Survey Says

Are Denver listeners getting the radio they deserve? A Backbeat investigation.

I. Purpose
Radio, in Denver and most other American communities, is more segmented than ever before. Demographers and marketing gurus have a tremendous say over what music stations broadcast--so much so that the actual quality of the material that gets played usually is less important to media executives than the type of individuals to whom it might appeal. This approach is beloved by advertisers, who like the idea of showering their pitches upon a captive audience of customers apt to buy their products, but it's led to growing dissatisfaction among everyday listeners. A mountain of anecdotal evidence argues that people up and down the age, class, gender and race spectrums believe that radio in general has become too boring, too monotonous, too homogeneous and--given the proclivity of stations to broadcast strictly governed classifications of music--too narrow in scope. Rock signals specialize in only one sort of rock, country in one sort of country. And so on.

In an effort to learn more about some of these issues, we decided to conduct a survey of locals who commonly tune in area radio stations. The procedure we settled upon is somewhat less scientific than any given episode of MacGyver, but despite that, we hoped our amateurish study would illuminate how people listen and gauge their eagerness to check out disparate styles of music. Specifically, we wondered: Is the average person resistant to material that differs from the genres to which they listen most often? Or are they more open-minded than the decisions of music directors imply?

II. Hypothesis
We bet on the latter theory--that if exposed to high-caliber songs in an assortment of categories, most people would react positively. This implies that the main reason radio stations are so monotonous is not because listeners pigeonhole themselves, but because radio stations do the pigeonholing for them.

III. Materials
To determine what ditties to play, most commercial radio stations conduct what are known in the industry as focus groups. Testers assemble a slew of people at a common site or use telephone-polling techniques to quiz listeners who fall into the age and gender range that bigwigs wish to target. For instance, an outlet that wants to attract advertisers interested in reaching middle- and upper-income women listeners between the ages of 18 and 34 will question only members of that group. But such a tack tends to separate people; we wanted to bring them together, in an effort to determine if they shared any musical common ground.

Before moving ahead, then, we needed to find a cross-section of folks who would submit to interrogation. Since the size of Backbeat's budget would not permit the hiring of the George Gallup organization (it barely covers the cost of paper clips), we quickly realized that we required a small sample group made up of listeners who are scrupulously candid and opinionated yet also fairly typical of a great many others. Hence, we settled on twelve people--six males and six females--in six age divisions: younger than ten; ten to twenty; twenty to thirty; thirty to forty; forty to fifty; and above fifty. In blatant violation of the tenets of polling, these participants were not selected at random. In fact, many of the respondents were acquainted with the author of this article; one is his son (see sidebar, next page). To ensure that age and gender would be the primary variables, we tabbed only Caucasian volunteers from middle-class backgrounds.

It was our belief that these methods, although a bit quirky, would not entirely invalidate any conclusion we might reach. By carefully nominating individuals we believed to be representative of a large number of Denverites, we felt that we might unearth some interesting and instructive details. Okay, we're naive--but we're earnest.

Next, we chose six songs intended to embody separate radio genres. Nothing too obscure was designated, in order to demonstrate that stellar popular music is readily available in virtually every musical bracket; one does not need to be an archaeologist to find it. To undermine the arguments of those burnt-out listeners who insist that the only top-notch music is old music, we picked contemporary cuts, recorded from 1993 to 1996. Most important, we did our best to ensure that the tracks were, in our subjective opinion, good--first-rate examples of various styles that are seldom, if ever, heard on the same Denver radio stations.

The final collection and the radio divisions they are meant to symbolize:

1. "It's Good to Be King," by Tom Petty, from his 1994 solo album Wildflowers. Classic rock and/or Adult Album Alternative (Triple A).

2. "Steppin' Out With My Baby," by Tony Bennett, from his 1993 disc Steppin' Out. Easy listening and/or nostalgia.

3. "Killing Me Softly," by the Fugees, from the 1996 CD The Score. Urban and/or contemporary-hit radio (CHR).

4. "Santa Monica," by Everclear, from the 1995 offering Sparkle and Fade. Album-oriented rock (AOR) and/or modern rock.

5. "I Ain't Never Seen No One Like You," by George Strait, from 1996's Blue Clear Sky. Country.

6. "Come On in My Kitchen," by Cassandra Wilson, from the 1993 platter Blue Light 'Til Dawn. Jazz and/or blues.

IV. Procedure
These six numbers were recorded in the order noted above on twelve cassettes. The tapes were then distributed to the survey participants along with a letter thanking them for their assistance. They were told to listen to the tunes at their leisure. Studying them was not necessary. We wanted to come as close as possible to duplicating the radio experience.

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