By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio

The last few years have been hard on specialty formats. Some formats were diminished with the advent of PPM measurement and a few, particularly Smooth Jazz, were decimated. Beyond that, many broadcasters found that the big-box formats were bigger than they realized. That’s one reason that CHR, Hot AC, and Mainstream AC ended up so jammed next to each other. There was, seemingly, always an open space for somebody else to play “Blank Space.”

So why would anybody choose a niche format? And when can it work? Boost 101.9 St. Louis is the Christian Top 40 sister of Christian AC KJLY. Boost’s “Positive Hits and Hip-Hop” format sounds like a narrow opportunity on a market-by-market basis. And yet, the format has a passionate following that could be more than viable on a national scale, as well as some of its own significant music that isn’t appropriate for existing Christian ACs. This article came out of a discussion with Boost’s Mike Couchman about what makes a niche format viable.

When It Is the Format That Management Wants and Understands: For nearly twenty years in New York, Country radio was a consistent money-making opportunity. Then the new owners of WYNY changed it to Rhythmic Top 40 WKTU because, they said, Country could never be No. 1. And for nearly 20 years that followed, New York was without a full-signal Country station until a group that liked Country, Cumulus, saw the opening. Consolidation has left very few owners that are format specialists, but many groups still have comfort zones, or blind sides for certain formats. Is this the life that management is willing to lead?

When It Is the Format That Sales Wants and Understands, Especially When There Is a Dedicated Sales Staff: In the last days before consolidation, I once programmed the music AM sister of a much bigger FM station. Some sellers were motivated to do the best possible job for both stations, or considered it the station that they more related to, but the FM generated enough business automatically that other salespeople didn’t need much motivation at all. Sports radio has generated many more niche players than it has Boston- or Detroit-style powerhouses. And yet, the launch of many markets’ second or third sports station began in a conference room with a sales manager who felt that ratings wouldn’t matter.

When It Is the Format That Programming Understands: That seems obvious, but a lot of radio stations, including some with mass-appeal formats, have definitely suffered from being the add-on to somebody else’s job. The problem isn’t an overextended PD. Sometimes it’s a disinterested one. Or in the case of gold-based stations, somebody who didn’t grow up with the music. Within reason, the best chance for a niche format is under a programmer who refuses to treat it as a niche. The fast-growing HANK and DUKE FM formats have benefited from the programming vision of my Envision colleague Howard Kroeger, and from group owners such as Midwest Communications and Alpha that are willing to commit viable signals to a Classic Country format that has often been the victim of a “yeah, we know it will get ratings, we just don’t want to do it” mentality in the past.

When You Will Not Be Fooled By The First Two Monthlies:  Most of the stations that chose Jammin’ Oldies in the early ‘00s would have been happy with a three-share at the outset. Instead, some of those stations opened much larger. When they settled in at more niche-like levels, the format’s momentum was deflated, a pattern that has played out again with “Throwback” R&B/Hip-Hop stations. Broadcasters need to view those first few months as a bonus, but few can.

When You Will Have the Market to Yourself: Very few of the truisms that emerged with the rollout of PPM measurement turned out to be true. The most consistent exception was that stations that had a market to themselves usually looked pretty good. R&B radio, so diminished in markets where there were four station, looked pretty good in those that had only one Urban AC and one R&B/Hip-Hop outlet. In some markets, a Christian AC station could outrank a fragmented Mainstream CHR or two. The problem is that most broadcasters figured this out after a few years of PPM. The availability of FM translators had made it easy to launch spoiler stations.  Modest opportunities that might grow into larger ones with care and feeding—Country in Boston, for instance—no longer got that chance.

When You Can Set Your Sites beyond the Market: One of Sirius XM’s greatest contributions has been showing just how many “niche” formats become viable on its a multi-national platform. All-‘00s Pop? Deep cuts AOR? Late ‘70s/Early ‘80s R&B? Canadian Alternative? While commercial broadcasters debate Classic Hip-Hop, satellite radio offers two. Audio’s infinite dial offers the same possibilities. While commercial Active Rock stations segue to “Classic Rock That Really Rocks” by perceived necessity, Northern New Jersey’s college-run WSOU presses on with an international following. The issue is a model that would allow a local signal to make money as an international entity. There’s also the matter of being found without the built-in showcase of the satellite radio channel structure. And if FM broadcasters rarely have a niche to themselves, that’s also true of Internet radio, where it would be hard to anoint, say, a single “deep oldies” station.

When It Won’t Be Niche Forever: Alternative broadcasters in 1990 couldn’t anticipate just how grunge and Green Day would turn their two-share format into a four-share format in a few years. But they knew they already had a community built around the existing format, one that bought music and concert tickets without lateral support from other formats. And they knew they had a burgeoning body of music that often seemed like a better-quality, alternate universe version of CHR. At the moment, the “perfect for …” or “I feel like …” mood-service station is an online phenomenon. But relaxing and working out are mass-appeal needs. Who knows what will happen when those formats move to FM.

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