It's sometimes said that job security in broadcast radio is akin to riding a soap bubble. At some point, your ride is going to burst.
And when it does, you can bet your bottom dollar that it was tied to the all-important Arbitron Inc. ratings, and a format change is coming to your radio station.
"We're all dealing with it. It's something we're looking at every day," said Jeff Holden, market manager for Clear Channel in Sacramento. San Antonio-based Clear Channel is an international media company with six local radio stations.
Arbitron, the Columbia, Md.-based media and marketing research firm, lists more than 50 radio stations vying for a piece of the listener pie in Sacramento the nation's No. 27 market, by population, with more than 1.8 million age 12 and older.
Like other large-population markets right on up to No. 1 New York City and No. 2 Los Angeles, which Arbitron says is No. 1 in radio revenue Sacramento has seen a steady stream of station format changes in recent years.
They've become so commonplace that there's a website to track them: www.formatchange.com. Industry officials say it's a byproduct of having so many stations battling to grab the attention of listeners in large metro markets.
And here's the important caveat: When it comes to Arbitron rankings, we're talking about relatively small pieces of a big pie.
Arbitron ranks radio stations multiple ways. One is by share, defined as a percentage of a market's radio listeners turned to a particular radio station. In the age 6-plus demographic from 6 a.m. to midnight Monday to Sunday in December, Arbitron showed contemporary pop/rock/rhythm & blues station KDND The End, 107.9 FM, at the top with a 6.5 share. New Country KNCI, 105.1 FM, was second at 6.0.
Sacramento stations listed below 10th had shares of less than 4.0.
With some 15 Sacramento market radio stations fighting for shares ranging from 2.0 to 3.5, Holden says, there is a perfect storm for frequent format changes.
"When you're fighting over just a small (percentage) shift, that's going to happen," he said. " We're all fighting for this small piece of pie, so we ask, 'What something can I do to get a little piece of that audience?' The expectation is that you can still hold a piece of that audience better than the next guy."
Holden recently went through the process.
On Dec. 1, Clear Channel property 92.5 FM ditched its soft rock format and began simulcasting with sister station KFBK, 1530 AM, the longtime home of talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Tom Sullivan and local personalities such as Kitty O'Neal and John McGinness.
Holden said 92.5 was "doing OK" with its 1990s-to-now music format, but the switch was made in hopes of raising numbers by exposing a new group of mostly younger people to AM-style programming.
"In Sacramento, 65 percent of the market never even listens to the AM side," Holden noted at the time.
Holden said that in other markets where companies have migrated AM programming to FM, younger listeners have been drawn in, lowering the age of the stations' core demographics and creating more advertising opportunities.
In December, Arbitron reported a 5.0 share for KFBK, good for seventh in the Sacramento market. Under its new format, 92.5 FM had a 2.3 share, tied for 17th in the local age 6-and-up demographic.
Holden added that, right now, "spoken word is bigger than any individual format across the country," even with what Holden called a significant audience of teens and young adults who are "high consumers of audio product."
The website of Inside Radio, the Atlanta-based radio trade source, showed news/talk at the top of its national format count list in December with 2,222.
For baby boomers many of whom grew up listening to Top 40 music radio stations and could quote the weekly hit rankings from memory the shift to spoken word is a shock.
But then, boomers didn't have the wide menu of music-delivery systems available today.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry estimates that digital music revenues now account for more than 30 percent of record companies' trade revenue. That's around $5 billion.
The route to a single music hit purchase in 1968 was typically radio to record store. Today, it's entirely an online transaction.
Throw in the significant impact of SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and it's little wonder that New York-based marketing and branding expert Peter Schaub says: "Old-school music radio doesn't pack the marketing punch it used to have."
Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, agrees.
"I think the biggest explanation is that people will no longer tolerate what somebody puts on the lineup for music," he said. " The old concept of music radio, where you heard the song you wanted to hear maybe every third song, if that, has been replaced.
"Radio as a music delivery system has been trumped by these other digital devices."
Radio industry experts insist that broadcast music is not going away. They point out that formats separate music into numerous subcategories. For rock alone, formats include contemporary, alternative, soft, Christian and classic.
Arbitron says radio is thriving, adding 1.4 million more weekly listeners in December than it had in December 2010. Arbitron estimates that the number of people 12 and older now listening to radio is 241.3 million, or about 93 percent of the U.S. population in that demographic.
Even so, the very economic-support structure of broadcast radio stations is changing.
For years, radio advertising rates have been based on Arbitron figures. Within the industry, there is debate about how best to gauge the number of online music listeners, including those who listen to Internet radio via Oakland-based Pandora Media Inc.
Holden acknowledges the extreme fragmentation and brutal competition, yet calls the current radio environment "incredibly exciting It's exciting to watch how it's all coming together.
"We're doing it in ways that we never thought possible. It's just so dynamic crafting (station content) appropriately enough to consumers on the listening side and advertisers on the commercial side of things."