This is the question that I’ve put to a number of broadcasting and media students over the last couple of months. For decades, it made sense to organize radio stations by music genre. Consistently sticking to a specific musical format sent a simple and necessary message to the public: “Anytime you choose to turn us on, this is the kind of music you’re going to get.” If you were in the mood for alt-rock, you went to that station. If you wanted, say, pop or jazz, there were other stations that specialized in those types of music.
Creating a successful radio format was equal parts science and art: plenty of audience research mixed with gut feeling. And a format was never completely finished; since the public’s taste is fickle and ever-changing, format philosophies had to be reasonably fluid while still maintaining a core sound.
Sticking to a format still make sense today, but maybe not as much as it once did. Back in the day when musical tastes were rigidly siloed and tribal, it was a really bad idea to mix music genres on the same station. For example, playing a Top 40 hit from Mariah Carey next to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was ratings death. It just wasn’t done.
But then along came the Millennial generation with their smartphones and ecumenical musical tastes. Unlike their forebears, they aren’t nearly as tribal when it comes to music. Speaking in very general terms, they’re just as likely to search out a Beatles track from The White Album as they are to listen to Adele or Justin Bieber. AC/DC? Great! Right after we listen to Lorde, Drake and Nicki.
The radio industry is wondering what to do about this. The Millennial generation is a huge cohort and wooing them is important to the future health of the radio industry. What sort of radio station will be a slam-dunk across-the-board ratings hit with Millennials? What would it sound like?
Nerhys Hall, a media student at Humber College in Toronto, responded to the question I put to her class:
Hope you have been well. After our last conversation, I got to thinking about the other big question you asked our class when you came to visit: What would Millennial radio sound like?
I can’t speak for all Millennials, of course, but I have noticed that both I and my other millennial friends gravitate towards the music we listened to during our teens and early twenties. Many of us are also drawn to the music our parents listened to while we grew up. Our parents’ music was the soundtrack to our childhoods. New music isn’t out for Millennials, either. We do accept new songs that come out, but for the most part I really think that Millennials like myself enjoy the music we discovered for ourselves during our youth.
No two sources agree on the exact years when the Millennial generation begin and end, though all agree that it starts sometime in the early-eighties and ends in the mid-nineties, so let’s say that Millennials were born between 1980 and 1996. That makes us between 20 to 36 years old. The music that the majority of us would have listened to in our teens would have been released in the nineties to the mid-2000s. A radio station targeted at Millennials should reflect this while also acknowledging that we enjoy music that our Baby Boomer and Gen X parents listened to as well as some of the new music coming out. A Millennial radio station should think of including music from the late 60s to new music but really rely on nineties and 2000s music. Millennials are also all about nostalgia as evidenced by the social media hashtags “wayback Wednesday”, “throwback Thursday”, and “flashback Friday”. Music from our youth is hugely nostalgic and we LOVE this.
We’re growing up and hanging onto the music we listened to and fell in love with during the years when we were trying to figure out who we were. I don’t really think it’s too much different from stations that target Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, such as 97.1 Giant FM in Niagara, Boom 97.3 here in Toronto, and, to an extent, Q107. Of course, there’s always going to be exceptions, but I’m willing to assert this is the case for the majority.
If I had to say what an alternative rock-based radio station targeted towards Millennials might sound like, I would say that they might play bands such as:
Nirvana, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, System of a Down, Marilyn Manson, the Offspring, Blink-182, Rage Against the Machine, Rise Against, Radiohead, REM, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, David Bowie, Metallica, Pearl Jam, the Tragically Hip, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Our Lady Peace, Billy Talent, Sum 41, Three Days Grace, Alexisonfire, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Queens of the Stone Age, Linking Park, the White Stripes, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, AFI, the Killers, Walk the Moon, 21 Pilots, Nathanial Rateliff and the Night Sweats…I could go on. There are so many bands out there.
To give an example that’s on the air in Toronto right now, at least for hip-hop and R&B, is the new 93.5 the Move. Since rebranding from Flow, they’re specifically targeting Millennials. It upset a fair few people, but I thought it was a smart move — at least on paper — to move away from the younger demographic where they have competition from the various CHR stations to a slightly older and pretty unrepresented demographic. Time will only tell how it works out for them, but I can’t see it being that bad.
I say this as one, but Millennials are a fascinating bunch. We’re incredibly varied overall and a huge generation. There’s a reason one of the alternate names for us is New Boomers. There’s a lot of criticism directed towards us, criticism that used to be directed at Gen X-ers, but I don’t think that we’re really that different from the generations that came before us. We might have slightly different ideas, our politics might differ, but when it comes to music, I think it’s a fairly common thing for people of any generation to really cling onto the music they enjoyed when they were young.