Survey Says

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

Several weeks later, each person in the study was contacted individually and interviewed. They were asked about the radio stations to which they listened, and when and where they did so. Then we queried them about the songs, requesting that they rate them using one of three answers--"high," "middle" and "low." The "high" ranking: They actively enjoyed the tune and would definitely leave it on if it suddenly emanated from their radio. The "middle" ranking: They were interested in the tune on some level but stopped well short of exuberance. They would probably leave it on, though, or perhaps come back to it if there was nothing better on other radio stations. The "low" ranking: They didn't like it at all and would switch away with no intention of returning.

V. Results
In terms of listening habits, all twelve of those we grilled said that they listened to the radio in numerous locations, but the majority revealed that they did so most frequently while in cars. Perhaps because driving requires a certain amount of concentration, no one rattled off a long list of stations to which they regularly turned. Most switched between two or three outlets. Only one cited talk radio; three others mentioned National Public Radio programming. The rest stuck mainly to those rock and country outlets that repeatedly land near the top of Denver radio ratings. In addition, six of the twelve questionees delivered unprovoked diatribes about the sad state of radio in these parts.

As for the reviews of the songs they were asked to analyze, there's no denying it: Definite differences between males and females, and between those under thirty and over thirty, showed up in our tallies. Even so, our poll-takers as a whole proved favorably inclined to all the songs they were asked to preview. At least two-thirds of the voters placed five of the six songs in the top two categories, and even the least popular track received lukewarm-to-red-hot approval from half of those who heard it.

The Tom Petty composition, a wry, mid-tempo piece that was a minor hit a couple of years back, was among the best liked; it received six highs, three middles and three lows. It was preferred by males more than by females, and over-thirties more than by under-thirties.

Tony Bennett's version of the Irving Berlin chestnut "Steppin' Out With My Baby" got the highest marks on the board (nine highs, two middles, one low)--a testimony to his cross-generational comeback. In this case, there was little disparity between the critiques of males and females, or between under-thirties and over-thirties.

The Fugees' hip-hop recasting of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song" had a tougher time with our listeners, despite the fact that the cut has helped make this trio the break-out pop-music success story of 1996 (at press time, The Score was the second-biggest-selling long-player in the country). Here is where the segmentation practiced by so many Denver radio outlets really came home to roost. The song registered three highs, five middles and four lows. Females were somewhat kinder than males. Interestingly, all those under thirty were pleased with the single, in stark contrast to the reaction of over-thirties.

"Santa Monica," an Everclear rocker that's a staple on modern-rock radio and MTV right now, earned a trifurcated grade from the listeners (four highs, four middles, four lows); this ratio also held true for both under-thirties and over-thirties. Males were more enthusiastic than females.

George Strait's Blue Clear Sky remains in the top five in country album sales; "I Ain't Never Seen No One Like You" finds him taking an excursion into the type of Western swing that few current chart monsters do better. And although it seemingly has little in common with "Santa Monica," it produced the same total score--four highs, four middles and four lows--with males and females evenly divided. Over-thirties enjoyed it more than did under-thirties.

Vocalist Cassandra Wilson's "Come On in My Kitchen," a moody, evocative reworking of the Robert Johnson blues classic, was the most challenging of the six works on the cassette, and that's reflected in the responses: four highs, two middles and six lows. Males and females felt similarly about it, but over-thirties were considerably more patient with it than were under-thirties.

VI. Conclusion
Demographers can find plenty of information above to support their approach to radio: Men liked the two rock songs more than did women, people over thirty were more apt to savor the jazz/blues tune. But by our way of thinking, these particular males and females, whose ages vary from 7 to 71, were actually quite resistant to stereotyping. The two youngest listeners dug Tony Bennett; one of the oldest pair relished the Fugees, while the other gave a nod to Everclear.

These results are especially bracing when one considers that radio programmers have for too many years done everything they could to imprison listeners in a rigid caste system. It's impossible to know with any certainty how much effect such repetitive, high-tech conditioning had on this survey; our guess is that "Killing Me Softly," for one, would have fared better were Denver radio not such a rap backwater. Still, the data we collected suggests that average Joes and Janes would listen to a wider variety of music if given the opportunity to do so without having to continually scan the dial in an often futile attempt to find something fresh.

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