Pulling Away From The Pack
April 26, 2011
Make Every Minute Matter
If every newborn had a parent trained in science ... if every first grader had a sibling who loved math ... if every adolescent had friends hooked on computers and not just computer games ... America would be facing a different future and we would perhaps be in better shape to compete and excel. Fortunately, there are first-graders, adolescents and parents who recognize what I like to call "cradle science." Without even realizing it, they're dedicated and responding to growth and change. What's good about this is that studies show these parents are still hooked on radio -- terrestrial radio. But these same studies show they're changing as their needs and worlds change.
Because of those changes, programming is at an evolutionary crossroads. We're not just in the radio business. We're now part of a multi-platform entertainment industry. We have to make sure we are evolving at the same speed that consumers are evolving. As programmers we have to make certain we have the right music, content, people and sources in place to take advantage of that evolution. In addition to executing what we do we have to be very cognizant and say to our audience that if they missed something, they can check it out on our website via our podcast. Once something is done on-the-air, we should quickly make it available to them on another platform. It's really about digital and mobile. Many young listeners are hearing our stations on their iPhone or iHeartradio. Urban radio stations have to continue to build their presence and extend their brand by telling people that you can now get us on a smart phone.
Listeners are button-pushers, especially in the car, where a lot of listening takes place. Recent studies have shown that the audience is not just listening to three stations, as we were led to believe during the "diary days." With PPM it's more like six or seven deep. And if we don't give our listeners what they want, hold their interest, keep them compelled or entertained, they're going to push the button and move on. Today more than ever, we have to make every minute count. Our listeners are giving us the most precious thing they have -- their time. If we can make them feel good about spending it with our frequency, we can pull away from the pack.
No matter how good things may seem to be, a few down ratings can instantly damage a station and a programmer's reputation, sending even the most-respected strategists into a tailspin from which they might not fully recover for years, if ever. For some PDs, one problem is that they simply haven't adjusted to Arbitron's PPM. They still live in a "diary world." The other problem is that multitasking and wearing many hats have simply overwhelmed them. But survival today means it is absolutely necessary for programmers to be able to effectively juggle more than just an air shift and schedule music for one station.
In order to do this, some PDs I've spoken with recently say their air shifts are now voice-tracked, which poses a whole other set of considerations when they record them. They have to make sure they're current, topical and whatever else they can do to put on the most live sounding show possible. They've learned to integrate live contests as well as attend station events that permit them to maintain the integrity of the show. And they must participate in as many social media platforms as possible to further keep that connection to their listeners. Along with all of those things, you've also got be able to consistently appeal to a lonely listener looking for a good laugh and a great song.
Format Enhancing Content
As programmers and air talent, we are notorious for airing elements that may sound cool to those of us who love it, but have little or no effect on the audience. In same cases something as simple as playing back a winner over a music bed can be a huge turn-off. e.g. "What's your name and where ya callin' from?" Then the jock asks the caller about her day at work. Pretty common stuff, huh? The problem is at this point, about 12 seconds into the phone bit you can just see listeners' hands moving to the pre-sets in the car right as the jock tells the ninth caller, "Yo, glad you had a good day. What station has tickets to all the big shows?"
First of all, I have never believed in "designated caller contests." But that's another issue I will take up at a later date. But more important than that is the lack of format enhancing content in a standard contest/jock break sequence that happens on hundreds of stations daily. Even with a well-known personality and a carefully edited bit, unless it's a monster prize or impossible to get concert tickets, you should never run a prize winner in between songs. That's taking a big risk. Today listeners have a lot of options for entertainment coupled with a lot of restraints on their time. Radio is, at best, a welcome distraction. Back in the day we could get away with doing a 20-second bit over a music bed or even a long intro. Back then listeners had no Facebook, Pandora, Sirius XM, Music Choice or iPods.
What's the secret to getting and keeping new listeners (cume)? Format enhancing content. Content that matches and exceeds listeners' expectations. We have to consistently create interesting and dynamic content between the jams while taking some risks. Today's air talent, whether live or voicetracked, should be reminded to be real, uncontrived and hyper-focused on one listener who has more choices than ever for audio entertainment. Focus on word economy and creating an emotional connection with the listener.
Remember music is not content to the current Generation X or Generation Y. Today's listener can get content almost anywhere with web-enabled smartphones. We must invest in strong personalities. Personalities who can again make radio an appointment, a destination. They have to become a "can't miss" portion of our lives. Radio must get back to being a social event shared with family and friends. Every time our jocks crack the mic, the talk break has to be strong. The conversation has to be short, well-thought out and about things that really interest the listener or can make them feel good. If it isn't and if they can't relate, laugh or chuckle, the "conversation" is quickly over and so is your P1 dominance.
Radio's reach is as high as ever, but our Time Spent Listening (TSL) has dropped because of increased competition from other technologies. We have to provide a deeply engaged relationship between the listener and the content. Take a chance. Provide an element of surprise by creating a stronger mix than the algorithm of a glorified iPod. This format-enhancing content will make it harder to turn away from the station. This happens when the listeners feel personally vested and have a relationship with it through its air talent.
Finally, we have to be careful in this smartphone-driven media environment of infinite choices, that we don't overreact to the research that says keep the breaks short. Speed breaks do not build loyalty. Rather than cutting jock breaks to the point that the audience equates the human voice with being an annoying interruption, we want our listeners to regard them as an opportunity to gain insight, context and be entertained. As programmers and for our long-term survival and growth, and in order to really make every minute count, we must pay more attention to format enhancing content. Whenever possible, be local and unique. We must give our talent enough time to do great shows and allow for time-shifted listening instead of becoming robo-jock liner-readers. It's time to reinstate a creative atmosphere. We have to seek out and hire future broadcasters with a passion to create. Initially, they may want to be different and pull away from the pack. That's okay. Because eventually, they will return and reward us with fresh ideas from a new generation who are immersed in the culture.