If You Were to Build a Radio Station for Millennials, What Would It Sound Like?

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:

Hi Alan,

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.




Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38427 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

4 thoughts on “If You Were to Build a Radio Station for Millennials, What Would It Sound Like?

  • Interesting post. I started to think of those mood and time of day curated playlists. I’m imagining a station that focused on the time frame of the listener while adjusting for time of day and typical mood. Interesting thought. Morning music to build you up, day music to make you happy and focused, mid-afternoon energy boost followed by some lighter fare for background around mealtime, party buzz for the early evening and slow slide to quiet and bed.

    And getting away from terrestrial radio for a second, if you could program your own station with typical moods by day, time of day etc, you could have a fluid yet curated playlist specific to you.

  • Listen to Adam Conover’s recent talk at Deep Shift (a millennials marketing conference)- Millennials Don’t Exist. He covers a lot of similar ground to some of the posts you’ve made lately regarding the change in radio and media.

    If you took out the generational references in the above letter, it would apply to any generation, it is timeless. Every generation is influenced by the music of their parents, and the music they listened to and discovered as teens and young 20’s. Every generation is nostalgic. The hard part is getting them to continue to listen to new music. Are millennials going to be doing that any more or any less than any other generation? Not if the models continue.

    The move to genre specific format was a good thing for advertisers and record companies- it wasn’t a good thing for cultivating music. Many artists were shut out by not fitting into a pigeon hole, or they were compromised in order to fit into the pigeon hole. Genre specific radio is the easy thing and the cheap thing.

  • What you need to try is a jack for the next generation. It would be mostly 90s and 2000s, it would not be about genre but about how people feel about the songs now, those that have aged well make up the core playlist with a slot or two each hour for the songs that are strictly nostalgia that haven’t aged well. Yes Cyprus Hill and Smashing Pumpkins, 50 cent and Adele, Bruno Mars and Imagine Dragons.

    Success will be based upon creating that library of about 500 core songs, along with 1,000 spike tunes that will play so few times(1 or 2 of these an hour) that will retain their oh wow quality. Old songs that everyone likes will not be ignored, they will be used to keep the sound fresh i.e Journey, Queen, Micheal Jackson etc.

    I’d like to go further but I already have said enough without really going there, so time to bow out for now.

  • There are some stations that are trying some of these things, albeit pretty much under the radar…

    (1.) KSXY in Santa Rosa, Calif., is, in many ways, still CHR. However, it also mixes in a lot of currents from other charts–most notably, Country.

    (2.) WROM in Rome, Ga., also looks to various charts (although maybe not Country). However, its approach is perhaps more of a current/recurrent-based Variety Hits.

    (3.) WKAZ in Charleston, W.Va., has a broad Variety Hits approach (including some currents) that’s focused on a particular mood: party songs. The format here (“Tailgate”) has been trademarked, and there has been an attempt to have it picked up elsewhere.

    The good news is that Sean Ross has written positively about, at least, KSXY and WKAZ.

    Beyond that, there’s also the issue of whether the linearity of “traditional” radio (both terrestrial/broadcast and satellite) still works as well in the age of online music services. Or, to put it another way, what’s the first thing that an average millennial thinks of, when he/she hears the term “playlist” in regards to music? This is something that Chris Price has been exploring a lot–and will probably be a big part of his new job (as the head of music for BBC Radio 1/1Xtra).

    Finally, along those lines, there’s another set of silos that may not be as rigid as they had been: language. And, that’s something that probably matters a lot less in online environments (perhaps most notably involving apps). For example, even though my Spanish is incredibly rusty, I know that I can easily listen to, say, Kinky, División Minúscula, Zoé, or Allison whenever I want.


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