Should the Mountain Go Public Instead of Oldies?

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Tracy Chapman, and other adult-friendly rockers, are finding a new home on listener-supported radio.
While 103.7 the Mountain has ramped up its classic rock offerings to try and grab a wider audience - largely as the result of a new measurement for tracking listeners, as I report in this week's Reverb Monthly cover story, "The Meter's Running" -- similar adult-rock stations across the country have chosen a different route: They've abandoned commercials and gone public, relying on their listeners to foot the stations' bills directly.

Marc Hand, a consultant who works with public radio stations, says Triple A- radio-speak for the format of stations like the old Mountain, which played new adult rock amongst a few classics like Zeppelin and Petty - is one of the fastest-growing sectors of listener-supported radio. Stations in Minneapolis, Dallas, and Philadelphia have made the switch, and retained local DJs that talk, play new music, and local music, something that's not as prevalent in commercial radio.

"It's almost that retro concept of people liking DJs that know a lot about the music (but) that doesn't have the same range as Pandora," Hand says. "And the fact that they do feature a lot of local music and are closely integrated wit the local scene--it's different in that way than just the music."

One reason the public option works for Triple A stations is same reason it's been a success at Seattle's Classic KING FM. Although the older-skewing audiences aren't as attractive to advertisers, they often have deep pockets and are willing to shell out -- as any doo-wop and Riverdance-fueled PBS fund drive will tell you. But the audience is less likely to wear the Portable People Meter, the pager-like device that Arbiton uses to track listeners, making it harder to show a large enough audience to advertisers.

"The demographic is less likely to participate in surveys in general, and then wearing the meter, we found out would not be the case," says Jennifer Ridewood, the general manager of KING FM, which went to a listener-supported business model last year, partially in response to the meter. "Unfortunately, if you're a commercial station, you're still playing in that game."

Of course, KEXP and its listeners have been enjoying the benefits of a listener-supported mandate for years. Andrew Corey, the station's general manager, says that their public status allows the station to curate directly at its niche audience rather than bow to demands of the critical mass that bring in commercial dollars.

"For a station like us, we don't make programming decisions based on what's going to drive the most cumulative audience," Corey says. "Our programming philosophy is discovery based. It really is not based on driving cume to sell to advertisers."

 
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