New formats in commercial radio could attract public radio fans

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Classical music, liberal-friendly talk programming and rock tunes couched in mellow ambiance might sound like familiar public radio fare. But they’re also three formats where some commercial competitors seek to stake a claim.

Corporations big and small are prospecting all three areas for profitability, prompting varied reactions from pubcasters. Some warn against getting too comfortable with the newcomers, while others greet them as business partners.

Coming in the new wave of would-be competitors:

  • Neo-Radio, a style of presenting contemporary music that, much like public radio, avoids hype and puts the listener’s desires first;
  • progressive talk, the left-wing’s alternative to Rush Limbaugh that recently got a boost when some Clear Channel stations began carrying Air America programming; and
  • a classical music network for commercial stations, under development by ABC Radio Networks and WQXR, the commercial classical station in New York.

Pubcasters are listening with interest but few express concern, and at this stage there are few clear signs they should fear the commercial ventures. Neo-Radio and progressive talk are relative newcomers, and the classical network is months away from debuting.

Yet commercial talk and classical formats already rank as pubradio’s stiffest commercial competition, according to Audience Research Associates data.

A sound that’s quiet — and oddly familiar

If you hadn’t heard of Neo-Radio but stumbled across it on your dial, you’d be forgiven for thinking a new public station had sprouted overnight. Neo-Radio deejays talk like regular people instead of shouting. They play songs uninterrupted from beginning to end without babbling over the final notes.

Neo-Radio, a phenomenon of the last two years, restricts itself to no particular genre. KBZT, a San Diego station that shares many listeners with public radio’s KPBS, plays alternative rock, but a Neo-Radio outlet in Denver veers toward Adult Album Alternative. Yet the stations share a common philosophy.

“We strip away a lot of the clutter and baggage and, frankly, a lot of the things the audience has told us they’re tired of,” says Paul Jacobs, v.p. of Jacobs Media.

Jacobs’ company, the country’s biggest consulting firm serving rock stations, is a leading proponent of Neo-Radio — it even coined and trademarked the term. Stations in San Diego, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland, Ore., are solidly Neo-Radio, Jacobs says, while others go part way.

With its focus on what listeners want, Neo-Radio owes a debt to public radio’s success. Whereas commercial radio’s cume has fallen 10 percent over the past decade, public radio’s has only grown steadily.

“There’s no question that in commercial radio people really respect what’s happening in public radio—as they should,” Jacobs says.

In a Neo-Radio manifesto of sorts, Jacobs Media highlighted public radio’s emphasis on core values.

“We look at things in a way that if it doesn’t benefit the listener, we don’t do it,” says Dan Michaels, p.d. of Neo-Radio KQMT in Denver.

Denver’s Neo station, KQMT, signed on in May 2002 and now ranks first in the market among adult men and third among adults overall, Michaels says. Max Wycisk, president of Colorado Public Radio in Denver, takes its popularity in stride. CPR’s news station has already shared significant audience with local commercial rock station KBCO for many years, he says.

“That’s just a natural kind of sharing,” he says. “It’s not competition.”

In San Diego, the audiences of KBZT and public station KPBS overlap significantly. The Neo station is KPBS’s primary competitor for listeners age 25 to 34, says John Decker, KPBS’s p.d.

KPBS hasn’t lost audience since KBZT signed on in November 2002. But the overlap between the stations suggests the Neo team “is indeed on to something,” Decker says. “Whether it’s significant enough to make waves in markets, it’s showing up in our book.”

Rather than take on KBZT, Decker sees opportunity in cooperating. In July he talked with its staff about cross-promoting the two stations.

The public radio station raised some eyebrows recently with another cross-promotional campaign — this one involving Clear Channel, which was publicizing KLSD, its new progressive talk AM station in San Diego.

Clear Channel stations in 10 markets have adopted the progressive talk format, which is built around the lefty talk shows produced by Air America. A Clear Channel spokesman says five more are on the way.

Cliff Albert, KLSD’s p.d., told the New York Times that market research in San Diego indicated much of his potential audience also listened to public radio. KLSD made no bones about pursuing that audience when it launched a two-week underwriting campaign on KPBS.

Some in public radio wondered why KPBS would so readily feed listeners to the competition. But Doug Myrland, g.m. of KPBS, saw the situation differently.

“We thought we really have nothing to fear by accepting their underwriting,” Myrland says. “There may be elements of their attitude or their point of view that appeal to some people in our audience. But it’s not at all like public radio. It’s talk radio.”

What, me worry?

Meanwhile, ABC and the New York Times Co.’s station, WQXR, are at work on their classical network. Its debut is planned for early next year, with the classical station producing and ABC distributing.

Tom Bartunek, g.m. of WQXR and a former distribution director at NPR, watched radio companies buy up and sell off many of the country’s commercial classical stations in the 1990s. But he sees classical music as a viable and distinctive format that broadcasters may want to adopt, especially where there are no full-time classical stations. Digital broadcasting’s audio-quality upgrade on AM stations could also make some of them potential outlets, he says.

Classical music consultant Bob Goldfarb thinks public radio stations that air classical music have little reason to feel threatened. Commercial broadcasters would be unlikely to pit a new classical service against the few all-classical public stations in the country, he says. And dual-format news/classical stations can still perform well even in markets with commercial classical competitors, he says, citing WETA in Washington, D.C., as an example.

Others echo Goldfarb’s confidence when sizing up Neo-Radio and progressive talk. Bruce Warren, p.d. at WXPN in Philadelphia, says formats of all stripes have come and gone in his city, but public radio’s audience has only grown.
“If you’re always thinking about responding to what other stations are doing in your market, then you’re losing touch with your listeners,” he says.

Sounding a more cautionary note, consultant Arthur Cohen says new alternatives could chip away at public radio’s audience, and the field should respond by taking more risks and staying relevant and interesting to listeners.

“You can’t just rest on your laurels,” he says. “You can’t assume that you have this audience forever.”

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