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Does Radio Format Sabotage 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 music formats are used to design playlists that will attract the right audience, which is 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 format Keith and I chose is “Old School” music.  The music played on is Rhythm and Blues, spiced with Mainstream Pop Music. However, in choosing an R&B format, were we sabotaging listener diversity within our audience?

The fact is there are three truths inherent to our decision to go with an R&B format:

  • Choice of format was a strictly business decision.
  • An R&B format is primarily associated with an African-American audience.
  • Because the radio format we chose appealed to a particular audience, we knew we’d have to work hard to reach the diverse audience we were seeking.
Taylor Swift and Drake

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. I’ll talk about that in a moment.  The problem with choosing a specific radio format to broadcast is sometimes the same as choosing an ethnicity on a job application. Labels come with real or implied assumptions.

For instance, while I don’t believe Taylor Swift has any ties or sympathy to the alt-right or the neo-nazi movement in the United States, there are concerns about her growing reputation among white supremacy groups.  What is it about her, or her music that has these groups flocking to her?  Her silence on some issues, such as Charlottesville, has led some people to assume her personal views are in line with the alt-right.  Does that mean the stations that play her music, or their listening audiences, harbor similar ideals?  While there is no way of knowing what is in Taylor Swift’s mind or heart, unless she tells us, her fan base does have a global reach.

Still, if we know radio format can sometimes affect listener diversity negatively, did Keith and I sabotage diversity among our listening audience with our choice of music format?  No, we didn’t.  At least not deliberately, but we did acknowledge our marketing strategy would have to discuss the issue of listener diversity if we wanted to successfully build the inclusive community we envisioned for

What is Radio Format?

There are two terms that I’ve used interchangeably throughout this article: music genre and format.  Their definitions are similar, but for the sake of this article, there are subtle differences worth noting. I want to define radio format first, and explain why it’s important to a radio station’s (Internet or Terrestrial) business model.

“Format” is a broadcast term.  Format is the radio station’s content, which includes the station’s music genre,  on-air talent, the ways the station engages its audience, website and blog, and marketing campaigns.  Format is the station’s overall tone, personality.  Radio formats have a broad range, everything from talk radio, news and sports to Country and 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 appeal to a certain demographic or niche, even age or ethnicity, many radio stations are realizing both their station identity and revenue can benefit from a diversified listening audience. A prime example in St. Louis is the free Internet radio station 88.1 KDHX.  The station’s fan base voted  88.1 KDHX 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?

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. 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.

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 that it was “interesting just how much music there is in the world.”

Radio Format and 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.  Does this mean music preference is cultural?

Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK facilitated 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 correlated with music 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.

Mick Jagger talks about James Brown

“He had a style…A lot of credit goes to musicians, but a lot goes to him, because he did something that no one else had done. He was into repeating these riffs which were normally used for the outro of a song, and decided to just use that as the whole song. He stripped away a lot of the melodic themes, and just made it into percussive themes for the vocal and the horn lines. His influence on that is massive, because he and the musicians invented this whole new funk genre of music.”


Music preference is partially cultural.  For example, there are certain types of music found only in the Appalachian Mountains, or in New Delhi, India.  However, if we take Professor North’s findings at face value, then people from different cultural backgrounds can have similar music preferences because people listen to the music they like. Music artists such as The Rolling Stones, Drake, Michael Jackson, or Beyoncé have fans from, and been in concert, all around the world.  Music preferences probably always have been personal, but societal norms helped dictate the appearance of something different.  In the United States, the assumption was there were stations that played Pop music for white audiences, and African-Americans only listened to R&B stations.

Today, the lines between favored music genres are often blurred. Technology has given listeners a way to enjoy their own music preferences without judgement. Now that we’re can build private playlists, the music we’re listening to is more diverse than ever. With social networks and artist websites, our relationships with our favorite music entertainers are more intimate than ever. More importantly, we’re no longer limited by the social restraints of a particular radio format.

Can Music Biases Also be a 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 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 still often difficult for some listeners to get past because of outdated 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 known for its technology-driven blurred lines.

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’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 share similar personality traits. Why wouldn’t this be true of people with similar music preferences?

Common sense should tell us there is truly a strong correlation between music preference and personality.  The study referenced above seems to support the theory that the correlation between music preference and personality is true across economic class and ethnicity, and not social expectations.  Now, we can look at radio station formats, and listening audiences, differently and more realistically.

What Does This All Mean?  

Imagine a time when audience diversity is assumed.

Why is the correlation between personality and music preference important to Internet Radio programming?  It is important because radio station programmers no longer have to program their format based on perceived social norms.

Choosing a music format is ultimately a business decision. However, if the correlation between personality 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 because they have more in common than just the love of the music.

What Does This Mean for

For, our listening audience is the single most important aspect of our business.  Keith and I made a conscious decision to assume our audience has a global reach, and everything about the station, from music format to our other creative assets are informed by that decision.

According to Rueters, we appear to be on the right track.  According to a Nielsen report, music genres  normally associated with an African-American audience have surpassed rock music as the most requested music genres on audio music streams.  Hip Hop and R&B were the biggest music genres in the United States in 2017.  Hip Hop and R&B dominated the 2017 Grammy nominations, and for the first time in its 19-year history, the Coachella Music Festival will feature no rock headliner in 2018.

Imagine Future Listening Audiences 

The population in most Western countries is more culturally diverse than ever, and far more discerning when it comes to music preferences.  Popular music artists have a global fan base, and technology has given listeners  exposure to artists and music genres they may not have otherwise explored.  As station programmers scale back the walls dividing listening audiences, their marketing strategies may include diversity in ways that are not as deliberate as they are now.  Instead, business decisions will be made based on a listening audience that is assumed to be diverse, has a global reach, is engaged and eager to bond with each other because they feel comfortably at home.

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