It’s all about control for 97X

Three months in, how is Tampa radio station 97X doing with its You Control the Music format?

click to enlarge SHARK ALERT: 97X Program Director Michael Sharkey, aka Shark, in his office. - Phil Bardi
Phil Bardi
SHARK ALERT: 97X Program Director Michael Sharkey, aka Shark, in his office.

FM radio is a stagnant wasteland, stations pushing artists and tracks based on crumbling systems — Grammy wins, Billboard sales — while continuing to remain woefully behind in the digital revolution. I listen to the radio in the car because I have no other options and can’t stand to drive in silence, but being a captive audience has always made me wonder — why the hell would someone listen to the radio on purpose?

This year, Tampa Bay area station 97X provided some incentive: You Control the Music, an all-listener-driven format change.

The idea came up at a meeting last summer between Cox Media Group and Listener Driven Radio, an Ohio technology firm made up of radio folks and software geeks. The decision came after the two companies had done some limited “crowd-casting” at a handful of stations, giving listeners the chance to vote on songs they wanted to hear in short blocks amidst the regular programming.

97X was willing to take the 24/7 leap. But the technology was desktop-oriented, votes cast by people listening on their computers — and everyone agreed it could only be sustainable if the experience went mobile. So 97X began taking the necessary steps to make it happen, which included developing an app and beefing up the station’s musical database.

“If you’re allowing people to vote on songs, but it’s the same 200 songs, all you’re really doing at that point is giving the listener control of the order the same songs will play in,” explained 97X Program Director Michael Sharkey, aka Shark. So he and 97X Music Director Joel Weiss compiled more than 1,800 songs that feasibly fit within the already-established 97X alternative aesthetic.

After dealing with the inevitable backlash and tweaking the technology, the station’s focus shifted to changing the behavior of listeners. “Listening to music is a passive action, and the challenge is to make listeners active,” Weiss said. “The app encourages listeners to engage with the station directly.”

The app has proven to be a hit, with most users casting votes via mobile devices instead of the site. “Mobile sessions are 20 times that of desktop sessions,” Shark said. “Over 32,000 people have downloaded the app and over 4.5 million votes have been cast at this point.”

Each track can be voted on via “Play Now” or “Play Later” buttons; the song with the most Play Now votes makes it onto the air. The “Open Mic” function allows you to record yourself making a song request (if your song and voice message are selected, 97X sends a text alert before they air), and you can even send a text or email asking that a song be added via “Suggest a Song” if you don’t find it in the database.

“It’s pretty revolutionary and unheard of,” Weiss said, “the ability to which we can now reach out to individuals on an individual basis. And that’s everything from music to shout-outs to contests.”

The votes are tallied by a computer. There aren’t traditional radio “personalities” anymore, but there is a live person in the studio at all times who manually plays each song that wins (because there’s no communication between the desktop LDR, the voting app and the secure offline servers where 97X’s music is stored). That staffer also adds Open Mic intros; keeps track of what’s played; and monitors the playlist to make sure that individual songs or artists don’t play too often or too close together in a block. “There are some basic rules of radio that are still in place — like artist separation,” Weiss explained.

Relinquishing control to the listeners has been the biggest adjustment Shark and Weiss have faced so far, but both stress that the station hasn’t inherently changed. “Part of the fabric of 97X is the discovery and breaking of new bands … That is our heritage, that is our history — but now we have to approach it a little differently, by really pointing out to the audience that this is a new band, here’s what it sounds like, discover it now, vote on it now.”

Which means occasionally introducing new music that hasn’t necessarily been voted on at all yet. “When it comes to the cool new songs we get, the ones we’re passionate about, we’re just going to play them,” Weiss said. “And I’ve found that when we just play them, if people like them, they’ll vote for them on their own. That’s what happened with Alt-J’s ‘Breezeblocks,’ and one of my absolute favorite songs right now, ‘San Francisco’ by the Mowgli’s …”

Since the technology was developed as a social experience, you can’t vote a song to the top all by yourself. Instead, you’re supposed to rally all your friends on Facebook and Twitter to chime in and vote along with you. That said, thousands of votes hit at any given moment and songs that seems to be nearing the No. 1 slot can drop suddenly and unexpectedly down the playlist to be replaced by other tracks that skip just as fast upwards. The lack of transparency in the voting is a concern. How many times can a single person vote for or against a song over a period of time, and how much does each vote affect a song’s ranking? How does its rank determine where it falls after it plays and how long it stays there? And what makes a song jump back up faster than others if it doesn’t start out on the playlist in the first place?

The listeners I’ve surveyed about the format change fall into two camps: those who think the voting is a gimmick and that the station continues to push and play whatever it wants; and those who are pleasantly surprised at the wider variety of music now offered and appreciative of (or obsessed with) the new voting technology.

It’s the novel feeling of unpredictability, and perhaps the feeling of being in control, that really seems to be drawing people back. Whether it will have a positive impact on the overall radio broadcast landscape remains to be seen.

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