More Ads = Less Listening (Who knew?)

The greatest Top 40 radio station of all time, the one that everybody copied played one song, one spot, one song, one spot, one song. The greatest radio station I personally programmed and the greatest one I consulted both carried ten minutes of commercials an hour and never more than 3 spots in a break. And they both made piles of money for the owners and both paid their people well above average. A different age, yes I know.

The long spot breaks originally came into being as a way to promote long music sweeps. That was a tactic of the (then) new FM usurpers challenging the established AM music stations. Over the years, the breaks got longer and longer and now they are near universal; every station is blowing off it’s own toes with them.

Here’s an interesting number. Pandora did some research on it’s ad content. A long sample period; 21 months. A huge sample base, 35 million listeners. Listeners were divided into 9 different groups, each receiving a set number of ads per hour. Finding: increasing the load by one spot an hour resulted in a 2% decline in average listening.

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The iHeart App

The first of this year, I launched a syndicated Country format service. As I’ve not been actively consulting for some years and so have not been listening much at all to any broadcast radio stations. No need, as I’ve not been in competition with anybody for a long time. And the length of commercial breaks that the corporate borg has lathered on is too much to bear. Austin’s great NPR station, KUT has me in the car, internet streams have me in the office.

So, I’m listening to the co-owned iHeart Country stations in Austin and it’s beyond awful to hear. Maybe I’ll get energetic some day and write a programming audit for some of my clients and customers to read; but probably not. It’s pointless to critique people who are rich and don’t know what they’re doing. (Talkin’ the borg exec’s here, not the workers, of course.) But the most maddening thing about listening to any iHeart station now is the constant incessant pitches for their app. Who the hell think’s it’s a good idea to spend so much time and energy telling the audience to go somewhere else to listen?! Ah, but these brainiacs will say the earth’s moved, listeners are getting audio from their devices and so we are planning for the future where that app will be the doorway and we’ll be the dominant source of all listening pleasure. And all on-demand video pleasure. And podcast pleasure. Good luck with that, boys.

A couple weeks back, I got a guided tour of a new radio app from SecureNet Systems and was totally wowed by it. That got me to thinking, and so I installed the iHeart app for the first time. I logged in, created an account, entered zip code. Said my preference was Country. The app presented me with a list of choices, a combination of radio stations and star-channels. The first local station, KASE/Austin was #7 on the list. KVET/Austin was #10. What?! They’ve been pumpin’ this app for, what, over a decade now? Both of those stations promo the app damned near every break and the thing doesn’t list them at the Top of the choices?! Have they heard of geo-targeting? The station in the #1 position is KSCS/Dallas. That’s 200 miles north of me. Were I the program director of either of those stations this would make me scream.

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Auditorium Testing Killing Radio Innovation

…Or, so says this guy who’s never worked in radio before. Here’s his article. He is kinda right, but mostly wrong. First off, it is not Auditorium testing that is mis-guided, it is call-out research that done the dirty deed.

Auditorium testing is an accurate and reliable polling system if: 1) it is properly conducted and 2) if the sample size is large enough. Oh, and 3) If the radio management and programming team know what to do with the data after they get it. For part one, rarely is it done well. Radio research companies do shoddy work. The only one I ever worked with that was really good was/is Larry Rosin’s Edison Research. The second tripping point is sample size. That article says the typical sample is “several hundred people.” Nope. “Several hundred” is two hundred and few stations pay for more than that. Too expensive for tight-wad Corporate Radio; they’ll pay for a hundred person sample, tops. Often, less than that. So garbage in/garbage out is the majority position.

And for the third point; Do they know what to do with the data they get? Too often, the answer is no. Here’s an example. Say the station chooses to test 400 songs in a session. That’s the max that the respondents can stand in one of these sessions. The resulting data will show have the songs will test above average, half below average. The corporate honcho or the GM will say something like, “We ain’t playin’ those songs that tested below the line.” I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen some of the most valuable records in the station’s library dropped from airplay because “we spent thirty grand on this project and we’re damn sure gonna follow what it tells us.”

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“Radio has to innovate….” Part 1

“Radio has to innovate to remain relevant as a source of music discovery.”
That’s a line from a well done research report that came across my desk this summer titled “Paradigm Shift: Why Radio Must Adapt to the Rise of Digital”. Coming from where I come from, there’s a whole bunch of directions I could go with that thought in mind. If i ever get around to it, what with all the other stuff I’m into. I talk with and coach people about this music radio thing all day, every day. And I’ve been doing music radio as a profession since I was sixteen. A long damn time, eh? Since ’64. Double damn. So, here’s one of my thought paths about the culture shift and Where Radio Is Going ?!!?

This report is proffered as a wake-up call to today’s radio operators. The ground has shifted and we’re not the primary music discovery source anymore. Kids, the biggest consumers of new music, are now getting their new music yum-yums from Spotify and YouTube. A big artist releases an entire album now, all the tracks at once. Radio has been a single-at-a-time music source. Not so much by choice as by record label marketing design. Record companies firmly resisted the idea of radio playing anything BUT the current single. I’ll give you an example.

I’ve always been known as a music director/program director/programming consultant who “took chances” on new music. What did that mean? That I’d add a new song to my station’s playlists because I thought it might be a hit. I didn’t ask the promoter “who else has added it”. I didn’t say “I’ll wait until I see some call-out research test scores.” I was the leading influence on the chart success of “Blue” by Leann Rimes, an old-fashioned Country song released in the middle of the Hot Country, boot scootin’ boogie era as the B-side of the 13 year-old’s first single. I heard it the first week of May ’96, added it Amarillo, Columbus GA, Santa Rosa CA and every program director reported back to me they were getting “INSTANT PHONES’ every time they played it. That is, listener’s calling to ask about it and request repeat plays. The next week, it went into power rotation, seven spins a day at my powerhouse station KKBQ/Houston. The week after that it went on at KPLX/Dallas. The record promotion staff absolutely luvved me, doncha’ know. Don’t misunderstand me now. I’m not saying it was me that made the song a hit. I was just on the leading edge, the first big-time guy to play it on important radio stations.

Jump back three years and there was a different story on a different hit record. “Chattahoochie” was the third single off an album released in October ’92. The Country format was hot and Alan Jackson was one of its hottest new stars. The first single was “She’s got The Rhythm (and I Got the Blues)”. Number one on the charts. The second single was the droll ballad “Tonight I Climbed The Wall”. Released the first week of January ’93, it eventually peaked at #4, but my god, there was “Chattahoochie” sitting there on the album. Anybody in Country radio at the time who didn’t recognize that record as a potential monster hit wasn’t qualified for picking music. We’d added it in Houston over the Christmas holidays and beginning in January it went into Power Current rotation. The official single at the time was the ballad, which we had in light rotation. The record label was not happy. Not at all. “What’s gonna happen to it when it becomes a single in the Spring and station in Houston has it in Recurrent rotation?! It’ll hurt Alan’s chart success. He might not get a Number One on it!!”

The come-back from radio in situations like this was usually something like “we’re not in the record selling business, we’re in the radio business.” True, on one level of course. But radio airplay certainly sold records and exclusive ownership of a hot hit was a very strong programming element. For the entire ’93 Winter Sweep (audience measurement period), KKBQ was the only Country station in the nation’s most competitive Country radio market that was playing the Song of the Year and the CMA Single of the Year. And Alan still got his #1.

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What Chart Do You Use?

A station owner recently asked for and received my Country library playlists; Recurrent, Gold, Classics and Legends. He’d had some uneasiness about many of the songs he was hearing on his station; some of them just didn’t seem ‘right’. As he began updating and adjusting the library and was immediately pleased with the result, he sent an eamail asking which chart I relied on. Here’s how I answered:

for tracking top 10 performance,
i use MediaBase now. switched to it about 5 years ago.
before that, Billboard. i used the R&R chart until it
folded.

again, this is only for noting Top 10 performance,
the confirming fact that a song should be a candidate for
inclusion in the Recurrent and Gold lists in the future.
‘candidate’ because not every top 10 record makes
the cut. i hone in on Top 5 for those lists as it is
more reliable.

charts for new songs judgement/consideration are
culled from many different lists. i see what’s on
billboard and mediabase. more importantly are
the digital charts. iTunes shows what’s being bought
Youtube views are an indicator of bubbling interest.
same goes for the Shazam chart.
and the Slacker EQ chart. this one measures how long
a person listened to a track, did she listen all the way to the
end of the song, did he add it to his ‘favorites’, did
they ‘share’ it on social media.

since its debut this summer the chart to watch is: buzzanglemusic.com
this one is a comprehensive aggregation of sales from
all platforms.

as my sage mentor told me way way way back: the two indicators
of a record’s programming value are 1st: requests 2nd sales
and the dollar spent to buy a song is the more important of the two.

the conundrum that we can’t solve is: WHO is buying the record.
Country is primarily and Adult 35+ format.
under 30 demos are far and away more likely to buy and share
music than past-30 adults are. so that gives the charts their
present skew towards BroCountry and the Country-rap glut.
much of this is “not Country” to more mature ears, those who
are much more likely to listen to broadcast radio than ipods.
so, a Country music director needs to be careful with
acts like Dan + Shay and new guy Kane Brown, both of whom are
doing fairly well on all charts now.

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Human Element Missing

One of the many mistakes corporate radio has made is the elimination of the live, human element from much of their broadcast day. And no, happy-talk voice-tracking is not a proper substitute. Most announcers lose something when they are voice tracking; the immediacy is gone, they’re talking “professionally” to a microphone rather than to their listener.

The golden key to listenership success is to create a personable station, a station that clearly sounds like one that has Real People putting it together. The station need not be the slickest, although consistent levels, cross fades and good processing of the audio are required. We need to sound less-automated than corporate radio. While not necessarily everything that is coming down your stream has to have a live disc jockey sitting there every moment, talking live between the records, what we must have is regularly updated personalizations, new stuff being said. Voices have to be there talking whether they be yours, a few regular announcers or voicers recorded from listeners. These things need to be freshened regularly; don’t let them get stale.

What to talk about? The one golden key, the one thing all successful radio disc jockeys have in common is: They talk about the music. Dick Clark, the most successful DJ of all time started in radio before American Bandstand. On the show, he never talked about anything that wasn’t music related. Casey Kasem, Alan Freed, my mentor Buddy Deane, same deal. They didn’t talk about politics. They didn’t tell jokes. The only opinions they expressed were positive ones; and, universally they were positive about the music they were presenting.

If you are involved in music radio, broadcast or internet, you are doing it out of your love for music and the odd, driving desire to share and present that music to other people. Everybody likes music. Most people love music. But people who are in radio love it more. That’s why we are doing this radio thing. To share the love. Communicate your interest and your love, verbally, your voice all the voices on your station. That is what will help bind listeners to your station once they find it. A successful radio station is a one-to-one companion for the listener. Sound more human and your station is more comfortable to spend a lot of time with.

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BroCountry Peaked in ’14

Here’s a Nielsen graph tracking Country listening trends. Looks like BroCountry peaked in 2014. But, it didn’t do much for the Country’s historical prime demo, 25-54. This suggests to me the mix I’ve put together for the New Country Tradition format on target for today’s marketplace.

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Adding New Music – Early Lesson

In the early years of Top 40 Radio, song rotations and music formatting were way different than what we know today. It was common for a station to play the #1 song of the week every hour. WABC in New York, the biggest Rock ‘n Roll station in the whole wide world at the time did that until the fall of ’68 when “Hey Jude” in all it’s 7 minute glory stayed #1 for nine weeks and the whole staff came near revolt.

My first PD also played a Pick Hit Of The Week every hour at :45. This was the early days of the Beatles, Stones, Animals, Dusty Springfield, Simon & Garfunkle, Motown, Mamas and Papas, so there was a lot to pick from. One week, I couldn’t find the previous week’s pick hit in the control room. I’d really liked it and asked PD Buzz who told me he’d pulled it. “Why?” “Well, not everything we like is going to be liked by listeners. What they like is the important thing. So, I play the record every hour for a week, then I pull it out and see if anybody notices.” “What?” “Well, if they like it enough they’ll notice they haven’t heard it in a while and maybe call in a request. If we get some calls for it, I’ll put it back in.” I think he then gave me a copy of the 45 to take home.

Buzz said hit stations play hit music and the two things that tell you a record has radio programming value are first, Sales and second, Requests. The phone calls come first because that’s where people find a new one they like. But you gotta pay attention to WHO is calling. Are different people calling or is it just one or two request-line junkies? If an adult called, that is more important than a teen call. Counting the requests for the songs in the playlist is important. Knowing something about who is asking for songs is equally important. My first lesson in the difference between quantitative and qualitative.

Sales are the main thing, he said. “The dollar spent to buy the record is the single most important indication that the record has radio programming value. The ones that sell big are the one’s we’ll still be playing as Oldies in the future.”

The first record promo guy I remember talking to was Moe Preskell, a legend in his trade. Short, round, bald, Jewish, cigar, a distinctive somewhat gravelly voice. A total pro at what he did. My little station in Arkansas was a Gavin Reporter, one of only about 50 at the time and, by far, the smallest of that elite club. For those on the young side, The Gavin Report was the first radio-focused trade sheet. It’s chart was where hit records were launched. There were three record stores in my town and when KOTN added one that Moe was working, he’d mail five 45’s to each of them with a note that it was getting play on the station and here were some free copies for them to have on hand if any customers came to ask. A week or two later, Moe would call the stores to see if any sold. If so, he’d then crow about it to every other station on the Gavin reporter list. And he’d begin pitching hard and heavy to larger markets nearby, Shreveport, Jackson, Memphis, Little Rock. Smart.

A few weeks back, I read an excerpt from a new book about product success in the marketplace, “Hit Makers”. It has a few paragraphs about a record promo guy who gets a station in Victoria Texas to play a new song, then he plugs into a data tracker from Slacker, the app that can listen to a few bars of any song and instantly tell you what it is. The record guy watches to see if his new song is getting Slacker’d in that little Texas town. If it is, then calls stations in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Dallas and tells them the story: Listeners heard it. Listeners wanted to know what it was so they could hear it again. That means this may be a hit record that is good for you to be playing, too.

It’s always true. To build and maintain an audience: Play what your targeted group of listeners like. Watch for what they respond do. If they take action to hear a record again, pay attention. That action can be a request, a record sale or download, a lot of ‘shares’, or significant Slacker hits.

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More About Move/TV Music Synergy

Following my post about playing Goldfinger a few minutes after the Bond movie let out so’s some folks would hear it on the way home and, we hoped, be getting an extra little shot of feel-good juice from our station. Here’s how such a thing can be done today. Take The Sopranos. Season Five, in the opening segment something happens, Tony is pissed, slams the car door and takes off up the driveway. And out blasts “Heaven Only Knows” a solid Country rocker from Emmylou Harris. Now, the single wasn’t a big hit. Only got into the Top 20 in ’89. The Sopranos episode first aired fifteen years later. I moved it into a hot rotation for a few weeks after that episode first aired. The series, of course is iconic and continues to draw viewers today and I still schedule it in a Light Gold rotation. One could take something from The Sopranos for just about any format. Rock, Salsa, Classical. Here’s a list that shows every song used in every episode of the series. If you found something that fits your format, maybe the one that was on Tony’s soundtrack would pump just a bit more juice into your music mix than the ordinary Oldie would.

Here’s an up-to-date usage of the idea. HBO has another solid hit mini-series with “Big Little Lies” that made prominent use of The Temptations classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” in all the advance promos and trailers and was the background music for an extended seies of scenes at the end of Episode Six when some heavy shit was coming down. If I were programming an Oldies station this winter and spring, I’d have that one moved into Power Gold until at least the first of June.

I’ve always paid attention to the music used in movies and on tv, especially the music in the Hit shows. Whenever I hear something that is in my format, I pump up the spins on the station.

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Playing Goldfinger After The Movie Ends

Before I started my 7 to 10:30 pm airshift one Saturday night in early ’65, my program director, the guy who’d hired me told me to play “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey at a specific time that evening. This was a surprise because he was the same guy who’d already schooled me that successful radio stations played the hits and “Goldfinger” was not a hit. It peaked at #21 and was on the Billboard cart for just nine weeks. Still, I was to spin it at the given time because it was approximately ten minutes after the James Bond movie ended at the local drive-in movie. He wanted people to hear it on their way home, to get another little taste of the hit movie. Buzz Bennett was a great explainer. He’d have said something like, “It’s a hit movie and the song reminds people of the movie so maybe some of those people will make a mental association that this radio station is in the groove with whatever it is they like.”

I took that to heart. Throughout my career, I’ve paid attention to the music being used on TV and in the movies, and when appropriate, I’d juiced my playlist with songs that echo the visuals from other media. When the hit show “Northern Exposure” had a Patsy Cline oldie playing on the jukebox in one long scene, I put it into a heavy rotation for the next week. This past week, the hit show “The Americans” had the two lead actors dancing together to Alabama’s “Old Flame”, a huge hit in ’81 that hasn’t been much heard on Country radio stations over the past 15 years. Popping that into a hot rotation for the next week or ten days now still makes sense to me.

This is a small thing really, barely perceptible. But I think it is elemental. A successful music radio station resonates and associates with other media.

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