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Aging Boomers pose dilemma for radio industry

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) As baby boomers get just a little too old for the taste of many radio advertisers, they may well ask: Will they still pitch me when I'm past 54?

For years, radio advertisers have put by far the greatest effort into reaching listeners between the ages of 25 and 54, a demographic group well served by radio and also considered to be the prime working years.

But now that the leading edge of the baby boomer generation those born 1946-1964 is entering the mid-50s, the radio industry is grappling with the challenge of how to convince advertisers that this very large chunk of the population is still worth paying money to reach.

After all, boomers are different from other generations. They're more likely to remain healthy, employed and active well into their golden years, keeping up their appeal to advertisers who want to sell them goods and influence their buying patterns.

And they spend money freely. According to a study by Interep, a firm that sells radio time to advertisers, boomers control half of all spending even though they only account for 42 percent of households.

Michele Skettino, vice president of marketing and research at Interep, says radio stations are less and less shy about playing up the fact that they have listeners in the 55-plus age group previously shunned by advertisers.

''Marketers are beginning to recognize that people are consumers throughout their lives at any age,'' Skettino said. ''Radio stations are beginning to promote that segment of their audience more.''

Matt Feinberg, the head buyer of national radio advertising time for Zenith Media, also said radio advertisers are beginning to warm up to older audiences.

''Advertisers are starting to consider the 50-plus audience as lucrative, because people are working longer,'' Feinberg said. ''People don't just stop listening.''

Tom Taylor, the editor of Inside Radio, a daily industry newsletter, says oldies stations in particular have been doing ''some serious soul-searching'' about how to keep boomer-age listeners past 54 without sacrificing their hold on the 25-54 age group. He likens the challenge to riding down a river with each foot on a different block of ice, but he thinks the industry will adapt.

''Boomers are still rewriting the rules,'' Taylor said. ''They're still trading up houses, still working, and they're not ready to ship off to Florida and play shuffleboard. It's at the crux of a major advertising issue.''

However, some radio experts say the industry has been slow to catch on to this emerging demographic trend, opting instead to appeal to younger listeners, who are still more attractive to many advertisers.

That has left some room at the upper end of the age scale, allowing for a recent proliferation of stations playing music from the '50s and early '60s, just the kind that might appeal to a 55-plus age group, says radio industry consultant Sean Ross with Edison Media Research in Somerville, N.J.

''People have been trying to do the pre-Beatles station for 15 years, but this year it seems to be taking off,'' Ross said. ''The good news is that the audience is being recognized, the bad news is that you wouldn't even need that format if they hadn't been disenfranchised.''

Over at the subscription radio business, appealing to boomer-age listeners is a top priority. Ron Rodriguez, a spokesman for Sirius Satellite Radio, says the company is finding that about half its customer base falls into the 35-55 age group.

As a result, most of Sirius' programming offerings are aimed straight at boomers, and even more is on the way when Sirius tweaks its programming lineup again in January. ''There's an insatiable desire for people in that age group (for music) ... so we're giving them more,'' Rodriguez said.

Boomers are already doing a lot to keep the music companies in business. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, buyers over 40 accounted for 35 percent of all music purchases in 2002, up from 26 percent in 1998.

Robert Unmacht, a broadcasting consultant with In3 Partners in Nashville, says the question of how to cater to the 55-plus age group has become a big topic of discussion in the radio industry, but an overall strategy has yet to emerge.

''I expect we'll see growth in stations targeting people who are older than 55'' in the coming years, Unmacht said. ''The bulk of the population is going there, so radio is going to have to get on board. .... Radio has got to figure this out. It's going to be fun to see.''



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