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The Top 22 of 2020: #3 The End of Alternative?

With unimpressive ratings nationwide, significant course-correction is immediately warranted — or the Alternative Rock format is toast…

By Paul Marszalek

#3 The End of Alternative?

I don’t write this as a fan of new music, or person who’s programmed radio in a bunch of major markets. I write it as a stockholder. And as a stockholder, I simply ask, “How long are going to let this continue?”

It isn’t working. The Alternative Rock or Alt format is under-performing to the point of embarrassment – and everyone in the radio and music industry knows it — with the exception, perhaps, of a few senior programmers at Entercom and iHeart.

We could talk about the damage done by poor execution thanks to a talent puddle, or the lack of localization – usually considered a radio asset. We could spend time on lousy branding, such as Alt 92.3/New York hammering a “two-minute promise” of no more than two minutes of commercials per break.

After all, nothing creates word-of-mouth buzz quite like promising no more than two minutes of commercials per break.

Nah, all of those missteps can be overcome with creativity.

The Alt format has collapsed due to a consolidation of decision-making into the hands of just a couple of people.

Entercom’s KROQ and iHeart’s Alt 98.7 battle daily, like tired monsters Godzilla and Mothra, over a handful of zip codes in Orange County. 1 million listeners ping-pong between them in a war of attrition.

Amazingly, Entercom and iHeart export those products nationwide to an audience that, based on ratings, is clearly underwhelmed.

These SoCal-focused feeds sound nothing like New York, or anywhere else. Beyond the music, they’re boring. Entertainment in-between the songs is a huge advantage for radio, but commercial radio squanders that opportunity hourly.

Alt stations lack authenticity, telling audiences that they’re “Alternative” while pounding playlists that are bereft of anything from an indie label. Pre-COVID playlists were dictated by what artists were playing stations’ picnics or holiday shows. Tune in today to hear years-old TikTok pop tunes that sometimes sound ripe for placement in pharmaceutical commercials.

Alt isn’t Alternative. It’s corporate rock. Best described, it’s today’s equivalent of Collective Soul and Nickelback. Nothing wrong with those bands, but you can’t market it as Alternative.

You can argue that I’m wrong, but the numbers are on my side.

Alt stations with more than a two-share are increasingly the exception. KROQ is clawing its way back, but if and when it finally gets to a 2-share, it’ll be little more than a pyrrhic victory.

In New York, Alt 92.3 pulls an impressive 1 million in cume — but only converts it to a 1.9 share. What this means is that people want to like the station, but they don’t. They can’t stick with it.

Portland has lost a full share since sidelining Mark Hamilton. San Francisco re-brands Live 105 as Alt 105.3 and sends Aaron Axelson packing. Congrats on the 1.5 share. Was it really worth it?

A lot of this is just math: The 18-34 age cell isn’t all that big. To get decent ratings, you really need to grab a lot of those folks — and keep them. Stations need to over-perform in the demo in order to look good in Nielsen. But doing that with a rock-based format is made even more difficult with the 18-34 age cell being more diverse than ever. The target is too small.

To succeed, Alt needs to address everything above, and re-target to build a larger coalition of potential listeners. There are at least two ways to do that, and radio companies should be seeing it in their research – if they’re doing research. If you don’t see it, call me.

Look, I get it; times are tough. It’s hard to invest in product. But this isn’t about money.

Entercom and iHeart, Alternative isn’t dead. You’re just doing it wrong.

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