Music

Radio in the Philippines: Where it's Been, Where It's Going and Why People Are (Still) Listening

Why do you (still) listen to FM radio?
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Radio was my number one hype-up device. Whenever I had something going on—a basketball tournament, a hard test in school, or even life’s basic trials-and-tribulation stuff—I’d turn it up to get fired up.

It was also my absolute go-to for the latest songs, from any artist and from any genre. Ditties you won’t/can’t find anywhere else. Heck you couldn’t even buy it even if you had money—not unless you own the radio station, or your daddy does.

Radio stations in the Philippines like 99.5RT and NU107 subscribed to music services like TM Century Hit Disc or USA Pop Express and Rock Express to get the latest chart-topping hits on a CD via courier door-to-door delivery.

Local labels like Warner and Sony provided stations with albums on a 33 (RPM vinyl) or singles on a 45—this was pre-CD era—but they’d usually be a couple of weeks to a month late.

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If you wanted cutting-edge, you’d get your music straight from the States.

Rise of digital

When Napster came in the early 2000s, torrents and various other forms of music piracy weren’t too far behind. This started a seismic shift in the way people listened to their music.

Why would you wait for the DJ to play your song when you can hear it on demand?

Building a playlist with the music you liked became easy, and “easy” became portable when the iPod arrived a few years later.

At the turn of the century, people were saying radio was on its deathbed, and iPods, mp3 players, podcasts were standing by ready to pull the plug.

Nineteen years after, against all that competition, and even with diminishing airtime sales, guess who’s still here? At this point, the question isn’t whether you tune in or not, but more like, “Why do you (still) listen to FM radio?”

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Morningmajiggy is a radio program on 87.5 FM1 hosted by (from left) Zack, Lana and Therese

Photo by ERIC TIPAN .

DJs or Radio Personalities

There were “jocks” too in the early days of radio but for them, music was priority number one and talk came in a far second.

Jeremiah Junior was wild and wacky (and still is), North Andrew always had something funny to say (aside from dissing boy bands and other stations on the FM band).

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If you wanted “knock-knock” jokes listen to DWKC, while LS had the DJ everyone loved to hate (but listened to anyway), Triggerman.

Joe D’ Mango was doing Love Notes and The Blade was busy polishing his signature outro, “I’m outta here.” Magic was still up-and-coming back then, but they threw the best 90s summer parties.

As much talk as these guys did, FM was still some 80 percent music and 20 percent talk. Now, just minus the Mind Flayer, it’s totally the upside down.

More talk, less music has become radio’s biggest selling point these days.

To be fair, the really good ones make the chit-chat engaging and can intelligently handle a wide variety of topics.

But that’s because behind the mic now is a totally different breed of DJs. Christened as “radio personalities,” these guys (and girls) now hunt down trending topics—or even make one up—instead of artist info.

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Outside of the booth

I remember meeting some DJs in the 90s who were as timid as tarsiers in person, but à la Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam on the mic. They were quick-witted and funny but more importantly, they knew their music. Living, breathing name-that-tune experts, who could tell you the full name of Madonna without opening Wikipedia.

As great as those guys were, some of them might not be cut out for today’s radio.

“Today’s listeners have an online life as well, and they want radio to be part of that. Our DJ’s are not just traditional radio jocks, they are social media personalities as well,” says Rico Robles of RX93.1.

That’s what most top-rating stations look for now, someone with radio DJ skills. But equally essential is an active social media life, and that means Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts with up-to-the-minute updates and a lot of followers (think tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands).

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If you dream of being the one, that’s what it’ll take now: no alter ego or separate life outside the “booth.” You either walk the talk or take a walk.

Take Magic 89.9’s Boys’ Night Out for example. Starting out in 2006 with King DJ Logan, Slick Rick and Tony Toni, theirs is a raunchy show from the very beginning and while the lineup may have changed to include Sam YG and others, the format hasn’t changed one bit.

Thirteen years and numerous KBP (Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas) suspensions later, it’s still as strong as ever and could very well hit the two-decade mark without missing a beat.

It even inspired the format of a couple of evening drivetime shows, one in RX and another in Jam 88.3, but there was just no beating the OG.

When asked how they do it, Slick Rick said, “I think we push the boundaries every day and it’s something we always play with because if we don’t do it then someone else will.”

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Their secret, “I think we don’t want to get old and we go out and see what’s going on around our market. Plus, we are out there to have fun!” added Rick.

Carlo Villo is the deputy director of the Philippine Broadcasting Service and is responsible for the sound of FM radio stations 87.5 FM1 and 104.3 FM2

Photo by ERIC TIPAN .
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Less music, more talk

Don’t get me wrong. You still get music on FM radio now, just not like before—not by a longshot.

At any given time, especially on pop stations, shenanigans get more airtime than singles, and understandably so.

Listeners’ taste and preferences have changed. Now, they’d rather hear what the DJ has to say instead of the songs they play.

Conditions relative to radio listening is vastly different now as well. Traffic is so bad that you might end up hearing the same songs like they’re on repeat if your commute/drive takes some two to three hours every day.

If that’s the case, let me tell you right now, most of you probably aren’t making it through the week.

Listeners want to be entertained and driving music isn’t entertaining if the car ain’t moving.

Even if you super-like a song, your brain can only take so much of it. Any more than that and the word “grima” comes to mind.

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Besides, the queue of advertisers buying airtime in these talk shows wouldn’t be through the door and around the corner if the ratings don’t support it.

Surveys have consistently shown that talk shows on radio entertain drivers, passengers, and commuters more than DJ Khaled, Kanye and Katy combined.

Talent has even proven that timeslot doesn’t matter. Take Papa Jack, the erstwhile 90.7 Love Radio host, for example. His show was on during late-night (9p.m. to 1 a.m.) and yet his commercial load was comparable to morning drivetime slots. That was a radio-first, for sure.

If you build it (and it’s good), they will come.

The return of more music?

But two relatively new radio stations in the Philippines are making a very compelling argument for “more music,” along with FM staples like Crossover, WRocK and a few others.

But of them all, 87.5 FM1 is the most intriguing.

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A pop station playing chart-topping tracks and catering to the same demographic as Magic 89.9, it doesn’t employ the same formula as its competitors.

Their “radio personalities” seldom talk and when they do, it’s for but a few precious seconds.

The station has been on for a little more than a year but already, its morning show Morningamajiggy finished 2018 at number five in the Mega Manila FM radio survey. The top four are all masa stations.

Three hosts with an average of 15 seconds per adlib, how do they split the time?

According to Morningamajiggy host Therese, “Communication. It plays a vital part in our dynamic. We share ideas, topics we wanna talk about and how we want it delivered. Depending on the material on hand, we could go solo, by two or all together, but always take turns.”

It sounds tough considering everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame but like they say, “there’s no I in TEAM.”

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Therese’s pro-tip for morning show hosts, “I think the market is pretty wide and there are different audiences with different preferences, you just gotta give them something they’re not getting yet. With us, it’s less talk, more music.”

Boys Night Out on Magic 89.9 is one of the most popular radio programs on Philippine FM radio

Photo by ERIC TIPAN .
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What do listeners want?

Numbers don’t lie. A January to November 2018 survey by Nielsen, albeit done in the US, indicates that talk radio fan base grew by four percent (10 percent) while pop stations lost 1.2 percent of its listeners (6.9 percent).

Granted that radio is more diverse Stateside with other formats like country music and classic rock, but there’s still no denying that talk is the overwhelming favorite.

There’s hard data and more research that says intelligent talk shows keep the brain sharp, not to mention it takes the mind away from the fact that the car’s pace is a meter per minute.

Intellectual stimulus is key: a topic, a thought, an idea. Something more substantial than the seven alphanumeric characters slapped on the plate of the vehicle ahead or the inane repetitiveness of Rihanna’s records.

That’s why it’s important for “personalities” to know what’s trending. Whether it’s the Kardashians or King Robert of Baratheon, talk about it, break it down.

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It’ll get people thinking, talking and even calling. Who cares if they agree or disagree, get angry, sad or happy. The fact is, for a few minutes, the dull drive was the last thing on their minds.

Listening habits change with age though as 10.7-percent of the 18-to-34-year-old demographic is switching back to music (talk radio only gets 4.3 percent).

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In the 25-54-year-old market, the gap is smaller but a majority still picked tunes over talk.

That will surely be music to the ears of seasoned radio programmer Carlo Villo, who’s now the deputy director of the Philippine Broadcasting Service and the man responsible for the sound of 87.5 FM1 and 104.3 FM2. He opines, “Our contention is that people listen to radio because of music, announcers (radio personalities) are secondary. If there’s talk, it has to be relevant and something listeners can relate to.”

Call him old school—he’s been doing this since 1989—but he believes in radio’s higher purpose. “I believe that radio is supposed to make you feel good, hence the more music we can put out on air, the more chances of us making people feel good about their day.”

He even wants to take radio beyond music and entertainment. “I see room for corporate social responsibility events—medical missions, feeding programs, youth development—that can help listeners, in lieu of concerts and parties, which are fine, but it’s about time radio gives back to the community.”

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Music to talk, all the way to CSR? With the unpredictable trend of listenership, I wouldn’t put it past radio to venture that far.

But in the end, after the last word has been spoken and the final note has played, the listeners are still judge, jury and executioner, and as of right now, the verdict is still up in the air.

Whether you yearn for yakkety-yak or mind-numbing melodies, and despite statistics that favor more modern forms of media, the important thing for us in radio is, you’re still listening.

Let Spotify worry about the why.

Eric Tipan is a morning person who hates waking up at 5a.m. He does the daily morning radio show on 104.3 FM2 and then starts pounding the keyboard promptly after to fulfill his duties as a contributor to various media outlets. You can catch him on TV sportscasting for ABS-CBN S+A or co-hosting weekly lifestyle show Gear Box on RP1 738 kHz.

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