Remember Free FM?

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Consultant Tips” series, written by Charese Fruge on February 8, 2021 

Remember Free FM? I ask the question, because it was a short lived strategy (like less than two years) put in place on 11 CBS Radio stations in 2006 to address the fall out of Howard Stern leaving the company for Sirius Satellite Radio. According to an article by Christopher Pierznik in 2016 called “Dead Air: Remembering Free FM and Analyzing the New ‘Howard Stern Show,’” then CBS CEO, Joel Hollander estimated Stern generated 10% of all CBS Radio revenue. It was a lot more than that for his flagship station WXRQ. In its last few years with Stern, the station generated more than $50 million in revenue and at least 75% of that was from Stern.

So back to the question. It’s okay if you don’t remember Free FM. In fact, here is a direct quote from Pierznik’s article. “No? Don’t feel bad. It was a monumental disaster, one that most people – particularly those who were behind its inception – have chosen to block out and pretend never happened.”

And the reason I bring up this question again is because I just read another column in one of the industry trades which addresses or even suggests possible reasons for the recent demise in ratings for Alternative radio stations across the country. Experts suggested a lack of pop-crossover artists rising to the top like those around 2005 to 2015 like The Killers, Imagine Dragons, Panic at The Disco etc. And they even went so far as suggesting a new mixture of genre, sounds and culture in the music as the reason for the demise in ratings. Obviously, it was even suggested that the impact of the pandemic has had a direct impact on the format. Okay, I’ll give you that one. That’s a no brainer among almost all formats.

But let’s set up a little history and address the suggestions. The above-mentioned artists are all from Las Vegas. The above-mentioned artists were all Alternative artists before they crossed over to Pop. I know this from personal experience having dealt with serious pressure from the labels to “back off” the artists until my sister station, Alternative KXTE played the records, because they wanted these bands to be established in the Alternative format before they crossed over.

Of course I never listened, because I was programming sister station Hot AC, KMXB at the time, and it was a running joke that the music director would walk into my office and slap the CD single on my desk and say, “This is a chick song! We think you should play it on Mix (I left out the colorful words).” And so, I did, because they were great songs which provided Pop Alt variety for a format whose success was based on that at the time. It gave me the chance to own the record and the station was consistently Top 3 in the market for years. Now a days, Hot AC is Top 40 lite. Lot’s of pop with very little Pop Alt or Pop Rock being played, sadly, not quite the variety we all claimed to be for so many years.

The next suggestion for declined in ratings in the format: A mixture of genre, sound and culture in the music. I continue to remind people that KROQ (back in its hay day) was one of the first stations to play Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” and when I later programmed Alternative Sister KXTE, it was one of the first stations in the country to play Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.” And some Alternative stations even played some of Adele’s bigger hits. Alternative radio has always had its base of guitars as a foundation, but it has also always had its base of a mixture of genre, pop, culture, punk etc. I imagine that’s how the format got its name “Alternative.” There is proof that ratings decline is not necessarily due to the lack of music or hits out there as we start to see Alternative singles cross over to Pop and Hot AC again with artists like Billie Eilish, All Time Low, Glass Animals, Fitz, and Machine Gun Kelly.

And before I get to the bright side and the positive opportunities, at least for Pop and Hot AC, regarding this topic, let’s explore one more suggestion for the decline in ratings in Alternative radio, the obvious one, a global pandemic. Let’s use Las Vegas as an example again. A market whose economy was not only crushed, but completely destroyed due to the closing of all its casinos, travel and tourist attractions, because of the virus. It was one of the most hard hit cities in the country and was an extremely controversial situation because the one thing that kept food on the table for Nevada families (casinos) was shut down. Billions were lost. Unemployment spiraled and our local and federal governments were not prepared to deal with these issues. The Mayor and the Governor fought constantly over the issue. And when the state finally re-opened the casinos, the crime on the strip and in the city of Las Vegas grew considerably, because of all the low rates on hotel rooms and special offers. It was attracting a more violent and irresponsible crowd. But I digress.

My point is, that when we finally did begin to re-open casinos, the primary target for Alternative radio was also the average casino host, dealer, service industry worker, delivery person etc. It wasn’t the moms who had to stay home with kids, or the older audiences, or gym teachers and hair designers etc. It was the shift workers, and bread winners and those who typically fall into the Adult 18–49-year-old demographic that Alternative radio thrives on. And for a minute, the local Alternative station maintained some success with ratings, until a major shift in the industry and the format occurred.

We are all entitled to our opinions as to why the format has seen a serious decline in ratings in the last few months, but there is only one way to fix the problem. We must go back and undue what we have done to the stations and the format in the last six months. The Free FM debacle is a fantastic example of bad strategy, but that only affected 11 stations (and millions of dollars). What happens if we don’t fix the problem within all the major companies? Will the format even survive? How much more money will be lost (outside of the loss caused by the pandemic)? The format is putting out great music right now, but our radio platforms are suffering as are the ratings. It’s time to go back and find a better solution.

On a positive note, this is a great opportunity for Pop and Hot AC to embrace cross over artists and provide the variety needed to keep listeners happy. Hot AC was at its height when the foundation of the format was Pop Alt, remember the stations that called themselves Modern AC? Pop could use a little variety as well thanks to all the core artists that are dropping new singles almost every week. It’s a good opportunity to prevent burn on the Justin Bieber’s, Dua Lipa’s and Ariana’s of the world. Great artists and songs, but artist separation is a nightmare.