When Your Audience Tunes Away, What Do They Miss?
April 5, 2011
What Is Really Being Heard?
Urban stations with deep footprints across several generations may enjoy the luxury of being able to color outside the lines. But is that enough? Talk breaks that lasted 10 or 20 seconds or longer used to be all right, especially if they could make a difference. But now, with PPM, the thinking has changed. If your intention is to create passion for the music beyond the music itself, then you have to ask yourself: If your core audience tunes away, what do they miss ... and what would make them come back?
Well, if you've spent any time studying programming strategies, you know that answer to that is listeners still tune in to be entertained. And if 70-80% of average quarter-hours' (AQH) share come from P1s, we have to find a way to get them to stay or to come back and give us credit. Sometimes we have to go beyond the music and say something or do something in between songs to make them do that.
Voices Still Carry
Radio really needs to be changed. In order to maximize our ratings, we require talented people to be on the air. And in spite of the "more music" trends in PPM-measured markets, voices still carry, because they can bring huge audience shares for listeners who want more than music. Most of the new, "more music" formats that have penetrated practically every decent market in America have either eliminated live jocks or severely restricted what they can say and do.
Many of these group-owned stations fired their air personalities and replaced them with "voicetracking," which allows a single host to do shows in several markets without ever leaving the home studio. Listeners are led to believe they're listening to a local broadcast. Management's strategy is to use the money that would have gone to pay top talent for extensive marketing and research (or so they say). Some stations poured some of the money they saved into television commercials, billboards, social networking, newspaper ads, direct marketing and upgraded websites. The "bean counters" said they simply wanted to bring down their programming costs. Any format can become less expensive if you don't spend money on it, but don't expect great results unless you properly invest in your station. These managers failed to understand that they needed to help the voices who are left to carry ... on.
Format pundits claim we are driving or have driven some of our most loyal listeners to satellite radio, Internet radio or the iPod. One of the reasons listeners have moved away from radio, say these same pundits, is a lack of variety. Another is clutter (things that happen between even the most well-researched jams that are turning listeners off). Is it the voices? What they say ... or what they don't say?
When we do audience research, we see a lot of answers to both questions that say, "Yes." Yes, the voices are turning listeners off. And yes, there are things that air personalities are both saying and not saying that bother listeners. There are basic things listeners would like to hear (like the title and artist of the songs they're playing, for instance). They want their favorite air talent to tell them between songs things about the artists. They want to know where they live, how they live and what they like. All we have to do is listen to our station's voices like a listener and we will know right away what's wrong with the voices and their content. Then we need to re-write and re-direct the show-prep manual to include or exclude the things we discover as a result of our research ... and we're well on our way to solving one of our biggest problems.
Chances are, you may work for a station that is part of a large group or conglomerate. Many of these stations have developed what I like to call the "studio envelope" concept. This is where the company houses all of its stations at one site to let them reduce the number of workers and share management, studios, news and sales forces. One of the advantages to this type of set-up is that it allows for a great deal of sharing.
For example, if an idea or a bit develops on the Top 40 or Country station down the hall, that idea or joke could be shared and visa versa. If each live, non-syndicated show within a format cluster would share just one idea a week, soon you would have dozens of ideas banked. I know that some of this type of sharing is going on right now on those national conference calls, but there is not enough sharing with formats in the same building. If you couple the strongest talent with some of the best ideas and then provide some guidance, you've got a winner.
I believe some of the most talented people radio has ever had are still on the air right now. The problem is that they all need guidance. They need a program director who will listen to their shows and help them to improve. The capacity of the human mind to be creative is infinite. There is lot of new talent out there that just needs to be developed and given a chance to evolve.
Talent development sessions are missing at many stations, and there are lots of reasons for that. The program director is too busy. Programmers who didn't come up as an air talent don't know what or how to critique or instruct. If you're a programmer who never sat in the "air-chair," there are going to be some things you just don't know ... and the talent can sense this.
Programmers who are experts at scheduling music, but absolute failures at developing talent, have a real problem. There's much more to programming than just scheduling songs. Today's programmer needs to be able to determine how people use the station, when they tune in and how long they listen, their commute times and when they start their workday ... to paint a picture of the audience. Studies show that music comes first for most listeners and that the audience has very specific patterns in their lives. Stations have to match these audience patterns.
Personalities just don't stand out like they used to. Some programmers we've spoken with recently defend the expanding use of voicetracking and shift stretching as a way to adjust to shifting audience listening practices.
Regarding the marathon air shifts, they simply say some talent can handle a longer shift and some can't. To which we reply: That may be true, but what about the audience? Today they have more choices than ever they can make. In the final analysis these decisions should be based on the quality of the talent, the station, format and what the market will bear.
It's counterintuitive, even alarming, that stations that claim they want to win, would sack their air talent and turn their stations into jukeboxes, precisely when music is available from an array of other sources. In the long term, fewer personalities will serve to commoditize the medium and render its content less distinguishable from an iPod or low-budget Internet station.
We need to put our vision hats back on because it's been proven over and over that if the audience tunes away because they no longer feel they will miss anything, we're in trouble. In the end, propping up the bottom line through drastic cuts in radio's product, will only further reduce its top line.