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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why does this matter? Because music has the power to promote greater understanding between people of different cultures and backgrounds. Because obtaining additional knowledge and experience can be educational, ennobling and mind-expanding. And because, simply put, it's fun.
The bottom line: Our experiment stands as evidence that listeners are not as stupid and predictable as music programmers think they are. Radio visionaries willing to acknowledge that fact are in for a pleasant surprise.
Nick Roberts, 7, a first-grade graduate. Is regularly exposed to a wide variety of music. Believes Elvis is the King but doesn't think Bruce Springsteen is the Boss.
Nicole Mourning, 7, a second-grader-to-be. Generally dislikes any music she deems "too slow." She likes Denver's urban and CHR stations.
Katie Teitsworth, 13, a junior high student. Father owns Ziggie's Saloon, a popular blues/rock nightspot. Country music is her favorite.
Jesse Opsahl, 19, a business student at Colorado State University. Most often listens to rock radio, modern or otherwise.
Dan Maguire, 25, a Vista volunteer and guitarist for a local band, Sly Choir. Enjoys modern rock and National Public Radio.
Maria Morris, 26, one of the few employees at Wax Trax who is not a member of a band. Her eclectic tastes include easy listening and jazz.
Michelle Kooi, 30, a CU graduate employed as an environmental consultant. Checks out a variety of rock radio stations; her car sports a Band du Jour bumpersticker.
Jerry Somerville, 33, a pre-printer for a major petroleum company. He hears rock radio on the job and enjoys catching both national and local acts live.
Rick Enstrom, 42, owner of Enstrom's Candy, a Cherry Creek store. He mainly listens to rock radio but wishes stations played more Frank Zappa.
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Kate McGrath, 43, a writer. She prefers to tune in National Public Radio stations, but her daughters often subject her to hit-radio programming.
Edna Stanek, 56, a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Denver. Her radio dial is generally set on outlets specializing in country, lite rock or oldies.
Rock Gunter, 71, semi-retired life-insurance executive and rockabilly/country performer. Fondest of those local broadcasters who play country and jazz.--Roberts