Pop's hit (and miss) parade

Triple-A strikes chord with disenchanted listeners

By Mike Janssen

One musical voice gaining ground on public radio sounds a little scruffier than the rest. Rather than a viola or sax, it bears a six-string axe and a heavier backbeat than your average chamber ensemble.

Triple-A, an eclectic format that blends rock, folk, blues, world music and other genres, has already proven popular and lucrative for stations such as New York’s WFUV, Philadelphia’s WXPN and southern California’s KCRW.

But smaller stations in fly-over country, inspired by the format’s major-market success, are also displacing jazz and classical music for newer musical genres that carry themselves like outsiders.

As a result, listeners may be tuning in to the sultry lilt of young chanteuse Norah Jones or the twang of O Brother blues rather than Mozart and Gershwin.

Jazz and classical fans may complain that bellbottoms and leather jackets are an awkward fit for public radio, but programmers enthuse about triple-A’s ability to lift slipping ratings and audience support.

“I think we’re really at the early days of something big,” says Ken Mills, a consultant who assists triple-A stations. “This is going to be good for public radio.”

Please, not “Stairway!”

Forty public radio stations air a substantial amount of triple-A music, according to data collected by NPR. That’s small compared to the number of stations devoted to news, jazz and classical music.

But triple-A’s presence grew quickly from 1994 to 2002 in sheer tonnage of airtime, as the number of pubradio stations ballooned, according to NPR. “Pop music” programming–a category including triple-A–grew 58 percent from 1994 to 2002. Folk and eclectic–both formats that overlap with triple-A–grew 59 percent and 150 percent, respectively.

As a percentage of all stations’ airtime, however, triple-A programming seems to have grown much more slowly. Pop music, as measured by NPR, grew from 7 percent of airtime to 8 percent.

A handful of smaller stations have added more triple-A to their schedules or moved to the format entirely in the last few years. They include WTMD in Towson, Md.; WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio; WOUB in Athens, Ohio; KTBG in Warrensburg, Mo.; KKFI in Kansas City, Mo.; and Maine Public Radio. Leaders of triple-A stations have started special-interest meetings at public radio’s major conferences and also trade tips about the format at their own “Triple-A Non-Commference,” to be held this year in Louisville, Ky., May 8-10.

Supporters of triple-A say it appeals to baby boomers who want radio to introduce them to new artists but also feel nostalgic for the oldies and classic rock of their youth. At the same time, they’re disenchanted with the ever-narrowing playlists of commercial radio stations.

“It simply is the largest unserved audience out there,” says Jon Hart, program coordinator of KTBG in Warrensburg, Mo. “You’ve got all those baby boomers out there who are disaffected by being asked to listen to “Stairway to Heaven” or [the Doobie Brothers'] “China Grove” one more time.”

Hart and other programmers increasingly cater to these frustrated music lovers, who have made their presence known by responding enthusiastically to even the smallest sprinklings of triple-A music.

Bob Boilen, director of NPR’s All Things Considered, noticed several years ago that the musical “buttons” peppering his show, many of which would qualify as triple-A, drew great response from curious listeners, who wrote asking him to identify them. In turn, he created All Songs Considered, a web-only music show that has gained its own following and led to several compilation albums.

“I love what I love because it’s what I heard when I grew up, and the influence of the bands I loved,” says Boilen of the music he selects. “I heard that living musical thread . . . It’s why people have always been fascinated with the damn buttons. They find a connection.”

But triple-A also draws the post-boomer crowd. Eighteen percent of public radio’s triple-A listeners are between 25 and 34 years old, compared with 13 percent for NPR stations at large. Only 15 percent are older than 55, compared with 39 percent of NPR’s listeners. And triple-A’s listeners are just as affluent as NPR’s audience, if not more so, with 34 percent having a household income of more than $75,000.

Evidence suggests these listeners also like NPR news. Stations such as Philadelphia’s WHYY and Chicago’s WBEZ share significant crossover audience with the triple-A outlets in their cities, says Bruce Warren, p.d. at WXPN. But unlike some public radio formats that perform well in drivetime but draw thin midday crowds, he says, triple-A is a strong midday format. “With a few exceptions, triple-A morning shows are not competitive,” he says.

Reviving limp lineups

Triple-A’s unique attributes endear it to programmers trying to distinguish their stations in markets where jazz, news and classical are already on the dial. Others have tried those formats themselves, failed to make inroads and want a fresh start.

Tim Myers, director of radio and interactive services at WOUB, watched audiences and membership support shrink for years for the station’s weekday-evening jazz. The listeners who were tuning in skewed older.

Meanwhile, triple-A weekend shows were drawing an enthusiastic response, as were the eclectic reviews and interviews with triple-A musicians on NPR newsmagazines. In October Myers replaced jazz with triple-A.

It’s too early to discern how the switch has affected audience, but Myers says his station’s fall fundraiser brought in more than its predecessors, roughly doubling the amount of money raised.

“It was really the listeners who were pushing us in this direction,” says Myers, who admits he was reluctant to abandon jazz after devoting such effort to it. “But we’re happy with the change and think it’s going to work for us.”

KTBG has doubled its ratings and more than doubled its revenue since switching to triple-A in August 2001, says program coordinator Hart. Jazz, a station staple for four years, drew too little support from listeners, and classical had flopped before that.

“If anybody is struggling, I think the triple-A format is perfect,” Hart says. “It completely fits the mission statement of public radio, and it answers the frustration that so many listeners have with radio now.”

No one has comprehensively assessed triple-A’s audience and revenue performance, but several smaller studies underline its strength. Warren says audience has grown steadily for full-time triple-A stations, according to his own comparisons of Arbitron data.

Three triple-A stations outperformed the system as a whole, according to a Lewis-Kennedy Associates study of fiscal year 2001 data from 84 stations of varying formats, even as revenue for the study’s music stations trailed the system’s overall growth. Donations and membership also sagged for the music stations, but not the triple-A stations, which included WXPN.

Not right for pubradio?

Such data are unlikely to sway triple-A’s detractors. Station executives always take heat from listeners when formats change, and the arrival of triple-A is no exception. WYSO’s decision to dump local jazz programming resulted in a web campaign, withheld pledges and a mock “jazz funeral” outside their studios.

Eclectic and contemporary by nature, triple-A can rile listeners who defend jazz and classical as musical treasures that deserve a mission-mandated slot on public radio. But Hart, Myers and others say that, like jazz, classical and NPR news, triple-A caters to an underserved audience.

“Don’t ask me to apologize for serving an audience simply because it happens to be in an area that’s popular,” Hart says. “It’s the most ridiculous thing to have to defend.”

Sometimes the outcry is too loud to ignore. Wyoming Public Radio in Laramie airs triple-A from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays following Morning Edition. It used to air classical in the afternoon, but an Audigraphics workshop with researcher David Giovanonni persuaded station programmers that the split format needed to change.

“That clearly is not the most enlightened way to program your day for consistency of appeal,” says Jon Schwartz, KUWR’s g.m.

Listeners supported triple-A more strongly than classical, so KUWR extended the format through the afternoon and “had an amazingly successful first book,” Schwartz says. “The cume was actually larger in the first hour of music than Morning Edition‘s cume, and the time spent listening had gone up.”

WPR is the only public radio station, and sometimes the only station of any kind, for some Wyoming listeners. People from all demographic groups lamented the departure of classical music, Schwartz says, and employees of the University of Wyoming, WPR’s license-holder, complained “this isn’t what public radio is supposed to sound like.” It didn’t help that commercial broadcasters who program contemporary music became jealous of WPR’s newfound success.

“Every sector of the state’s population seemed to have an opinion, and it wasn’t doing us any good,” Schwartz says. Triple-A succeeded statistically but lost the popular vote, and it was replaced with news–which, happily for Schwartz, also performs well.

Stations in markets with other public radio stations have avoided such extreme reactions, however, and Warren says the format can fall in step with public radio’s character despite its pop image. Using a buzzword of the moment, he says the “core values” of triple-A’s presentation speak to public radio listeners.

“It’s done in an intelligent manner,” he says. “They don’t yell at you. You have respect for the listener. The music is center stage. That’s a pretty major appeal.”

EARLIER STORY

In a Current critique, Dave Bunker listens to four national pubradio programs that define different slices of American pop music.

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