Pandora’s Out of the Box

Jerry Del Colliano posted up on his early years in radio faced with the prospect of canned music, comparing it to the challenge today of Pandora. There’s a lesson here for public radio:

Years ago one of the major market radio stations I programmed used syndication tapes from Drake Chenault. Every week at our studios off City Line Avenue near Philadelphia, a master tape arrived from Canoga Park, CA, with the new week’s current music tape that we simply slapped on a Schafer automation machine. But as a young program director I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I knew the owner was cheap — the company would have loved to operate today in the current atmosphere of repeater radio. But I didn’t. The thing that pushed me over the top was when I heard a song included in the “currents” tape called “Walking My Cat Named Dog” by Norma Tenega. This wasn’t even a one hit wonder (#22 on the national Billboard charts probably with lots of payola). It was just a wonder.

How the hell did it arrive for Philadelphia airplay? They had to be kidding!

I called our Drake Chenault contact, a great guy named Lee Bayley and said, “what was this!” No Philly station was playing it. No one even heard of it. A cat in Philly is not necessarily the same thing as a cat in LA if you know what I mean. Is this a Philly sound?

Seems like the syndicator was tracking it from LA and it wound up on the tape. I turned to my trusty associate Mike Anderson and said — get rid of this for me, will you — and he sliced it out — along with the other songs that we knew would lay an egg with local audiences. We were forbidden to do this at that point in time.

I mention this because Pandora has the secret to success in music radio. Pandora’s almost 50 million subscribers love customized radio partially because the formula Tim Westergren’s successful Internet streaming service employs is learning the tastes of listeners and comparing them to a set of genomes — or conditions that help Pandora suggest other songs they might like.

Meanwhile, back at terrestrial radio, it’s bad enough that 50 million people are in love with Pandora but local stations are doing the “Walking My Cat Named Dog” routine — playing the wrong songs for local listeners. That may have worked with satellite radio which was trying to steal terrestrial radio’s listeners — albeit it by asking them to pay for what they could also get for free. But it won’t work with Pandora.

Pandora is a powerful platform and smart radio executives give it the respect it deserves — after all their kids likely listen to it (or they may, also).

So how to compete with something this popular that is growing this fast? One thing, for sure, don’t play the same music over and over again in an era when audiences clearly have become accustomed to larger playlists. I know it is heresy for an ex-PD to say run a large playlist — and I’m not exactly saying radio needs to do that — but I am saying terrestrial radio needs to come up with a genome of its own — a local genome….

Boy, don’t we radio folks get too obsessed with who is buying music instead of what characteristics local music has that makes local listeners listen?

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2 Responses

  1. This is an interesting Google Trends graph, which shows the level of consumer interest, through Google search volume, in HD Radio, Satellite Radio, and Pandora:

    http://tinyurl.com/24zkzrv

    Another interesting graph is this directly measured Quantcast graph of visits to Pandora.com:

    http://www.quantcast.com/pandora.com

    I believe there is nothing terrestrial radio can do to compete with Pandora. These personalized music services, to include Last.fm and Slacker, are the future of music-oriented “radio.” Why listen to someone elses programming, when one can create their own “radio stations.”

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