Avoid The Monument To Sameness
March 22, 2011
Adjusting Programming And Scheduling Strategies For PPM
In response to some Facebook and Twitter requests we've gotten lately, this time we're going to take a look at some programming and music scheduling strategies that can give us an edge in the PPM world. The first question is why do we have to do anything different? And is it just to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the format-similar stations in the market? The answer to both questions is a qualified "yes."
Chances are, if you listen after 10p, you will hear a monument to sameness with most music stations, regardless of format. You'll hear continuous music sweeps, with very little content and virtually all the air talent (whether live or voicetracked) simply segueing and reading liner cards. If the station is being voicetracked, those moments are often more meager. Knowing that our night audience moves and adapts to changes affects the perception of your station.
Before we look at how these perceptions are received and who is to blame for these monuments to sameness, we probably should really just start by blaming ourselves. We decided that we wanted minimum talk. We figured a mid-morning musical jukebox would find those fickle format fingers flocking to our frequency. In a few cases, we had no choice. The decision descended from a corporate force from afar. It was that same force who also decided that middays and evenings could be voicetracked.
But regardless of what we say we want, what we really want are personalities who 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 that won't take up a lot of time and can be done meaningfully. That's the adjustment we need and want to make.
PPM Music Scheduling
Now it's time to look at a few music scheduling secrets for PPM. One of the problems even well-run stations have that hurts them is multiple people scheduling songs, determining or interpreting the sound codes. When the computer music scheduling system receives inconsistent parameters and values, the result will be problems. The answer here is to review the coding of your entire library at least once a year. Then rethink which rules really matter to your station. Prioritize and don't use more rules than needed. The rules used must be in sync with the coding of the library. Be careful in determining which rules are breakable. Too many unbreakable rules will give you a false sense of security while really working against the natural flow of your station.
Here's a typical problem with artist separation categories. A separation of two-and-a-half hours with a category turning over in five hours will keep other songs by that same artist from ever playing. If yours is an Urban AC station and variety is your strong suite, make sure to have rules which deal with typical style, era and tempo-activated and leave the others turned off.
Now let's examine balance. Balance is extremely important for stations being measured by the meter. Poor balance can make a station sound inconsistent. The answer is primarily in category setup and secondly, in your rules settings. You need to make sure to set up rules for your newer edgy songs; that way you can control their distribution more easily. With too many rules for core artists, you will make it unnecessarily difficult for your music scheduling system to work well. That's the kiss of death in the PPM world. Five songs from type A in the first hour and none in the second hour can communicate two different types of stations. An even exposure of all your played jams is the way to go. This is especially important for your edgier artists.
Next you have to make certain you're exposing the right songs at the right times. Poorly designed categories and clocks often result in some songs in a category receiving a lot of exposure while others in the same category receive very little. In those cases, some secondary songs will receive more airplay than some powers because the computer finds it easier to schedule them. You need to either fix the categories or the rule settings. This also happens more often if you experience too many unscheduled positions. Next, what happens with a fill song at the end of an hour? First of all, there should be no "fill songs." You fix this by going to a flow clock and by reconciling the music logs in advance after the commercials are added.
Fear And Measured Passion
Now let's touch on fears and measured passion. Passion is a valuable asset -- if it is controlled. No matter how legitimate the issue, if you fail to exercise the appropriate amount of restraint, you're liable to exacerbate the problem. Too much passion can cause you to lose sight of the real goals. And fear will cause you to be too safe. Sometimes you have to take some risks. That's part of the game. And taking some calculated risks allows you to avoid "the monument to sameness."
Instead of following the path of creativity or looking for an edge, some programmers have allowed themselves to be led by a fear of being different. We reduced talk to absolute minimums. We strived for a more balanced sound musically. We learned to apply the secret of measured passion. Measured or controlled passion that has direction is what we want. We can use it to overcome our fears and to improve our station sound.
The secret rests with our ability to make our stations distinctive, compelling and stand out from the crowd. To do this we use measured passion to give our listeners a different type of experience. Measured passion, used in the right way at the right time, is a huge asset.
Effective Talent Development
One of the toughest, but most effective, ways to solve the monument to sameness is to improve the talent that is already 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. Another problem in Urban radio lately is that a lot of PDs have little or no experience in managing or developing major talent. In many cases, these former MDs (or former air talent themselves) try to avoid situations where they have to deal with talent. The Program Director should be hired, in part, for his or her ability to work with talent. PDs need to guide talent with frequent, regular feedback and to act as coach and even psychiatrist when needed.
We should expect more from our air talent than becoming liner card readers. Every jock, including weekenders and part-timers, should be required to do daily show prep. The question is always how much? While there is no set answer, the reality is that they have to do enough daily show prep to accumulate more new things of substance to say than he/she 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.
Another major problem has to do with the frequency of the critiquing sessions. They can't occur only when the jock is in trouble. 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 who concentrate on simply reading the liners, brevity and other boring, mechanical aspects.
I try to spot talent on the way up and tell the PD about a weekender or part-timer I feel is really talented and advise them to make sure 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 who are mature, but hip, regardless of market size. Chances are we will have talent at significantly different levels. They need to be 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, if any, individuals or teams ever become champions on their own without good coaching. If students could lean from books alone, there would be no need for teachers.
Finally, there are programmers who say, "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 need to know that we are there to support them, offer them ideas, guidance and provide guidelines so they will know just how far to stretch the envelope.
In a PPM world, if we want extraordinary ratings, we have to do extraordinary things, even if we have ordinary people. A little work in the right areas can make them sound extraordinary. Even if we get the music right, if the rest of the station is average, we can only expect average results.
Arbitron numbers, whether it's a meter or a diary, are prone to fluctuations and wobbles. Even the best stations suffer through or benefit from an unusually strong or weak book or trend on occasion. Improving our stations by improving our talent allows us to put ourselves in a better position to attract new cume or extend our TSL.
Upgrading in the areas we mentioned above will definitely widen our stations' overall appeal. Finally, remember while we all love the comfort of a set schedule, making a mark and avoiding the monument to sameness requires removing the yoke of the over-familiar.