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Are We Sabotaging Our Listener Diversity?

Rosalind, here. Diversity and inclusion are important elements of the business model. One of the most important decisions my brother, Keith, and I had to make when starting was deciding what the station’s format was going to be.  However, choosing a format is not that easy.  Radio formats are used to design playlists that will attract the right audience, which can be translated into advertising or sponsorship revenue.

“Every radio station has its own personality, through the music it plays, its on-air talent and even its jingles. But most stations fall under specific radio format categories that are used to track audiences and attract advertisers so the station can build its media brand.”  Glen Halbrooks (April 2017)

The music format Keith and I chose is Jazz-Soul.  The music we play is based in Smooth Jazz, but spiced with Old School R&B,  Pop and Blues music. One of the hurdles we’ve had to address head-on was: in choosing our music format, were we sabotaging the listener diversity in our audience? The fact is, there are three truths inherent in our decision to go with the format we did:

  • Choice of music genre, or format, is a business decision.
  • The format Keith and I chose is primarily associated with an African-American audience.
  • We knew, going in, we’d have to work hard to reach the diverse audience we are seeking.

Radio format does, in fact, affect listener diversity. Science holds this theory to be true, but not necessarily in a bad way, not in the way you might think. We’ll talk about that in a moment.  The problem with choosing a specific music format to broadcast is the same as choosing an ethnicity on a job application. Labels come with real or implied assumptions.

Were we sabotaging our listener diversity with our choice of format?  No, we weren’t. At, least, not deliberately, but we knew our marketing strategy had to address the issue of listener diversity if we wanted to successfully build the inclusive listening community we envisioned for

What is Radio Format?

There are two terms you’ve probably already noticed  I use interchangeably: music genre and format.  While their definitions are similar for the sake of this article, there are some subtle differences worth noting. I want to define radio format first, and explain why it’s important to any radio station’s (Internet or Terrestrial) business model.

“Format” is a broadcast term.  A format is the radio station’s content, and that includes the station’s music genre,  on-air talent, the ways the station engages its audience, website and blog, and marketing campaigns. The format is the station’s overall tone, personality.  Radio formats have a broad range, everything from talk radio, news and sports to Country to Contemporary Adult to Urban radio.  While format options seem limitless, it’s important to remember format choice is ultimately a business decision.

While radio formats are designed to appeal to a certain demographic or niche, even age or ethnicity, radio stations are realizing both their station identity and revenue can benefit from a diversified listening audience. A prime example here in St. Louis is 88.1 KDHX.  A free Internet radio station, 88.1 KDHX was voted The Best Radio Station in the 2017 Riverfront Times “Best of St. Louis,” and boasts 80 genre-specific shows that can satisfy any guilty listening pleasure..

What is Music Genre?

People who listen to the same type of music have similar personality traits.
People who listen to the same type of music have similar personality traits.

While “format” is a broadcast term, and describes a station’s overall content, “music genre” is the specific type of music a radio station is playing.  According to Google, a music genre is “a conventional group that identifies some pieces of music as belonging to a shared set of conventions.”  Examples of music genres include Rock, Pop, Jazz and Smooth Jazz, Rap and Hip Hop, Techno, and Country music, to name a few.

Spotify has a “data alchemist” named Glenn McDonald. He has identified over 1,200 genres of popular music. One of the goals of his work was to answer the age-old question: what kind of music do people listen to, and why? Using a complex algorithm to classify more than 60 million songs, McDonald categorized the songs using certain markers, “including tempo, acoustic-ness, energy, danceability, strength of the beat, and emotional tone.” McDonald often observed it was “interesting just how much music there is in the world.” With over 1,200 different music genres in existence, it seems there is already a lot of diversity in music.

Listener Diversity…Another Thing Altogether

Why do people listen to the kind of music they do? One reason, according to multiple studies, is a correlation between a listener’s personality and music preference.  This means that people with similar personality traits often listen to the same type of music.  When implementing a music format on a radio station platform, this kind of information is invaluable when building an audience.

Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK did a study on the psychology of music. The study was conducted over three years with 36,000 participants from 60 countries. Professor North found that, “People define their musical identity by wearing particular clothes, going to certain clubs, and using certain types of language.  So, it’s not surprising that personality is related to musical preference.”  Because personality and music preference are so closely related, Professor North suggested this also explained why people feel so passionately loyal to their favorite artists, or why fans bond over shared musical events.

Technology has given us a way to enjoy the music we love. Now that we’re able to build our own private playlists, the music we’re listening to is more diverse than ever. With social networks and artist websites, our relationships with our favorite musical entertainers are more intimate than ever. More importantly, anyone can be a fan. We’re no longer limited by the social restraints of a particular “radio format.”

Music Biases. Game Changer?

As a society, we make assumptions about people based on their music preferences all the time. For example, people who listen to Hip Hop music are seen as “young, urban, and live in a culture of violence.”  Country music fans are thought to drink beer, live in rural areas, and aren’t very well-educated, while Traditional Jazz listeners drink wine and are well-educated. Even in this era of high-tech individualism, stereotypes associated with certain genres of music are often difficult for listeners to get past because of social expectations.

Additionally, several scientific studies seem to prove the general idea of music stereotyping to be true. Just not in the way we think, and the conclusions of these studies may be game changing to Internet radio, an industry where most of us are struggling to build a brand-centric audience.

Dr. Jason Renfrow of Cambridge University and Dr. Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas, also looked at the psychology of music. In their study, they created two groups of participants. They asked the first group to list their ten favorite songs, and then make a list their own personality traits. The second group was asked to make a list of personality traits based solely on the first group’s lists of favorite songs.  When the two groups’ lists of personality traits were compared, the margin of error between the lists was between .11 and .30 percent.

Renfrow and Gosling concluded music there was, indeed, a strong correlation between music preference and personality, and this was generally true across economic class and ethnicity, and not social expectations. Now, we look at music, and listening audiences, differently. More realistically.

Renfrow and Gosling’s study had another surprising conclusion. The participant’s description of their own personality traits often fit the stereotype of their music preference. So the question is: did the participants buy into the stereotype of their music preference, or do they genuinely see themselves that way. The answer, I think, is that it makes sense for people who drive electric cars to have similar personality traits. Why wouldn’t this be true of people with similar music preferences?

What Does This Mean?  

Why is the correlation between personality and music preference important to radio stations, or even our listening audience?  From the station’s point of view, information about our audience is essential to developing a sound marketing strategy. Management and programmers must really know their audience to market their station in ways that encourage brand loyalty.

Choosing a music format is ultimately a business decision. However, if the correlation between personalty and music preference is truly consistent across all groups of people, then why not mindfully seek a diverse audience? According to Renfrow and Gosling’s study, people who listen to many types of music formats are more likely to be open-minded and less biased.  They’re more likely to have an informed, global conversation.  Because they share similar personality traits, they’ll probably be more actively engaged with the station as they get to know one another. They may find they have more in common than just a love of the music, which can only help make the world a better place.

Imagine Future Listening Audiences 

The United States’ population is more culturally diverse than ever, and far more discerning when it comes to music preferences. Technology has given us  exposure to artists and music genres we may never have otherwise explored. In the future, business decisions made by radio station managers and programmers will less likely be based in antiquated social expectations. Instead, the ideal listener may have a global reach, more diverse, engaged, and eager to bond because they feel comfortably at home.

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