May 23, 2014
Something we don't always do in radio that we kinda need to do is to bring fresh ears to a station and a market and hear what's being put on the air from the perspective of a listener who doesn't know what formatics are or who has better ratings or anything beyond "I hit the scan button and this is what came up."
I'm being reminded of that this weekend, because I'm in an undisclosed location that is not my home, and while I can't say that I'm coming at it without any knowledge of the players or the market, I can say that once I got into the rental car, I completely forgot all of that, meaning I was left to constantly hitting the scan button. Then, on Friday morning, out for a run, it was more aimlessly wandering across the dial. It was as close as I can come to being a disinterested "average consumer" looking for entertainment the way non-radio people do. And I observed a few things.
First, yes, we need to make money. And that means selling ads. But after decades of being aware that long stop sets are poison, and armed with PPM research showing measurable dips during spots, I was hearing long, long stop sets padded with promos, 7, 8 minutes' worth, and if I wasn't listening with a thought about writing a column about it, I would have been gone after at most the third spot. Not only is it ratings poison, but it does clients a disservice -- bury a spot in that stop set and who's gonna stick around to hear it?
Look, we have some bright minds in radio, right? We haven't figured out how to better distribute spots? We haven't figured out how to make better spots and come up with different sales opportunities that may be more effective than the sixth :60 spot in a long string of commercials? You can tell yourself that it's all okay, because the meter numbers aren't too far off where they used to be, but we're increasingly in an era of ROI, and an era of consumers now able to do more about that barrage of spots -- they don't just hit the scan button, they go to alternative media sources. And they don't always come back.
About those alternative media sources: AM stations and FMs with poor signals have looked at the Internet as a good alternative, a way for listeners to get their product that isn't limited by the broadcast signal (although it IS limited by 3G and LTE signals, which, here in Undisclosed Location, suck beyond words). That came to mind when I decided to bail on another long stop set on a talk station and listen to some music, and went to the local Alternative station, to find that the signal is not exactly full-market. In fact, it teetered on the hairy edge of listenable on a portable radio right in the heart of the market. Now, they can tell me that I can find them streaming on the Net and apps, and I can use that to listen. But if I'm going to do that, would I bother to listen to them? Or am I going to listen to Pandora or Spotify or iTunes Music or any other customizable option, so I don't get, as I got with that station, (name of artist I can't stand redacted)? Or if I want Alternative in radio station form, won't I just hit one of the bigger ones like KROQ?
When you drive people to streams, you're driving them to the equivalent of another band, like AMs simulcasting on FM. Once they're there, you have a whole new spectrum of competitors, and some might be better suited for that band than you are. You have to consider that, and tailor what you do to that medium. A separate stream with fewer commercials? Customizable options? Morning show podcasts? If you/re sending people online, you have to give them a reason to choose you over others they can access there.
And back to broadcast for a moment: I sampled a bunch of local morning shows in this market and one nearby, and one thing kept coming up to me. This is painful for someone like me who was among the pioneers of the kind of conversational, no-music, youth-targeting don't-call-it-talk show we euphemistically call "hot talk" or "guy talk" or whatever, but, man, if you're not a hardcore, P1 (again, I HATE that jargon) listener, those shows can be impenetrable. What I mean is that I tune in not knowing the players, not knowing who's who and who has a history with whom and what's going on, and it just sounds like a mess. I heard it on a sports station, I heard it on multiple other stations -- guys arguing with guys about something that was unclear, nobody referring to each other by name, just a bunch of people jocularly arguing to no apparent end.
I suppose that all personality shows get to that point after a while; the core audience, which can be large, knows who's who and gets into it. I'm not arguing with that at all. I helped develop that. Some of it is my fault. But from the standpoint of new listeners, it's more off-putting than welcoming, and today, when there's WAY more competition and the PPM has not been kind to that kind of radio, maybe we should consider how to do this in a way that isn't a closed shop. (That''s different from podcasts (INSERT STANDARD DISCLAIMER HERE), which are by nature set up as affirmative choices by listeners -- the audience knows what it's hearing because it didn't just happen upon the shows midstream with the scan button, it voluntarily selected the show and listens from the beginning. Maybe that's a reason these kind of things aren't as off-putting in online form.) At the very least, keeping in mind the need to grow your audience rather than just preserve the core at all costs is something you might want to consider.
Finally, I've been in radio since Marconi. I know stations all over the country. But I still couldn't find what was what and who was who when I came to Undisclosed Location, and since I arrived, I really haven't seen much marketing of any stations -- one hard-to-read billboard that happened to be on the way OUT of one market and towards another, no TV spots, no bumper stickers (remember them?), nothing. Sure, you're using social, and maybe putting up a canopy and playing music at street fairs. But radio marketing budgets ain't what they used to be, and, I gotta remind you, out of sight, out of mind. Yes, you have social media, but that's only one part of being where your listeners are. What are you doing to remind people in their cars that you exist? So, yeah, that.
Anyway, I really didn't plan to spend my whole long Memorial Day weekend in Undisclosed Location analyzing radio, so I'm gonna wrap this up now with the suggestion that you get someone who isn't in radio and isn't from your market to visit and listen and observe. Soliciting a fresh, unbiased perspective on your product isn't a bad thing to do now and then. At least, they might hear something you're too close to hear yourself.
All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics will be back to regular strength when I return next Wednesday, but until then, there are still hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
And follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and as for, Nerdist.com, come on over and check out the new look. Still occasionally posting at pmsimon.com, too -- there'll be more coming there, too, with some changes to my schedule that I'll mention soon.
And now for that STANDARD DISCLAIMER I mentioned above: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, which by nature involves the Nerdist Podcast Network, which is one of your more prominent podcasting entities. So, yes, I have a dog in that race. But more than one dog, because I am still, and always, a radio guy. And that's your Full Disclosure Moment.
It's pretty standard by now for people to remind each other that Memorial Day is not merely about barbecues and the beginning of the extended Summer season, that it's about remembering those who gave their lives serving America. Don't skimp on the barbecue, but while you're gorging on burgers and ribs, take a second and remember those whose sacrifices helped make it possible.