The “Adventure Window,” Radio Formats and Media Ownership Rules

by on August 16, 2006

I was listening to an interesting piece on NPR the last night entitled “Does Age Quash Our Spirit of Adventure?” The piece featured a neuroscientist who had been studying why it is that humans (indeed, all mammals) have an innate tendency to lose their willingness to try new things after a certain point in their lives. He called this our “adventure window.” The neuroscientist came to study this phenomenon after growing increasingly annoyed with his young male research assistant, who would come to work every day of the week listening to something new and quite different than the day before. Meanwhile, the much older neuroscience professor lamented the fact that he had been listening to the same Bob Marley tape seemingly forever.

Why is it, the neuroscientist wondered, that our willingness to try new things (our “adventure window”) fades rapidly after a certain point in life? Unfortunately, science can’t provide us with all the answers here, but his research and that of others suggests that there exists something deep within our psyche that relishes novelty and experimentation when we are young, but firmly rejects it as we grow older. To use a more common phrase: We grow set in our ways. And what’s most interesting, this neuroscientist unearthed research on other mammals (like baboons) which suggests that this is a common phenomenon throughout nature. A group of older baboons transported to new surroundings, for example, will typically refuse to try new foods they find, whereas their young will be willing to sample everything in sight.

OK, this is all quite interesting but what does all of this have to do with radio formats?

Well, over the past few years, I’ve been involved in the heated debate over media ownership reform here in Washington. As I discussed in my Media Myths book last year (see pages 72-76), the issue of radio format diversity generated intense debate at the FCC in the years leading up to the agency’s proposed reforms in 2003. Indeed, a reoccurring theme repeated by critics of reform is that radio ownership liberalization has led to less format diversity on the dial and, therefore, we shouldn’t deregulate other industry sectors or else we run the risk of destroying diversity in those sectors too. In particular, a lot of critics I encounter in this debate (especially very young people) claim that new bands just aren’t getting enough airplay on radio these days.

The facts, as I revealed in my book, say otherwise–at least regarding the overall number of formats. Studies reveal that there’s actually quite a bit of format diversity on radio today; about 7 to 8 percent more than there was prior to the Telecom Act of 1996, which partially deregulated radio. But it is important to keep in mind that because music and musical genres grow more diverse with each passing year, all these formats are competing for the same amount of scarce space on the radio dial that’s always been fought over. Thus, as it gets increasingly crowded on the radio dial, some formats will inevitably crowd out others to some extent. While just about every format gets represented to some extent, some formats will always dominate over others. But which ones?

This brings me back to the NPR story. As part of their report, they interviewed some radio station managers about how they decide which formats get more airplay than others. To figure out their audience’s demographics and decide what they should play to make them happy, many station managers use a crude rule of thumb: “Breakthrough year minus 20 years.” That is, figure out the year when certain music artists (like Elton John or Billy Joel) first made it big, then subtract 20 years and you’ll have the birth year for your target demographic group.

Why 20 years? Because when you’re between the ages of 14-21 years of age, that’s when you’re most open to new culture, especially music. The music you listened to in your late teen years and early twenties becomes the music of your life; it shaped your younger years and inspired you in various ways. Thus, you will relish it forever and want to hear it forever too, even as new (and sometimes better) things comes along.

But the research seems to suggest that by age 35 your musical “adventure window” has largely closed. That’s about the time you find yourself buying CD “hits anthologies” of your favorite musical era on late-night TV! And that’s also about the time you find yourself listening to just one or two radio stations whose formats firmly captures your musical tastes / era. Meanwhile, as the aggregate audience ages, radio managers must figure out how to divvy up space on the dial among competing tastes and demographic groups by appealing to all those (constantly aging) groups. And that’s one reason “oldies” formats might get more airplay than newer formats.

But to better explain why some older formats increasingly dominate over radio formats that might play newer bands or music, we need to add an important new wrinkle to the story – – the Internet. Today, when the younger demographic wants to experience new bands and music, they do not typically first turn to their broadcast radios like the generations before them did. Instead, today’s youngsters increasingly turn first to the Internet, download services, iPods, and even satellite radio. For example, even though I’m 37, I still like to search out new bands and music. And my favorite new band is called The Secret Machines. I have followed this band and their wonderful music religiously for the past few years, but I’ve done it entirely through their excellent website and other Internet sites. Bands with a niche following like the Secret Machines are not likely to get a lot of playtime on traditional radio simply because (a) there are more bands out there than ever before to compete with for airplay, and (b) most youngsters know they are likely to find out more about new acts through the viral, word-of-mouth Internet (think YouTube, MySpace, etc.) instead of broadcast radio, which has limited space on the dial to play all this new music along with all that old music. (Incidentally, this also explains why we hear more talk formats on broadcast radio than ever before.)

This certainly doesn’t mean that traditional broadcast radio operators aren’t offering new bands or music. But in this intensely competitive new landscape–especially with stunning volume of diversity of music available–youngsters are increasingly going to view broadcast radio as just one of many options to experience new music. But the older demographic, which grew up listening only to terrestrial radio, will likely use it more to hear their favorite “oldies.” (By the way, I cannot tell you how sick it makes me when I hear my favorite two old bands – – Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin – – referred to as “oldies,” but it is clearly true now! And, therefore, you will not be surprised to hear that the only presets on my car stereo that I really every press are 94.7 and 100.3, the Washington area’s two “classic rock” radio stations. My “adventure window” is rapidly closing and The Secret Machines were lucky to sneak in before it slams shut!)

Bottom line: We should not be basing public policy decisions about the proper media ownership rules on how much “new stuff” gets played on traditional radio. There are many other factors at play that explain why we hear what we hear on broadcast radio. Ownership rules actually have very little to do with the mix of what gets played. Psychological factors, cultural / demographic change and marketplace / technological developments better explain the outcomes we see (or rather hear) on the broadcast radio dial today.

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