Opinion: Radio ruling bodes well for youth marketers

David Bray is senior vice-president, creative director of RadioWorks, a full-service radio ad agency/consultancy based in Toronto. It seems that the squares have come full circle. The sometimes stodgy Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, after years of legislating almost impenetrable...

David Bray is senior vice-president, creative director of RadioWorks, a full-service radio ad agency/consultancy based in Toronto.

It seems that the squares have come full circle.

The sometimes stodgy Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, after years of legislating almost impenetrable programming regulations that amounted to advanced algebra, has turned fm radio back into a much less-regulated forum.

Until the Commission’s recent ruling, fm stations were limited to 49% hit content. Effectively, and somewhat perversely, this meant that listeners were prevented from hearing some of their favorite songsŠor at least hearing them as often as they would like.

It kept true Contemporary Hit Radio (or top 40) off the fm band, thereby virtually killing the format in Canada. The crtc’s recent ruling has far-reaching applications for advertisers and listeners. Let’s examine a few.

The hit restrictions for fm were initially designed to protect am music programming, traditionally the home of top 40 radio. The past few years have seen a dramatic shift away from music and toward talk on am. Younger audiences, particularly the 12-34 demo, have gravitated toward fm. While this was going on, chr stations fell, one by one, off the map. Younger audiences, particularly teens, were disenfranchised.

Traditionally, the chr station in a market garners a 40% to 50% share of teen tuning. Without this format, the audience becomes splintered, with teen listeners having to settle for their second choices. At the same time, advertisers targeting the youthful hit-oriented audiences faced a dilemma: they were forced to buy inefficiently, utilizing stations for whom the advertiser’s target group was a secondary audience.

The lobbying has been heavy. Advocates for removal of the hit restrictions repeatedly pointed to the adverse effect the regulations had on the growth of fm in Canada as opposed to the u.s. experience. Contemporary Hit Radio, a vibrant format south of the border, had been virtually relegated to oblivion by the hit/non-hit regulations. Some of the applicants for the last fm licence in Toronto focused on this obvious hole. Up until now, patchwork programming had to suffice in lieu of a true chr. All of the stations in each market shifted accordingly.

Let’s look at the current makeup of markets likely to be affected by the upcoming regulatory changes. In the chart are the number of stations currently in each format, listed as (#fm/#am)

Hot AC Soft AC News/Talk/Sports AOR/Classic Rock

Winnipeg 1/0 0/1 0/3 2/0

Calgary 0/0 1/1 0/2 2/0

Edmonton 2/0 1/0 0/3 2/0

Vancouver 1/0 2/2 0/4 2/0

Toronto 2/0 2/0 0/5 1/0

Halifax 1/0 1/0 1/1 1/0

New Music/Dance Classical Gold/Oldies Country Other

Winnipeg 0/0 1/0 0/1 2/0

Calgary 0/0 1/0 0/1 1/1

Edmonton 0/0 1/0 0/1 1/1 1/1

Vancouver 0/0 1/0 0/1 1/0 0/1

Toronto 3/0 3/0 0/1 1/0

Halifax 0/0 1/0 0/1 1/1

In every market, the clear opening of opportunity is for a chr station. For some existing stations, the transition will be a very small jump. Of course, a pre-emptive strike by another station could shift the market overall and send strategists back to square one.

Most of the logical candidates to slip into chr probably won’t heavily publicize it. Remember, the public is not aware that fm stations have, up until now, been limited to 49% hit content.

chum, Rogers and Rawlco retained some reservations. In the end, these groups were keen on protecting their hit-based gold or oldies formats. CHUM Ltd. (chum) and Rawlco (Calgary’s cffr, etc.) have viable am stations surviving financially while playing gold-based music. On the other hand, Rogers wants to protect the jewel in its crown, chfi-fm, from an all-hits oldies station taking a run at it on the fm band.

The Commission heard these objections and arrived at a compromise. Technically, fm stations are still limited to 49% hitsŠbutŠany record released after 1980 is considered a non-hit for purposes of the regulation. Effectively, this protects oldies stations while having no impact on new chr stations.

We can only speculate as to the immediate repercussions of this new climate. Hits will be played more often. More repetition could lead to higher turnover and greater ‘cumes’ with lower average hours tuned per listener. Most importantly, each format can be better defined, since they will no longer have to search for cuts that they would not otherwise play.

The implications for advertisers are clear. Better format definition leads to better audience definition and measurement. Through product usage and lifestyle analysis, advertisers can more effectively and efficiently target their consumers. Those targeting younger demos, particularly teens, will benefit most.

Which existing stations, if any, can be expected to move? Many of the shifts may be initially subtle. Look for chum-fm and perhaps The Mix in Toronto to up their hit ratios. Ditto Z95.3 in Vancouver, Z94 in Winnipeg, Power92 in Edmonton, ckis-fm in Calgary and C100-FM in Halifax.

As far as outright moves to chr, look to mid-sized markets where struggling stations could benefit quickly from a format delivering high cumes from a broad audience.

In markets such as Vancouver or Toronto, where revenues are currently healthy, fm stations may be reluctant to make any drastic moves. But rest assured, someone will fill the gaping chr holes before long.

The exception to the new ruling applies to Ottawa and Montreal. There, the anglophone stations will get no relief. It was successfully argued that, in markets where anglophone and francophone stations compete, the elimination of hit restrictions would lead to a decline in tuning to French-language stations. These stations are required to playlist 65% French selections and, as such, are limited to the number of English-language hits that they can play.

Advertisers and agencies who are, after all, buying the future, would be well advised to closely monitor the sonic landscape and consider the implications of subtle format shifts. Relying simply on past bbm performance could be a grave error. Conversely, better-defined stations without regulatory shackles can deliver a much slicker product and market themselves more convincingly and effectively to ad clients.

With fm regulations having come full circle, advertisers can more effectively spend their marketing dollars on stations allowed to serve and satisfy hit-oriented audiences.

If you wish to comment on this column, David Bray can be reached at (416) 469-4645, by fax at (416) 469-4798 or via e-mail at radworks@interlog.com