As I wrote in a Paragon blog from last May, several public radio Music Discovery stations are defying the odds with high audience ratings. Despite not playing the Nielsen commercial radio ratings games that reward familiarity, these stations play a ton of new music and are now on a multi-year ratings roll. Billboard takes notice with a new article by Elias Leight that focuses on three present and past Paragon clients –KUTX Austin, The Current in Minneapolis, and WXPN Philadelphia – as well as KEXP Seattle.
Last January, Larry Rosin, founder of the radio consultancy Edison Research, tapped out the rhetorical equivalent of an SOS. “It is not an exaggeration to say that contemporary music is in a crisis at American radio,” he wrote. Pop radio stations have floundered in the ratings in the last decade, Rosin noted, while all things classic — “gold,” in radio terms — are on the rise. “American music radio is rapidly becoming a kingdom of gold,” he added. “One mostly hears the hits of yesteryear.”But one segment of the airwaves appears to be bucking this trend: A handful of public radio stations dedicated to playing new music have enjoyed notable ratings bumps in recent years — especially KUTX in Austin, KEXP in Seattle, KCMP in Minneapolis, and, to a lesser degree, WXPN in Philadelphia. During this “crisis” for new music on the airwaves, these stations have excelled at finding, and holding on to, listeners excited by the prospect of discovering a track from an artist they’ve never heard of.
“As consolidated commercial radio conglomerates have sacrificed localism and diverse playlists in the interest of severely slashing jobs in recent years, it is no surprise that music listeners are turning to high-quality and diverse public radio alternatives,” says Rachel Stilwell, a music and media attorney who represents music industry coalitions before the Federal Communications Commission.
KUTX has led the pack in the last two years. For several months last summer, KUTX was the second highest-ranked music station in Austin, according to Nielsen ratings, lagging behind only KBPA (“Adult Hits”). This ratings prominence is a recent development. Across 10 months in 2019, KUTX’s average rating was around 1.8, meaning that 1.8% of the city’s listening population tuned in. Across 10 months in 2022, that number jumped to 5.7, leapfrogging Austin’s primary pop and country stations.
KUTX “hit a stratosphere nobody has ever hit before in this format,” says Mike Henry, a four-decade-plus radio veteran and the founder of radio consultancy Paragon Media.
Several of KUTX’s peers also soared. As 2022 came to a close in Seattle, the only music stations outranking KEXP play Adult Contemporary and oldies. (KEXP’s average rating grew from around 1.05 in 2019 to roughly 3.6 in 2022.) The 2019 average rating for KCMP Minneapolis was around 2.8; in 2022 that grew to roughly 4.2. WXPN in Philadelphia has also seen a small bump in ratings.
While many new music radio formats are seeing declines in their share of listeners, “we’re seeing non-comm radio audiences hold — and in some situations grow,” says David Safar, managing director for KCMP. And during an average week last year, all of the top 10 songs on KCMP, KUTX, KEXP, and WXPN were from 2022.
Commercial radio’s growing aversion to new artists and stubborn insistence on playing a few songs as if they’re the last tracks left on earth was documented as early as 2007, if not before. Representatives for the three biggest radio chains did not respond to questions about new music’s role in their programming. But promotions executives point out that these stations are dependent on advertising, and conventional radio wisdom dictates that listeners are more likely to fiddle the dial if they hear something foreign to them. As a result, promotions executives say many commercial stations may keep just 15 new songs (“currents”) in rotation today, with extra focus on a handful of priority tunes.
On top of that, commercial radio has never been more untethered from its listeners. In 2017, the FCC eliminated the “main studio rule,” meaning radio companies were no longer required to maintain any presence in local markets where they had stations. Many chose to rely even more on DJs voice-tracking a show in one city and then broadcasting it hundreds of miles away. (Reps for the three biggest chains also did not respond to questions about their support for local music.)
These shifts “opened the door for new people to discover public radio,” which has been patiently waiting in the wings, says Henry of Paragon Media. “It has big playlists with variety put together by local DJs. It still plays a lot of new music.”
Public radio stations are non-profits; instead of depending solely on advertisers, they lean on the largesse of their listeners, who often provide more than half of their budgets. This forces these outlets to take the tastes of those listeners into account — ignore them, and they’re likely to be stingy with donations. Matt Reilly, program director at KUTX, says his station plays a song 20 to 25 times a week at most; otherwise, “we hear about it pretty quickly.”
Less repetition automatically means there’s room for more variation. What’s more, these stations take pride in stepping up to support unknown acts: “We add new songs that aren’t being played by any other radio station anywhere, let alone in our market,” Safar says. At a time when radio promotion increasingly seems like a Catch-22 — stations won’t play music that’s not popular, but it’s hard for artists to get popular if no one will play their songs — non-commercial outlets are “the only form of exposure where the sonics mean more than the metrics,” according to one veteran promotions executive.
Public radio’s fundraising model also helps ensure they remain defiantly local: Where better to find talent and solicit financial support than in your own backyard? There’s only one rule for DJs at KEXP in Seattle, according to Kevin Cole, the station’s senior director of programming: “We play at least one local artist an hour.” KCMP has played the Minneapolis power-pop duo DURRY more than 380 times this year, for example, dwarfing the spin-counts from the only three other stations that have played the group.
Henry likens public radio’s recent success to that of a long-running band finally experiencing a breakout moment more than a decade into their career. “So many of these stations have been doing what they’ve been doing for a long time without getting notoriety beyond critical acclaim,” he says. “It’s cool to see high ratings and get that external validation.”