What Happens To The Moth When The Porch Light Goes Out?

aaaaaaaahhhhh leaaaahhhhhhh

This week, Spotify-owned Anchor implemented a feature many of us in the business have long predicted: the ability to include licensed music in Anchor shows. I say “Anchor shows” because they aren’t podcasts, of course—you won’t be able to listen to them outside of Spotify (and you won’t get the full versions of the songs without Spotify Premium.) But Spotify is not the only streaming service with the machinery in place to pay royalties to artists, composers, and publishers, so we shouldn't assume this is going to be unique to them.

I wrote this in February, 2019:

We still listen to more music than spoken word, and we always will. That’s in our DNA. If podcasts can fully integrate licensed music, we will consume a TON more podcasts. Royalties will flow back to the labels and the artists, audiences will be happier and larger, and the concept of podcasting as an overwhelmingly spoken word platform will die in a fortnight, or maybe even faster than I die in Fortnite.

What will those music podcasts sound like? They’ll be tightly-curated. They will have defined points of view. They will have likable, knowledgeable hosts who guide you through their selections and expand your horizons or just give you an hour of great prog rock to fix your car by. There won’t be many commercials. A few. Some of them host-read. They’ll be skippable, so they’ll have to get better.

It’s going to sound fantastic. It’s going to sound like FM radio did in the ’70s. We are going to know the names of DJs again. We will listen to more audio than ever.

Of course I still believe this, 100%. The latest innovation from Anchor has given us this remarkable new format: radio.

The back of my brain is a frightening closet of curiosities, and when I started thinking all of this through, whatever lurks back there pushed a book to my frontal lobe that I read a long time ago: The End of History and the Last Man, by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Fukiyama was certainly a controversial figure. I took two things from this book: one, a powerful headache, and two, the notion that society continually disaggregates from its norms, but not into anarchy—it re-aggregates into new norms. I’ll give you an example. If you drive around the part of northern New England where I am from, you will undoubtedly encounter a disused building with a symbol and the initials IOOF. While the Independent Order Of Odd Fellows of course still exists as a going concern, fraternal orders in general have seen declines. An older IOOF member might drive by one of these crumbling buildings and lament “the good old days,” but the only thing that has happened is that the norms around which these organizations were founded — fellowship and community — stopped being based around geography. The desire for community didn’t go away (anarchy!): it simply moved to Facebook. Maybe you miss the lodge after all.

In other words, things don’t fall apart and stay apart. They come together, somewhere else.

I bring up this apparent non-sequitur because that is exactly what is happening in the radio business. There was a time when the organizing principle for music and entertainment was the community. Every city had its own unique music (my friend Sean Ross writes about these things all the time.) It’s why “Ah, Leah” by Donnie Iris was massive in Pittsburgh, but not so much in San Francisco (I hope I got that right, Sean!)

MUSICAL INTERLUDE

Who knew Eugene Levy could scream like that! Now, of course, things are very different. There is still great local radio (I’m listening to WCHL in Chapel Hill/Carrboro today) but location as an organizing principle for music radio has disintegrated. DJs voice track stations in multiple markets. Playlists have become centralized. Your Top 40 station has the same morning show as mine. But music radio still chugs on. Time spent listening has of course declined quite a bit over the last decade (especially for music radio) but reach remains high.

The car is one reason radio persists, but not the only one. People like people on the radio. I used to devour Dave Morey’s “10 at 10” from KFOG in San Francisco, which blended “ten great tunes from one great year” with sound clips from that year, production elements, Don Pardo, and Dave’s sardonic wit. The songs were not the reason I listened. I listened for Dave.

I still believe people like people on the radio. The disaggregation of “local” from “music radio” was not entirely driven by commercial forces. No, there was a very big thumb on the scale: Nielsen’s PPM: an electronic, passive measurement system employed by radio’s largest markets. The PPM picks up an inaudible tone encoded in the audio of radio stations from New York to Seattle, and measures exactly what you are listening to (or at least what is audible), when, and more importantly, when you switch. What stations and consultants observed early on was that people switched when the DJ started talking. So, they shut the DJs up. Problem solved. (Of course, people also switch during commercial breaks, but the zeal to solve this problem was somewhat less fervent.)

There’s no question that great, local music stations shot themselves in the foot when they did this. To win the short-term “game” of PPM, they stripped their stations of the thing that most differentiates them from the streaming music providers—personality. “But people do switch when the DJ talks,” you might say. I would counter: people switch when the DJ talks about things they don’t care about. And if you love music, you don't care about celebrity gossip or the DJ’s commute or what movies are (not) coming out this weekend. Dave Morey was a great music jock. I didn’t switch when he talked. He talked about my favorite music. He knew more than I did.

And now we have reached the point where this particular medium, personality-driven music radio, has become disaggregated. But not because people don’t like it. It just needs another tentpole around which to reorganize. And of course, that tentpole is the music itself, and an entertaining guide to help the listener navigate and enjoy that music. While a commercial radio station needs to aggregate Men 25-54, a personality-driven Anchor show will aggregate Prog Rock fans around fascinating shows anchored (get it) by people passionate about Prog Rock (or Freestyle, or Reggaeton, or Norwegian Death Metal.)

I’ll wrap up here by saying I never forecast the “death of radio,” and I am not here, either. I’m only saying that when music radio turned off the porch light that was its passionate, music-driven DJs, all the moths that once surrounded that light in a cloud were left flying around with no particular place to go. Anchor just turned on a porch light.

Related, I’m making my own music show to try it out. I’ll let you know.

Have a great weekend!

Tom

Photo credit: By Mk2010 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25173429