Will digital kill the radio star?

No demographic group is a tougher “get” for the radio industry than young listeners.

People in the 18-34 age group have the greatest drop in time-spent-listening studies as they gravitate toward iPods, MP3 players and computers to get their music fix.

Media analyst Jon Coleman has watched the erosion of radio listening in the teen demographic for nearly a decade. Early this year, while doing a listener study for a top 20-market radio station, he finally saw what looked like the tipping point – 84 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds said they used their computers and other digital devices for music every day vs. 78 percent who listened to radio daily.

Digital had finally surpassed radio.

“It was like a eureka moment,” said Coleman, president of Coleman Insights, based in Research Triangle Park.

Since then, two other studies in major markets have shown the same thing, Coleman said. And a separate study showed that 41 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds said they go first to their computers for music vs. 22 percent for FM radio.

Because young listeners represent the future, they are a prime target for the industry. And there is good news – 78 percent going to radio daily is still a huge number, though far under the 90-plus percent figure for all U.S. adults.

Coleman believes the challenge to radio operators is to find ways to appeal to the young generation. He doesn't think music is entirely the answer because it is so available on demand from other sources.

Instead, he thinks personality and localism are the keys to holding on to young listeners, and those in other demographic groups as well. Coleman cites the programming of WLNK-FM (“The Link”) in Charlotte – which aims for a female audience in the 25-54 age range – as a vanguard of what successful radio may become.

Using its successful morning show “Bob & Sheri” as a base, WLNK has revamped its lineup in recent years to stress personality/lifestyle talk shows, providing a unique commodity.

Meet Mr. Incognito

If there is a pied piper in Charlotte radio, it is Mr. Incognito on WPEG-FM (“Power 98”).

His weekday afternoon program is the highest-rated radio show in town among 12- to 17-year-olds, a spot he maintained in the latest Arbitron ratings released last week.

Mr. Incognito is Brian Robinson, 33, a native of Washington, D.C., who believes that to attract young listeners, radio must adapt to an age where tastes change at warp speed.

Record companies used to set the agenda for playlists. No more, he says.

“It's not about record companies. It's about the independents.” Robinson says Web sites like YouTube and MySpace expose young listeners to a variety of entertainers beyond the mainstream. If you want to appeal to that generation, he says, you have to constantly monitor what they're being drawn to.

Robinson says he does that research in unconventional ways. He makes the circuit of local schools to talk to students at rallies or games to find out what they like. He trolls dance clubs to see what artists are hot. He uses his teenage nephews as music consultants.

Most of all, he believes that his audience wants to connect with what's current in town, something the iPod can't provide.

“Local is always good – people want to know what's going on here. This market is really about, ‘What concert is coming to town?'”

3 stations, 1 demographic

WPEG-FM is one of three Charlotte stations aiming at 18- to 34-year-olds. WPEG is No. 1 in that demographic, followed by WNKS-FM (“Kiss”) and WIBT-FM (“The Beat”).

Many advertisers covet people in the 18-34 demographic because their earning power and disposable income tend to grow annually, they are in a phase of their lives where they do not have long-standing purchasing loyalties and they are growing into an age cell where they will be spending on everything from electronic devices to automobiles.

Kalei Sabaratnam, 18, of Davidson, a rising sophomore at Hampshire College in Maine, says computer listening is popular in her dorm because of the vast playlists.

She is typical for her age group in one form of radio listening – her favorite local stations are “Power 98,” “Kiss” and “The Beat.” And she's unusual in another – she's a fan of public radio and often listens to WFAE-FM, traditionally a destination for older listeners.

“I love, love listening to NPR.”