Less Is Really Not More
May 7, 2013
Subtraction Is Not Addition
For some time now, studies have shown increasingly that one of the most irritating things that listeners have always complained about was the fact that their favorite station had too many commercials. When we further examined the research data, it became obvious that an overabundance of commercials was definitely an irritant, one that programmers would like to do something about. The problem is that none of our stations are willing to reduce their commercial load because that would mean less profit.
But what if we reduced the number and length of commercials and our ratings rose? Then we could charge more for the commercials we aired. Would that work? Could it work? The answer is "of course." There have been a number of stations that have put this policy in place. Whey they did was to reduce both the number of commercials and the length of the commercials they would run, therefore reducing not only the number of interruptions but also the length of their stopsets. This makes our stations more listenable. The whole idea centered around the idea that less is more and less is better.
Now, it's probably time for us to re-examine the question and pose it another way, "When is less really not more?" Let's look at upgrading our programming strategies. First, we really need to look at that question, "When is less not more?" Less is not more when you're forced to do more with less. It's like a game of musical chairs where one chair keeps getting taken away. So many of us find ourselves in this position today. And like taxes and gas prices, these things are probably not going to change in our favor anytime soon. So if we're going to stay in the game, we have to find ways to work with less and still get the job done. There are ways to do this and even a few secrets we'd like to share with you.
First, let's look at research. If you don't have it, then you have to work that much harder not to get beaten by those stations that do have it. Research, especially, callout and Mscore research, are great tools, but they're not the bible. They're just tools.
Now, let's assume you do have research available to you. The key becomes how to use it effectively and what things you should avoid in interpreting the research? For example, when did the person being researched get the call? This is important and it makes a big difference in the final research scores. Most of these calls are made in the early evening. As a result, something like a more aggressive song might score higher than it would if for some reason they caught these people at work. You have to use some common sense. The biggest mistake at this point would be not marrying the research data with common sense. Less time spent guessing and more time spent applying common sense to the research data makes your station a lot more likely to score.
Urban Dictates Are Still Around
Less is not more when it means a loss of sales due to Urban dictates. While the radio sales marketplace is more sophisticated today, it is still not without some built-in prejudices. Urban radio has been able to shed some of the stigmas that advertisers and agencies have held against the urban community, but others remain. At one time it was a pretty much accepted fact that not all buys were equal. One might make a case for some products and services. You might, for example, say, "Well this product just doesn't really work for Urban stations, if the product was Clearasil - which is skin-colored, but it's pink."
Nobody had a problem with that, although one could make the case that Urban radio's unduplicated audience couldn't be reached by other media because they were listening to Urban radio. Today, we recognize it's not the right thing to say or do. So there is a split in consciousness in the advertising and business communities. Some have recognized that the future of their business has everything to do with embracing the entire marketplace. They're looking for those markets they once ignored, bypassed, just missed or took for granted.
At the top of that list is the African-American consumer. More and more agencies are buying in. More and more companies that once ignored the buying motivations of African-Americans are saying, "Wait a minute; we've got to consider all these emerging market ad agencies making money in this marketplace." So they said let's create our own department. The advertising industry on the agency side woke up and smelled the coffee. Their future was hanging in the balance. They needed to target this audience because; in the future they wouldn't be calling them non-white minorities anymore because they wouldn't be.
There's a growing acceptance and an aggressive decision to target and include them. With that Urban stations have benefited. Our growth is double-digit, where our general-market counterparts have low single digits. We would like to think we're double-digit everywhere, but it's really that the marketplace is starting to have an "a ha moment" and they're shifting their dollars to places that should have been shifted to years ago.
Beyond the built-in prejudices of Urban dictates, we find radio companies also made a grave mistake when they gave the power of programming to salespeople. Many of these tunnel-visioned "bean counters" could only see to the end of the quarter. Their mantra: How many commercials can we sell in the shortest amount of time? It turns out that their answer wasn't what they expected. Now with "less is more," the question becomes, "How many shorter commercials can you sell in the shortest amount of time?"
In every other business, creativity and sales are separated within the confines of the structure. Whether it's computers, music, publishing or television, all recognize the importance of talent, except radio. It's time to face the music. The sales mentality is hurting radio. The lowest common denominator doesn't factor in our business the same way, but it has become the point which all radio executives seem to strive to achieve.
Innovation Can Mean Higher Ratings
Now, let's look at what more can we do with less that can really make a difference. How can we to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the format-similar stations in the market? Chances are, if you dial around, especially after 10a, you will hear a monument to sameness with nearly all of the music stations in continuous music sweeps, with little content and virtually all the local air talent (those who are left) simply segueing and reading liner cards. Before we look at who is to blame, and there are many most of us could bring into that group, we probably should really start with ourselves. We decided that we wanted minimum talk. We decided that a morning musical jukebox would force those fickle format fingers at work to seek out our frequency especially in a PPM world.
In some cases, the decision came from a corporate force from afar, who also decided that middays could simply be voicetracked or syndicated shows could simply be plugged in. Given the high costs of developing talent and the low costs of distribution, it's easy to see why radio executives have turned to syndication and voicetracking to stretch their on-air talent as far as possible.
Most programmers and consultants say that for today's Urban stations to be truly competitive they need to be local. While syndication may work for some generic shows like weekend chart countdowns and occasional specialty shows and even some morning drive slots, everyday music radio isn't going to be able to complete with satellite, Pandora, iHeart, Spotify, online streaming and other media choices by mimicking them. Recent studies have shown that while much of America still tunes to broadcast radio, the amount of time people spend listening has dropped steadily for the last few years.
But wait, no programmers have said "just read the liner cards and don't say anything else." Regardless of what the audience says they want, what they really want are jocks that can be distinct, compelling or even funny while keeping talk to a minimum. That means they can personalize the weather, kid with the callers and do a bunch of little things which won't take up a lot of time and that can be done meaningfully.
But unfortunately, instead of following the path of creativity, or looking for an edge, we've allowed ourselves to be led by a fear of being different and so we reduced talk to absolute minimums. The result, according to recent research results from focus groups to listeners' panels, have shown that the respondents all feel that stations sound alike and that they perceive radio as boring. Another result is that our Time Spent Listening keeps dropping. Can we improve our TSL by upgrading? Yes. Our salvation rests with our ability to make our stations distinctive, to stand out from the crowd.
Real Talent Can Do More With Less
Why has the audience been leaving radio for the past few years? Because radio hasn't done anything innovative to keep them. Look at all the innovations outside of radio. It seems every month a new Internet phenomenon, a digital toy, a game or novelty is invented that captures the attention of potential radio listeners. What has radio given them? Very little. In some cases, nothing. The difference between radio today and 10 years ago can be summed up in one word -- less. Today we have less personalities, less minutes of news and public affairs, less promotions, less local-tie-ins, less minutes of new music, less new artists broken on the radio and less listeners. But it's not too late to turn that less into more.
What is often one of the toughest, but most effective ways to employ the less is more theory is on the talent on our stations. First, we have to recognize the talent. Then we have to understand that talent by its very nature never stands still. Talent involves creativity, evolution and even some risk. Risk has now become a dirty word, but we can channel the risk-taking, guide it, foster it or thwart it. But especially these days, we must control it. There will always be a place in radio for "calculated risk-takers."
Another of the problems in Urban radio lately is that a lot of PDs have been put in place that have little or no experience in managing or developing major talent. In many cases, these former music schedulers or air talent themselves, try to avoid being placed in situations where they have to deal with talent. That's a huge mistake. The PD should be hired, in part, for their ability to work with talent, to guide them, with frequent, regular feedback and to act as coach and even psychiatrist when needed. We should expect more from our air talent than liner cards readers. Every jock, including weekenders and part-timers, should be required to do daily show prep. The question is always how much? And while there is no set answer, the reality is that they have to do enough daily show prep so that they have more new things of substance to say that they can use in each day's show. Even so-called, continuous music stations can benefit from air talent who make emotional contact with the audience.
The key to improving air talent and getting them to say less that means more also has a lot to do with the behavioral processes with which they are critiqued. As their PD you have to focus on the behavior you want to change and improve. If you want personalities to better edit themselves address only the process of editing. Give them examples of what you mean. And remember the direction is always forward. You have to concentrate on the future. Once a corrective point has been made and acknowledge, move on. The most important goal of every critique session is to motivate and inspire innovative future performance.
Another major problem that we have to address in our upgrading process has to do with the frequency of the critiquing sessions. They can't occur only when the jock is in trouble. Often, by that time it may be too late - for both of you. As a consultant, what I try to do is observe each situation and treat it accordingly. The most common problems I have found are jocks that concentrate on simply reading the liners, brevity and other mechanical aspects. I immediately correct this. I also try to spot talent on the way up and tell the program director about someone I feel is really talented and advise them to make certain that talent is nurtured, encouraged and rewarded.
Assessing our station's talent level should be the first step in determining the style or approach we use to improve them. We want personalities that are mature, but hip, regardless of market size. Chances are we will have talent at significantly different levels. They need to coached and improved accordingly. It is important to understand that regardless of how we personally feel about this aspect of our job, it must be done! The fact is that few, in any, individuals or teams ever become champions on their own without good coaching. If students could learn from books alone there would be no need for teachers.
Finally, for those programmers who say things like, "I know I ought to schedule some aircheck sessions, but I just don't have the time. They've got me watching three stations now and it's all I can do just to get the music scheduled." That may be true, but that's a weak cop-out! Our ratings depend as much on what happens between the records as the records themselves. Our air talent are performers who need to know that we are there to support them and offer them ideas and guidance and provide guidelines so they will know just how far to stretch the envelope.
If we want extraordinary ratings we have to do extraordinary things, even if we have to do it with less. A little work in the right areas can make our stations sound extraordinary. Even if we get the perfect playlist, if the rest of the station is average, we can expect average results. Less is not more if all we do is get the music right. Even we get the music right, if the other elements are weak, we've failed.
Arbitron numbers are prone to fluctuations and wobbles, and even the best stations suffer through or benefit from an unusually strong or weak book or trend on occasion. By looking at what we can do with less to create more ratings, we put ourselves in a better position to attract new cume, extend our TSL and generate more occasions of listening without increasing our budget or staff. Less is really not more. Addition is not subtraction. It's a kind of contemporary insanity, but it works.