When station manager Chris Mays helped launch 103.7 The Mountain in 1991, she began with a simple idea: to mix the city's affinity for classic rock with its taste for guitar-based blues. She believed her target audience—relatively affluent adults in their late 20s to mid-50s—wanted to hear new music from the likes of Lyle Lovett, along with deep cuts from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin: a formula that in radio is called Triple A, Adult Album Alternative.
"It's a combination of art and science," says Mays. "It is not an easy format."
For 20 years that combo thrived in Seattle. DJ Shawn Stewart, a fixture at the station for a decade, called the mix "sprout rock": "sort of organic, farm-fresh, artisanal . . . like farmers-market music." The station hit its mark for long enough, and with such distinction, that the marketing slogan "Mountain Music" soon became shorthand for the mostly guitar-based, easy-to-consume sound that it curated.
Listeners were also loyal. Stewart says they responded not just to the music, but also to the station's friendly, snark-free vibe. "They went to our shows, they showed up to meet DJs," she says. "We definitely felt like we were selling a lifestyle." Even better, The Mountain's music soon became something it'd never been: hip.
Over the better part of the past decade, the new heavyweights of the Northwest—from Fleet Foxes and the Decemberists to The Head and the Heart and Neko Case—began to hew closer and closer to the "sprout rock" Stewart and her colleagues were already spinning. Suddenly the songs getting significant airplay on The Mountain also happened to be some of the most popular in Seattle.
But at the end of last year, the station fired Stewart and program director Dave Benson, and replaced most of the current artists on its playlist not named Adele with extra helpings of the Doobie Brothers and Journey. The Mountain's sound, which had become one of the most identifiable in town, was now largely indistinguishable from the classic rock on KZOK and the oldies at KJR.
Why would a station fire the people responsible for its success just as its brand of friendly beard-rock was finally becoming ubiquitous? A good part of the answer can be found on the hips of 1,500 local listeners.
Whereas once ratings giant Arbitron relied on a diary system to determine how many people were listening to what stations, it now has its hopes pinned on a pager-like device called the Portable People Meter, which some claim is the biggest disruption to radio in decades. Even bigger, they say, than the Internet.
The Meter's results—along with market research—are what convinced The Mountain's higher-ups that its audience didn't want nearly as much new music as it was playing. What it wanted instead was something comforting and familiar. So the station responded by resolving to play it safe, take fewer risks, and not add "new" music unless it was already a hit.
"What does 'new' really mean?" asks Mike Kaplan, program director at The Mountain. "What's new for [some people] is something that's been out for a year. We're going to be very careful and selective in [adding new music] here."
They're hardly the only ones. Since Arbitron introduced the Meter to markets in 2007—it reached Seattle two years later—programmers around the country have done a lot of soul-searching. Stations have been reformatted, risks kept to a minimum, and for many—particularly those that play rock and roll—the number of new songs that make it to the airwaves has been reduced, thus limiting exposure for up-and-coming bands.
"The combination of no breakthrough bands—or very few—combined with the pressure to not make mistakes leads to less experimentation and risk-taking on all levels," says Fred Jacobs, one of the nation's most prominent rock-radio consultants. "New bands very likely get caught up in that vortex."
Before the introduction of the Meter, Arbitron simply asked people in markets around the country to keep track of the stations they listened to by filing reports each night in a diary. That's why DJs had memorable names like the T-Man and Diamond Dave, and why stations incessantly bombarded listeners with their call letters: While it was important that people were listening, it was more important that they remembered what they were listening to, so they could then tell Arbitron.
The Meter is different. Instead of relying on a listener's imperfect memory, it tracks their habits by detecting an inaudible frequency from stations. The Meter then, according to Arbitron, reveals what people are actually listening to, not just what they say they listen to, and in doing so has shown that much of what stations believed about their audiences is wrong.
According to Arbitron's data, men, for example, listen to light pop hits more often than they claim. But the most significant figure to come out of the new readings, however, is 10, as in minutes. It's now become accepted wisdom that listeners tune in for only about 10 minutes at a time. That, programmers say, changes everything.
"If I know that my family only has 10 minutes, I'm gonna serve a different meal," says one former program director, who asked not to be named. "[It] changes the way that you approach the whole procedure."
Faced with the prospect of getting only one-third of a sitcom to sell themselves to listeners, stations have now determined that they need to rid their programs of all superfluous material: Chatter is frowned upon, if not eliminated; familiar music is king; and taking a chance on a new song is a serious risk—one that stations across the industry are more cautious about.
"I think [the Meter] has had a bit of a chilling effect on all formats," says Jacobs.
Not every station has compensated by upping its quotient of classic rock. In fact, Nielsen—a company that tracks music sales and airplay—released a report last spring showing that many adult-contemporary stations have started to add more current pop hits from artists like Adele in place of oldies like Rod Stewart. Locally, Seattle's smooth-jazz station, KWJZ 98.9, converted to a modern-rock station, Click, at the end of 2010, and now plays classic and new alternative hits.
But giving listeners even more chances to hear established artists like Pink, Adele, and Foster the People isn't creating opportunities for new bands and songs. To program managers like Kaplan, a "new" song is, for example, Gotye's "Someone I Used to Know"; once he determines it's popular enough, he'll play it relentlessly—as often as 55 times a week, or once every two hours, he says.
Digital competition from Sirius XM, Pandora, and Spotify has taken some of the sex appeal away from terrestrial radio, and sparked much talk of its impending death. But Arbitron (and Kaplan) will gladly tell anyone who'll listen that the medium still reaches more than 93 percent of Americans every week. "The majority are still discovering new music on FM radio," says Jacobs.
Record labels and bands know this. And they know that the emphasis on what's safe is making it harder to get their unfamiliar music heard by a huge audience.
Back in the summer of 2010, Sub Pop Records had radio's unmatched reach at its disposal after the local indie label hired Scott Perlewitz, a man with a long history of getting music played. At Warner Brothers' Reprise imprint, Perlewitz had helped get early spins for then-unknowns Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, and My Chemical Romance. Sub Pop hoped he'd help do the same with the label's newest band, The Head and the Heart.
When it hired Perlewitz, Sub Pop was in the process of signing the folk-pop sextet that had independently sold 10,000 copies of its self-titled debut. It was also gearing up to release the second album by Fleet Foxes, whose first was a surprise hit. Both albums featured some of the most radio-friendly sounds the label—with its roots in punk and grunge—had ever released. They were, in other words, "Mountain Music."
And with Perlewitz's help, by the time Sub Pop reissued The Head and the Heart's debut, the record was in heavy rotation. Other stations followed suit, and soon the band's single "Lost in My Mind" topped the Triple A charts, while the record went on to sell more than 200,000 copies.
"The Triple A format . . . was essential in the radio plan," says Perlewitz. "The fact that radio is able to expose a band like The Head and the Heart to a much larger audience than they could ever do by playing a show or string of shows in a market make it a very important partner in any overall marketing plan."
Thanks to The Mountain's subsequent changes based on the Meter's data, however, Perlewitz doesn't expect the station to provide the same boost when The Head and the Heart release their next record. "Certainly I've had more than one discussion about [the Meter] and its effect on new music," he says. "I think that the lessening of new music on commercial radio is an inadvertent result of [the Meter], not an intention by anyone to assault new music."
Meter data, and the best practices it inspires, are not without critics. A common refrain is that the sample size is too small and doesn't constitute the full range of listeners. A number of programmers and DJs made the case—on and off the record—that The Mountain's more affluent listeners would be less likely to wear what looks like a pager on their hip.
Jon Miller, Arbitron's head of programming services, says that while the sample size is smaller than that of the diary system, participants are tracked for longer periods of time, sometimes up to two years, giving a fuller picture of a listener's habits. He also says the company does its best to make sure its samples are representative of the city's demographics. "Our goal is to make that sample size look like Seattle," he says.
Jacobs, the rock-radio consultant, believes the Meter isn't perfect, but is far more accurate than the alternative. He remembers times when stations that had gone off the air for a number of days would still rate well under the diary system—a clear sign that participants were fudging their numbers. But he says that some of the stations that are having the most success dealing with the new reality are going against, not with, the Meter's mandate.
He points to KISW as one example. The rock station lets its host talk at length—anathema to conventional wisdom—and is still one of the city's most popular, often ranking first or second among listeners above age 6, compared to ratings in the high teens and 20s for The Mountain and The End.
Another station that has bucked the Meter trend is Portland's KINK-FM, where The Mountain's founding program director, Chris Mays, has turned a struggling dial destination into one of the city's most popular. Unlike at the changed Mountain, Mays plays new songs by the likes of Jack White, Alabama Shakes, and the Black Keys alongside "safer" tracks by Tom Petty and the Beatles, and believes a constant stream of fresh music is critical to the format. "If you only play meat and potatoes, it becomes boring and bland," she says. "If you are blending the music in the way that [listeners] are looking for, then they come back, and you get more 10-minute segments from them throughout the day."
So far, The Mountain's move hasn't had a drastic impact on ratings. Its total audience dropped each month from March through May, but Kaplan says the dip will be reversed as soon as people better understand what changes have been made. "When you want to bring new people to the party," he says, "you gotta let 'em know."
For many, though, the Meter is merely a distraction from a different problem. Even popular rock stations like KROQ in Los Angeles or KISW rely heavily on hits from the early '90s. The elephant in the room when it comes to rock radio's emphasis on old stalwarts like Pearl Jam and Nirvana is that some think the reason new bands are being kept off radio is not that there's a bias against them, but because they're simply not good enough.
"I think most rock programmers would tell you the quality of new rock they've had to work with over the last decade just has not been as good," Jacobs says. "It has more to do with the fact that programmers just cannot find new music that works as well as it used to."
The argument holds water when you consider what's going on in country radio, which is constantly infused with new music from young artists like Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift. RJ Curtis, VP of Radio for Nashville trade magazine Country Aircheck, says the genre's current crop of young stars is the strongest since the classes of the late '80s and early '90s, when Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Brooks & Dunn, and Alan Jackson brought twang to the mainstream. An influx of stars with widespread appeal means there's less need to dig into older catalogues to keep an audience captive.
Even before the Meter was introduced to Seattle, Kaplan—hired by Entercom as program director of alt-rock station The End in 2008—had begun pulling back on new music. "The End was very indie, too über-cool," he says. "Too much unknown."
So Kaplan moved the station to where it is today: a carefully curated mix of safe new songs backed by huge helpings of bankable hits from the past 20 years. It may not be what new bands looking to break out want to hear, but the format should sound familiar: It's the one The Mountain employed in 1991.