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Lifecycle of a Radio Station

Posted: Fri Dec 16, 2011 10:36 am
by rogerwimmer
Roger: Is there a "typical" pattern to listening habits to a new radio station? Specifically, is it typical to see an initial boom in the audience, then over time see those numbers slowly creep down unless the station does something significantly different or does a lot of advertising?

I changed format on my Internet radio station about two years ago. The first year was an impressive boost over my previous format, and I saw tremendous growth in just a few months.

This second year of the format has seen a slow falling off of the audience, with us now at about half the listening hours per month as our peak last year.

My promotion of the station includes a dynamic email signature listing the song we're currently playing; a regularly updated blog on the front page of our website (which is slowly increasing visits to our page), a Facebook page for the fans of the station (which is slowly growing in members & interaction as well), and my sig line on various music and radio message boards. However, we have no paid advertisements: no billboards, no magazine ads, no web banners on other sites, no flyers on windshields, etc.

As is often the case, those listeners who will interact with me "love" what we're doing, such as, “You're the only station I listen to at work!" That, of course, doesn't explain the drop-off in listening hours at all.

As a "gold" format, the songs and rotations are basically the same as last year, and our "fast" category only turns over about once every 40 hours. I do have a filler category that pops up infrequently at the end of an hour (when the playlist runs short) to which I've added quite a few "oh wow" songs. If a listener requests a song which doesn't qualify for regular airplay, I'll put it in this category so at least it comes up occasionally.

We don't have any obvious "holes" in our broadcast day, meaning there don't appear to be any shows or elements that see a dramatic drop in listening audience. In fact, a couple of shows that were seeing a dramatic plunge in listeners when they were on are now gone, and the numbers have stabilized during those dayparts. I also have the ability to see which element (song, promo, etc.) has caused the greatest drops over the past 30 days, and have been slowly eliminating those "audience chasers."

I guess this is a two part question:

Question 1. Is the drop in audience likely the natural result of initial curiosity, but we've now settled down into a "core" audience that really likes what we do? Is it the lack of "external" advertising that even brands like Coke, Fox, & Frito-Lay have to keep up to stay on top, or do all popular formats slowly drift out of favor with their initial audience?

Question 2. Does human nature dictate that even the most perfect station will, eventually, bore the audience if not modified? I tend to think of products changing to get people's attention ("New!" "Improved!") rather than changing things up to keep their core audience happy. But perhaps this is the old "absence makes the heart grow fonder" or "out of sight, out of mind" debate. Or, is am I focusing too much on the core audience and need to work to re-attract the fringe audience to pump the numbers back up?

I suspect I already know this answer to this question. My problem is that I don't know which answer (or combination of answers) will explain our first year of rapid growth, and our slow deflation during the second year. I'm suspecting you can provide me some much-needed focus.

As always, thank you for your advice! - Gene




Gene: As you’ll notice, I changed a few things that may be considered proprietary, but I don’t think I changed your original questions. You have asked many questions and I know I could write a short book answering everything, but I’ll try to keep this short and to the point.

While you’re operating an Internet radio station, the problems, situations, and concerns you describe also relate to all terrestrial radio stations. All of them. Not just a few. I have seen what you’re going through many times in almost 40 years of conducting radio research and I’ll rely on what I have learned to address your questions.

I know you have been reading this column for many years and I know that you have seen me say many times that operating a successful radio station requires following three steps: (1) Find out what the listeners want; (2) Give it to them; and (3) Tell them that you gave it to them. I also have said many times that the “Find out what the listeners want” step is an ongoing process because people’s likes and dislikes constantly change. Owners and managers can’t do one research study and expect those results to be relevant forever. That doesn’t happen...ever,

You ask in your first paragraph if is there is a “typical” pattern to listening habits to a new radio station. I don’t think the word “new” is necessary in your question, and therefore, your question becomes: Is there a “typical” pattern to listening habits to a radio station?

My answer is “yes,” but with a qualification because my experience shows that there are two “typical” patterns to listening habits.

Typical One Radio station owners/managers who follow the three steps to operating a successful radio station and develop a radio station that many people want to listen to, but don’t continually ask their listeners what they want, will find that their radio station eventually fades away because it is not providing what the listeners want. The “typical” listening pattern is (as you described for your radio station) a quick development of a large and loyal audience, followed by a continual decline in TSL (Time Spent Listening) and cume. Why? Because the listeners changed and the radio station didn’t. I have seen this happen many times in markets of all sizes.

Typical Two Radio station owners/managers who follow the three steps to operating a successful radio station and develop a radio station that many people want to listen to, and continually investigate what their listeners like and don’t like will find that they have developed a long-lasting product. In addition, these owners and managers constantly seek new listeners. They don’t focus their research only on the radio station’s fans (P1s); they always include infrequent cumers and even listeners who are in the target, but don’t listen to the radio station. Developing a successful radio station that last for years (or even decades) requires a constant search for new listeners to add to the station’s cume and/or to replace listeners who have left the station for one reason or another.

Unfortunately, the current economic situation has led to the near abandonment of audience research. Radio station owners and managers have either significantly reduced or eliminated research budgets. That means that PDs (and others involved in programming decisions) are required to guess what the radio station’s audience wants. In my experience, guessing what radio listeners like and don’t like is a crap shoot. I learned very early in my research career that predicting human behavior when it comes to likes and dislikes in mass media is virtually impossible. It’s easy to find out what people like and don’t like, but it’s very, very difficult to find out what they might like unless they are asked.

So, what does this all mean for you? Well, I’m guessing that you don’t have a $30,000 budget to conduct a research study, but you need a way to find out why some people are listening less to your radio station or no longer listen to your radio station.

You say that your radio station is good and that you haven’t made any significant station. The problem is that’s what you say and think. You need to find out what the listeners think. Do you have an email database of listeners? If so, you may want to consider sending an email to them to ask their opinions. Ask them, “Do you enjoy the radio station more, less, or the same as you did a few months ago?” If the answer is “less,” then ask why.

You can continue to guess what’s going on, but there has to be something that has changed on your radio station. It may be something you would never think of in 10 years. Trust me. There is something going on because I have seen this before.

Here is an example of how a minor and seemingly insignificant change may affect listening. A radio station in a small Wisconsin city hired me many years ago to find out why their morning show suddenly dropped out of first place – a position the show had held for many years. The GM and PD said they didn’t make any major changes: “The show is the same as it has always been.” Because I know predicting listening behavior is virtually impossible, I decided to ask people who no longer listen to the morning show why they changed their listening habits. I was going to conduct focus groups and then use that information to develop a questionnaire for a telephone study.

But I didn’t need to do the telephone study because the focus groups provided the information I needed. What did the listeners say? Almost unanimously the answer for no longer listening to the morning show was: “They eliminated the obituary report they had on every day at 7:20 a.m.” What? Are you kidding me? No, they weren’t kidding. The listeners said they live in a small town and relied on that information to make sure that their friends and relatives were “still OK.” Guess what happened? The GM and PD put the obituary report back on the morning show and the listeners came back. Gag me with a beaker, but that’s what happened.

Now, I know you don’t have obituaries on your radio station, but something has changed and you need to find out what it is. You had a substantial audience in the past and now you don’t. You need to find out why and the only way to do that is to ask those listeners.

Here is my offer to you . . . If you have a listener email database and can write to some of these people, I will help you develop a brief questionnaire to get the information you need. No charge to you. I’ll do it free because you have been reading this column for many years and I want to see you succeed.


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