeping AM alive. Radio will remain strong as long as Internet streaming stays complicated (which it is, even on smartphones), and radios remain standard equipment in new cars. But music radio is still dying slowly. Three reasons:

  1. Music on radio is rarely presented by connoisseurs who know more than you do, and you’re glad to learn from. This in fact has been the case for a long time. There remain a few exceptions, but none (to my knowledge) make much money. By contrast, the Net is full of music connoisseurs and connoisseur-like offerings (e.g. Pandora, LastFM, Spotify).
  2. You don’t choose what music you want to hear. You can do that with Spotify or Rhapsody, and to a lesser extent with Pandora and LastFM.
  3. Advertising. We used to have no choice about enduring it. Now we do.

But music dying on the radio doesn’t mean it lives on the Net. At least not in the form of radio stations as we’ve known them. That’s because of copyright laws.

Radio has huge legacy legal advantages over all-digital alternatives on the copyright front. I won’t go into the details, because they’re complicated beyond endurance, but suffice it to say there is a reason why there are no podcasts of popular music. (Briefly, it’s that the podcaster would have to “clear rights” with the copyright holder of every song.) All we get is “podsafe” music, and music from outfits like the ones mentioned above, which have worked their own broad licensing deals with copyright holders — and from radio stations that enjoy similar deals and happen to stream as well.

Note that radio stations pay more, per recording, to copyright holders for streaming than they do for broadcasting on the air. But they get a break on the streaming side if they’re already broadcasting music over the air, because they don’t have to clear rights with all the artists they play.

The key here is the term “performance.” The way the law (in the U.S. at least) is set up, every play of every recording on the radio or over the Net is considered a performance, and the assumption by the copyright absolutists (the RIAA, primarily) is that copyright holders need to be paid for those performances. And they’ve been putting the squeeze in recent years on music radio to pay as much for performance rights as streamers on the Internet have been forced to pay. (They put those shackles on the Internet radio baby, right in the cradle.) This will also have a chilling effect on music radio.

So an irony of considering recorded music a “performance,” for the purpose of extracting royalties from radio stations on the Net and over the air, is that music on both is either going away or turning toward new systems, such as Spotify, LastFM, Pandora and the rest. But no new radio stations, on either the airwaves or the Net. Not if they’re going to play music of the RIAA-protected kind, which is most of what we know.

If the record industry were not immune to clues, it would find ways to open up opportunities for new music radio stations on the Net. But I doubt they will, until FM music is on its deathbed, just like it’s been on AM since FM wounded it.

Bonus links: Michael Robertson’s latest improvement to radio, DAR.fm.

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12 Responses to Why music radio is dying

  1. I tend to agree with you – as big as Atlanta is, it’s rare that I can find something on the radio to listen to. We have a dozen stations that cover 3 genres with the same playlists and a couple college stations that have real DJs.

    The stuff that gets played on a well-run turntable.fm station is FAR, FAR better than the stuff played, even in the same genre, by local clearchannel DJbots.

  2. TC says:

    Interesting article, but several of your assertions leave me scratching my head:
    1. Your overall thesis is unproven. Even the Radio Ink article, which only asserted the death of the rock format, was soundly rebutted by commenters. Your city may not have thriving FM rock, but Boston, Dallas, Austin, and Nashville, just to name a few, do.
    2. In many parts of the US, rock isn’t the dominant radio format anyway – it’s country, which tends to hold audiences better than top 40 or modern rock. (You didn’t make a distinction between rock formats, which again is a generalization that IMO weakens your analysis.)
    3. Your article completely ignores the influence of satellite radio and the explosion of its availability in cars in the US. If you want to know where those connoisseurs went, just tune into any number of Sirius XM stations.
    4. Related: If you want to guarantee that your FM stations don’t get those connoisseurs back, keep avoiding advertising.
    5. “All Songs Considered,” “Coverville,” “The Acapodcast,” and “Roots Rock Radio” (to name a few) and their hundreds of thousands of listeners might be surprised to hear that there aren’t any all-music podcasts on the Internet. Before you say those aren’t “popular music,” maybe that brings up a salient point (only underscored by the solid audience for Lee Douglas’ “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” podcast): maybe “popular music” isn’t all that popular because a lot of it is terrible, and in part because of the curators who dominate the record industry.
    6. I’m a little tired of hearing that licensing/copyright is destroying radio. If anything, rights on TV are even more tightly licensed, and more expensive, and yes, a lot of providers do choose talk, news, and reality formats, but it hasn’t killed creative content there. Instead, economic concerns have simply changed the cost and delivery models so that broadband and satellite now dominate, and the Internet eventually may even supersede that – and maybe that’s what’s happening to radio as well, just a few years later.

  3. Doc Searls says:

    TC, I won’t dispute any of your points, especially in the short term. My case if for the long one.

    I’ve been a radio guy since the turn of the ’70s, and i’ve stayed on the case even after leaving the business. I’ve been a Sirius subscriber since nearly the beginning, and I have about ten of their music channels (all connoisseur-hosted) among my favorites. You’re right that I should have worked them into my post.

    Frictions such as copyright (as it stands today, in respect to music) have a way of causing other innovations to occur. The workarounds are all interesting and good. In the ’30s, BMI fought (then all-powerful) ASCAP by signing and encouraging the playing of country, blues and jazz records on the radio. As you say in point #6, that’s where it’s going. Meanwhile radio as we knew it is dying, slowly. That other approaches to sharing music are emerging doesn’t change that fact (as I see it, anyway).

    I could say more but have some fires to put out. Thanks for weighing in.

  4. Ed Ryan says:


    Nice piece. As you can see by the comments under my article, those inside the radio industry get very riled up when when they get challenged. A more interesting view would be what the listening public thinks about the limited song choice, unbearable commercial loads and silly remotes from the car dealerships.

    Ed Ryan
    Radio Ink Magazine

  5. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Ed.

    Great to see you here. Radio Ink is an essential source of unvarnished news and frank opinion, and the best way I have of keeping up with a business I still miss. (Once a Radio Guy, always a Radio Guy.)

    As for the listening public, I don’t know for sure, but my personal observation is that they’re putting up with less and less of the same old crap.

    Example: today, while I was driving my fourteen-year-old son home to Boston from camp in northern Vermont, we listened briefly to an oldies station (Boston’s Oldies 103.3… his tastes are anchored in the ’60s… demographically odd, but I have no problem with it) and bailed when the ads came on. Then he picked up my iPhone and began to look up some of the music genres he had been exposed to at camp, to read up on them. Then he played one of his music lists off the family iPad.

    In the old days, we would have stuck with the radio. Now there are more choices. And with value-subtracts like the three examples you give, the competitors for time and attention tend to win.

    Rock on.

  6. tia says:

    I agree as well. I think the above mentioned format for rock had a really good run, the kind that most industries today dream of. As a result, it’s made executives of the largest firms adopt the “if it ain’t broke” mentality, jumping on new technologies and trends later than they should to maintain the audiences that came so easily before.

    It seems to me that if you’re going to try to compete with “choice” you have to quite literally blow away all possibilities of competition with your amazing offering. No one is doing that.

    I would say an exception to the death of this format is college stations. This is a place where you still hear local information, local advertising, local news, diverse music choice, and commentary actually informs the listener about a track( its artist, album, concerts, related music, etc).

  7. All these things are killing rock radio. But, radio in general is unrecognizable from what we grew up with.

    I grew up in a family that owned a small-market radio station in the Midwest. Even in larger markets at the time, radio was a community asset. It was a focal point for local news, weather, talk, music, sports, events. The farm reports of our family station would generate huge belly-laughs today, but they were important in the community. And, breaking local news events superceded everything else. The news director was authorized to go live from any event at any time.

    While music filled the bulk of the programming in sheer percentages of broadcast hours, the advertising revenue that supported the station was spread out over the day. That meant that the station didn’t place all its revenue eggs in the music basket – a basket that’s much more susceptible to whim and fancy. Though I don’t know for certain, I suspect that the real advertising revenue came from news, sports, weather, and those infamous farm reports. Those were the staple program offerings that everyone in the community was most interested in. While they had the radio on throughout the day for the music, they *listened* to the news, the sports events, the farm reports, and the community calendar.

    Which ties it all back to the community that’s missing in rock, talk or any other terrestrial radio in the 21st century. Most stations, regardless of the format, are indistiguishable by their terrestriality. It doesn’t matter where on the planet they broadcast their signals; they all sound the same. There’s nothing (or very little) local to preserve the community interest in a specific station. tia points out the lone exception – college radio, which seems to be training radio journalists for a broad coverage model that exists today only in the smallest single-owner stations.

    Podcasting does meet that community need in a vertical way, rather than the horizontal model of traditional terrestrial radio. Virtually all common radio formats are covered by podcasting. Music podcasting is something of a licensing minefield (an entire volume for discussion and fertile ranting ground), but many of us push through to create communities based on musical preference.

    But, music or talk or sports are only single facets of our experience. It’s hard to imagine how podcasting or the broad “McDonalds-ization” of radio will ever again bring together real physical communities with the full scope of coverage of the things that mutually interest us. Yes, rock radio is dying. But, the real value of terrestrial radio has been long gone for years.

  8. Doc Searls says:

    Hey, Tony!

    Great to see you here. And Amen to everything you just said.

    It’s sad, but it’s a life-goes-on kind of thing.

    What/where was your parents’ station?

    Everybody else, dig Tony’s landmark Roadhouse podcast. One of the earliest and best of its kind. “The finest blues you’ve never heard.”

  9. The station is KILJ (http://www.kilj.com) in Mt. Pleasant, IA. It went on the air in October 1970 as one of the few small-market FM stations in the region. It remains on the air today and continues to serve the community. They’ve added an AM, as well. They are, as I understand it, the only station in the state in which the owner owns only a single station.

  10. Doc Searls says:

    I just looked up KILJ several places. Looks like a nice little station. Is this the site your folks built? I do love Bing’s maps. Served by Linux, btw. 🙂

    I also see that they’ve been resourceful, engineering-wise. They’re on an old Class A (max 3kw at 300 feet) channel (105.5), but managed to get a C3 directional signal up with 24kw (dented to about half that to the west and north-northwest) at about 340 feet. (Here’s a Radio-Locator coverage map.)

    The AM on 1130 is 250 wats by day and 20 watts at night. But the ground conductivity in that part of Iowa is quite good, especially west and south of there, so I’m guessing it gets out pretty well, at least in the daytime. (Here’s what Radio-Locator shows.) They still cover the town at night, too, even with dim-bulb wattage. (Go ahead and grab the tower. You won’t feel a thing.)

  11. That’s the site. I watched that tower go up piece-by-piece in the summer of 1970. It just took a day for the actual tower assembly. Set a section, then ride the next one up – set it and ride the crane down.

    The signal is stronger than the numbers indicate. The Radio-Locator map shows Iowa City (my home) on the fringe, but it’s more than a fringe signal here.

    This is, as I said, community radio. The signal shows it, as does the longevity.

  12. Paul Spencer says:

    I agree with your points, however as far as not being able to choose…I look at this as a positive thing. I like the fact that I dont know whats coming next. This is really what makes something “live”. If you add that to a radio personality that can make things interesting I believe you will have a winning combination. In the end, its how entertaining the particular radio show is that will determine its longevity.

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