Time To Un-Clutter
August 21, 2012
Before You Can Take It Out, You've Got To Know It's Trash
As we get ready to fade into Fall, now's a good time to look at the problems caused by clutter on the radio. The problem for some programmers is that they may not know exactly what is clutter or trash ... and what is not.
Here are few thoughts on wrapping the garbage that offends those listeners who are fond of our frequencies. If we don't toss out the trash, soon the U-Haul will appear in our driveway. Our audience definitely wants our formats to be funky, but they don't want them to stink. When they do, the garbage has got to go ... before they do. There are a lot of stations that have gone from being P1s to P2s because of clutter.
Every station has garbage. The question is what should we do with it? Should we spray it with disinfectant chemicals or cover it with "strong songs?" Where and how can we store it until the taint is removed? It's a question of answers and research.
Let's begin with one of the most familiar forms of clutter ... remotes. Every programmer has had to deal with the issue of doing weekend remotes. If you haven't, you're extremely lucky. But don't count on that luck to last. Beyond the clutter there's the issue of perception. Remotes are not, as most sales people think, designed to create instant foot traffic. Most clients are taught to think a successful remote means lots of record-breaking sales in addition to foot traffic. None of that means anything if your event only satisfies the client and that small percentage of your audience who attend.
Recent studies show that remote attendees account for less than one-tenth of one percent of your total cume. What about the rest of your audience? They expect great radio at all times ...even during a remote. And they should. Therefore, a successful remote is one that doesn't break the format and still offers compelling reasons to listen to a "live commercial." A great remote takes planning and coordination with all parties involved, including your audience.
The number-one concern for sales, the client and programming has to be: How will this sound to the listening audience ... not those attending the event? The best way to prevent remote clutter is not to allow your on-air personality and your on-location jock to talk back and forth. That's the kiss of death. Simply run a music bed and have your remote talent pick it up and run with it. When they finish selling the product and inviting listeners to stop by, move on to the next element. Keep in mind that this type of remote break is not entertainment and should be treated as any other spot in that break.
Auditorium tests and focus group studies constantly reveal music freaks especially are irritated by anything that is not fresh new music. They are not only less tolerant of trash, they also don't care that the station needs commercials to survive and that you have to take time out now and then to inform them. They're not empathic to your needs to serve the community, if it means stopping the music. You'd better be either funny or jamming.
Let's face it: Today's listeners are selfish and spoiled. Most just want to be entertained. "Just make me laugh and play my favorite songs" is how most listeners feel. They want to hear just their personal favorite songs over and over again and to have fun. Anything else is strictly trash ... a tune-out. When we run for the ratings, cleaning up the clutter should be an important part of what Urban stations that want to win must do. First we've got to clean up the kitchen and then we have to get down to some serious cookin'.
Another good place to begin getting rid of the garbage is in the regular airchecks with the jock staff. I don't care how busy you are or how many stations you're overseeing ... you've got to do it. Let's look at and listen to your entire staff - syndicated and local. How many of them still attempt to be funny or informative, but only end up being boring and silly? An air talent who adds clutter to the format is a liability who must be dealt with. Otherwise, the whole format is in jeopardy.
Dealing with local talent is always a major issue, and it takes a different approach for each personality. We'll deal with syndicated talent and voicetracking later, separately. In spite of having huge egos, air personalities usually want everyone to listen to and like them. The key is to get their egos to work for them. Don't criticize them directly; find their strengths and focus on those. If you can make them understand and show them where they're shooting themselves in the foot, they'll take out some of the trash for you.
As a consultant, one of my pet peeves and one of the areas that I always find sorely lacking is how personalities handle the phones. Many still put callers on live. That is an absolute no-no. Listener calls should always be recorded and edited. That way, bad or risky calls never get on the air and long callers get edited down. This is just one more effective way of "taking out the trash."
Personalities should be made aware that callers exist only to set up the talent and make them look good. They are essentially props. If Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley, Russ Parr or Doug Banks never took callers, the audience probably wouldn't notice. Callers are such a very small percentage of the audience that they are not a critical response factor, providing the music is on target and the other elements are in place.
Once you have taken out the trash, you have to replace that garbage with compelling programming. Just what is compelling programming? Compelling programming is when the air personality tells the listeners something they don't know, when they speak very frankly about it and it better be something they already care about. And then, if they can do it with a touch of humor ... and do that consistently, you've won the game.
Another thing programmers have to recognize is the value of horizontal recycling. This is very important for those stations measured by the meter. It's a form of appointment listening and it works better when you use it to promote tomorrow at the same time, rather than trying to promote the rest of the show -- even though both are important. Even the most loyal listeners (hopefully, those with a meter or a diary) are only listening to one of five hours of a show. Morning shows have a tendency to come on the air with guns blazing, doing the passionate, personal stuff they're excited about at six o'clock. But the power hour doesn't begin until seven. If you structure and schedule the content on the morning show with this in mind, that can make a huge difference. Maybe someone should tell the syndicated show producers about this since we don't control them, but are directly affected by this.
This whole concept of editing and eliminating the "trash" is a special problem. It often involves a lack of training. It's a known fact that the demand for qualified live, local air talent -- particularly in drive times --, far exceeds the supply. Today's programmers and consultants have to spend more time listening to airchecks (and music) and less time in front of their computers. The reason is obvious. If we can't find talented on-air personalities, we have to train them ... and nobody has time or wants to do that. We want someone else to find them, just like we want someone else to find our hits. Research can't find them. It can help to sort out those titles that are burned or don't achieve high passion scores, but it can't find them. And a consultant whose forte is not Urban really can't find them. And unfortunately, there are still too many "aliens from other formats" making decisions at Urban stations.
We all want to play it safe. But you can't put the station on automatic and expect ratings to rise. That's simply not going to happen. There are reasons why training and talent development continue to be major problems for Urban radio. The reasons go far beyond the basics of just getting the music right.
Some of today's decision-makers have problems training others because they weren't really trained themselves. Many came from stations where the PD was on the air, moved up and never knew how to use talent development to remove the trash. If that's your situation, you can't ignore the problem and wait for it to bite you. At least once a week sit down with your air talent and really listen. Then do the same with your syndicated and voicetrack talent. Listen critically for one hour a week. Transcribe the show in detail, catching the missed formatics, wrong sequences, lack of meaningful content, poor voice transitions, etc. It you note just one little thing that you can tell your air talent, they'll think you listen all the time.
Air Pressure Requires More Than A Pump
After we've taken care of the air talent and removed the trash, we have to look at the overall sound of the station. Even if you've got the perfect playlist, if the station sounds like it's being filtered through a wind tunnel, you've still got big problems. If your engineer can't tell that the sound of the station is flat, shallow and "muddy" compared to your competition, you've got a tough fight. It will be noticed right away by your listeners, who are listening on better receivers, particularly in their cars. They're constantly making comparisons, even subconscious ones, between you and your direct (or indirect) format competitors. So you've got to take care of it. You must convince your chief engineer, GM, owner, consultant or group PD that there is a need for some new audio processing equipment. This is an area that is all too often overlooked in Urban radio.
Now let's check out the signal itself. You want to sound as clean and crisp as possible. One of the ways Urban stations often lose, especially with the blurring of formats and music lately, is when your competition plays the same song, often at the same time you are playing it, and it sounds better over there. All of a sudden, it doesn't matter who plays 10 songs in a row, because all that hum, hiss, cross-talk, vibration and distortion in your audio signal is going to take its toll. It affects and causes audience fatigue.
Let's face it: Tuners and other audio equipment in homes, cars and portable devices are now digital and getting better, cheaper and smaller all the time. This is making even the younger members of your audience more purist, if only by comparison.
If you're skilled, persistent or fortunate enough to get rid of the garbage and get your station lean and on top, naturally, you are then expected to keep it there. Your GM may even add more commercial units and promos, remotes and garbage and ask you to understand. They've got pressure, too. The problem is when those Arbitron digits drop, so will you. So invite your management and sales team to read this editorial. They may not smell the garbage or admit it even when they do.
Keep a positive attitude. Don't worry about the things you know you need that you don't have. Focusing on what you don't have leads to a mentality of lack and limitation. Instead, focus on what you do have and what you can do to make your station better. Don't put yourself or your station down, but try to surpass yourself. Strive to improve on your own performance. The most effective competitors are those who set their own challenges and then surpass them.