October 25, 2011
After over five years of programming WRQX/Washington, D.C. and WLS/Chicago, Alan Burns founded Alan Burns & Associates - and since then, he has provided programming and marketing research to stations in over 100 markets, from Z100/New York and KIIS/Los Angeles on down. Over the past 26 years, Burns' singular insight has been shaped by observing and analyzing the massive changes in the radio industry, which continues to keep his consultancy on the cutting edge. Here, Burns offers more insight into the radio environment, past and present.
Your consultancy has been in business for 26 years, so you pre-date the consolidation boom. How has consolidation changed the way you do your business?
Hopefully, we've been doing logical things that most businesses have been doing for a while: Keep working on ways to do an even better job of creating value for our clients, control costs, and look for diversified revenue opportunities.
If you're talking to more group heads or multi-station PDs instead of single-station PDs, is what you offer them in terms of information and analysis any different, or presented any differently?
The biggest difference lately is not due to talking to multi-station folks as much as it is spending more time parsing the ratings. We've come up with some great PPM analytics that are extremely useful. They're having a very positive impact, especially on morning shows.
Have the basic tenets of "good radio" -- starting with being "live and local" -- changed?
Entertaining and useful are more important than live and local ... except in a local crisis, or when someone does a phenomenal job of local. But live and local are definite advantages -- especially local. When you are entertaining and useful -- and focused on the community you serve -- you're unbeatable.
You do a lot of research for your clients as well as radio at large, many of which we posted in All Access. In all the years you've been compiling and analyzing data, how has the listener changed over the years and what new or different things should radio do, in general, to attract them and keep them listening longer?
Life for consumers keeps getting busier and more crowded ... they have little time and less attention. It's harder to cut through and get their attention. At the same time it can take longer for them to build habits. So there are two conflicting trends: With social media and texting, information and behavior can spread very quickly, and with PPM behavior seems to change quickly -- but that's compared to diary measurement, not to past actual behavior. At the same time, new or improved products without a blistering marketing campaign need even more time to cut through.
Another consumer change is that the growth of customized or customizable digital products and services. Consumers have gotten more and more control over their experiences and entertainment ... and they want that from everything. Your radio station better be all about them ... and perceptibly so.
A good thing for radio: Cell phones and texting show how much people need human connection. Provide that.
Obviously, today's listeners have far more entertainment and information choices. In general, what should radio do to keep on top of (their) minds?
Everything it can. Very often on the drive from an airport to the hotel when visiting a market, I'll have the moment when I just look around at the market and think: What is there to remind consumers that any given radio station exists?
Promote. Advertise. Do memorable things. Do things people will talk about. Have some great personalities. Find ways to be different.
Of all that you discovered in your AC study on women listeners, what nugget of information surprised you the most? And what should radio do to capitalize on that information?
Several things come to mind. One is something we learned about "Arbitron cooperators" that we don't talk about publicly; another was the fact that women's biggest need right now is not time or better relationships, but money (in hindsight, that shouldn't have been a surprise given the economy, unemployment, etc.). One disappointing surprise was how few women have a specific morning show feature they look forward to hearing. As an industry, we can do better in mornings; we also are only getting cumed by about one-third of women before they leave home!
You mentioned how women want to be entertained by more personality on-air, yet AC has long been known for a subtle-and-succinct on-air style, especially with the PPM. How do you see those opposite perspective co-existing?
Not just AC. For personalities on music stations the key principle -- as far as the AUDIENCE is concerned -- has never changed. That is, do compelling things quickly. It's just that PPM has helped radio more clearly see the results of not doing that. Be compelling quickly: Bill Drake knew that in the mid-'60s. More people know it now. But few do it well.
A lot has been made about Pandora and Facebook as to whether they're enemies or partners to radio. What's your take on that?
On one level, everything that occupies consumer's attention and time, and which can or does sell advertising, is a competitor to radio. But I've seen many radio stations use Facebook effectively, like clients who have around 50% of their daily cume in their Facebook community. And Pandora, etc. are just the latest way to listen to the consumer's favorite music/music collection. In the past, that has included and evolved through vinyl records, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, iPods, computers and cell phones. But custom streamers can get closer to what radio provides ... which is why radio better get more product and consumer-experience focused.
If there a danger of radio overreacting to Pandora - in terms of cutting down even more on jock talk? How do you counsel programmers to deal with Pandora?
I don't. Just be a great radio station, not a version of Pandora. But yes, radio could become such a jukebox that the human contact and contribution isn't sufficient. At that point, a custom stream is superior.
Obviously, setting up a digital presence is important nowadays, but are you at all concerned that radio may be putting the cart before the horse, in terms of setting up all these platforms and not having enough unique content to make them fully successful?
Staying with the cart and horse analogy, it's more an issue of "not enough horses." Doing online and mobile community and communication takes time ... and some personality.
What kind of radio programming tactics still work on the digital platform ... and what kind of tactics don't translate well?
We use the digital platforms as customer-serving and brand-building channels. Whatever your station stands for, it has lots of opportunities to be that and show that in its digital platforms. But it needs to be customer-focused. What really doesn't work well are the "posts" that are really commercials and liners instead of conversations.
Also, don't ask your radio "lifers" to figure out the digital world. Have some digital, non-radio people explain it to them and teach them.
How do you consult your clients when it comes to balancing the on-air product with their digital efforts?
If what you're doing digitally is smart, entertaining and useful to the consumer, and extends and supports the radio station's brand, balance isn't too much of an issue. If all your channels support a single, unified brand ... no problem. But if you're using your radio voice to build audience or branding for something that has a different name and/or has different brand qualities, that's when balance becomes more critical ... because as far as the audience is concerned, you're running another commercial when you talk about it.
Radio management needs to understand that for digital efforts to be successful financially, they have to be great products.
In your "Deep Dive Into Top 40" study, you again caution that the 'non-music content' is lacking. What are the best ways to alleviate that -- especially when the stations you consult are manned by a bevy of personnel who are already multi-tasking -- and they don't have the financial resources to add new staff?
More PDs need to learn what works ... and how to coach people to get it. That way they grow the people they do have.
Make sure the people you do have are passionate, not just punching the clock. You get more that way.
Talk to the audience ... they give you great ideas.
Offer opportunities for interested novices who exhibit potential to do your overnight show ... or a couple of hours ... for free in return for being taught and groomed.
You wrote a book on developing future morning superstars. Does everything in that book still ring true, or has circumstances changed that required you to tweak some of your insight?
I think 95% of it still is completely applicable. But we want to always keep learning, and someday I'll add more lessons to it and state some of the principles more elegantly.
There are those who complain there's a dwindling talent pool. Do you agree with that, or is it more that today's programmers don't have the time (and patience) to let tomorrow's superstars develop?
Both, actually. Radio is perceived as less sexy; not because the audience doesn't like it, but because they read and hear that radio's in trouble (radio needs a better press agent). Additionally, there is more access to sexy stuff to work on, such as video, websites, mobile applications, etc. And radio's salary scale has lost ground relative to other things ... the only people attracted to radio because of potential earnings are owners and some sales folk. So as a result of all that there are fewer people raising their hand and saying, "Can I come learn how to do that?"
At the same time, there are too many PDs who know how to coach but are too time-pressed, and PDs who don't like or know how to coach.
So the programmers who know how to find and develop talent now have a bigger advantage than ever.
Having examined listener attitudes for so long, so you feel those attitudes and those tastes are changing more rapidly due to the quickened pace of new technology?
People are fascinated by "new," and there's something new every month ... or every week. There are so many new websites out there that you need a website to tell you about new websites and an app to inform you about other apps.
Radio's not good at giving and being "new" except when we play a new song. Need to be better at that.
As I mentioned earlier, though, to me the attitude that has changed the most is the reinforcement that people can now more often have what they've always wanted, which is having it their way. So being in touch with the audience, understanding and serving them, rather than guessing at them and then stroking ourselves, manages to become even more vital every day. While at the same time, radio is generally less in touch with its audience ... not a good thing.
With that in mind, does the quickened pace of technology force you to do more frequent studies to best capture the listeners' changing tastes and attitude?
Not so much. Superficial things, like where their attention might be focused today, the scandal of the day, etc., changes rapidly, but basic attitudes don't warp that quickly.
Are you as bullish on radio today as you were five years ago or 10 years ago?
I believe in the medium and its power to do great things for listeners and advertisers as much as ever. I'm not as bullish on the financial environment -- and I'm talking here about the country in general, not just radio -- as I was five years ago. Five years ago was 2006, right before the economy went over the cliff. If we don't see some pragmatism erupt in Washington, I'm afraid things may not improve as much as we need any time soon.
What, in general are the keys to radio's success in the future?
Have some people who can afford to value the future. Reducing product resources works financially in the short run, but risks the future. Focus on understanding, staying in touch with, and serving the audience. If you do that you -- and the industry -- will have an audience.
Then, we need to be better at sales. We're terrible as an industry. We need to be better locally, and we need a better coordinated industry sales effort, selling the medium instead of stations. But it's hard to get companies to play well with each other.
Having done this for so long, what keeps you motivated? Is this something you can see yourself doing for another 10 or 20 years?
It's easy to be motivated because radio can still be fun and there are challenges every day. I can definitely see myself doing this for many more years. In 20 years, though, I hope to spend most of my time at the beach with an adult beverage and a good book. What's the Zac Brown line ... "My toes in the water and my ass in the sand."