The Attention Span Problem

When public radio has to consider making its programs shorter because young listeners won't listen, we officially have a documented attention span problem.

Of course, it doesn't take any more than a few minutes in the company of the next generation before you realize that the number one problem going forward isn't too many commercials or too little new music or stupid djs or lack of social networking.

That, too.

But the inability or unwillingness of young listeners to extend their listening is problem number one. It deserves discussion, understanding and then innovation.

In NPR's case listening is up but for shorter periods. NPR is the last frontier of taking the time to do it right. If NPR is feeling the heat, commercial stations have a big problem they may not care to know they have.

NPR's Morning Edition has almost 13 million listeners a week and is the second most listened to national radio program behind Rush Limbaugh. (We will reserve our discussion on local radio for another day as NPR is a national entity -- and a damn successful one at that).

Young listeners are going to be a challenge. In terrestrial radio, very little meaningful programming is aimed at them because young listeners have abandoned radio for the Internet and mobile world. But all listeners are getting antsy.

What's a radio station to do?

1. Break the programming down into smaller chunks. That is, one hour of music is fine if you're in the mood to listen for an hour. You'll rarely find a young person doing that. In the past radio worked well with block programming -- variable length shows at different times. Growing up I remember "the adults" listening to WOR, New York that had, say, a 15-minute newscast, then a 45-minute program with the legendary Jean Sheppard. There was a different standard for program length. You just had to stay tuned. Maybe it's a 45-minute show. Maybe a 55-minute program on health. The all-night show tended to be one long block figuring that the station was providing company for night owls. Back to the future. Even a top 40 station can break into a five song countdown anywhere on its clock -- say, featuring the five newest releases in the genre.

2. Play to multitaskers. Everyone seems to be a multitasker today even older demographics. So content should be created with that in mind. Broadcast to them and ask them to do something else -- pick up a Blackberry and text in to win a mortgage payment. This cooperates with the inevitable. Too frequently radio programming is created under the misguided belief that the station has the full attention of their listeners. They don't. They won't.

3. Several years ago a student lab I taught at USC was dealing with the issue of radio commercials. It concluded that Bill Drake was right -- play one commercial, play a song, play another commercial and so on. A few songs in a row after that was fine. What they didn't care for is four minutes in a row. Their limit, when pressed in this unscientific but revealing setting, was one commercial in a row. And no, they didn't care if it was a minute, a 30 or a so-called "blink".

4. Billboarding what's ahead doesn't necessarily help with short attention span listeners. How often do radio stations tell you four or five artists that will be played next and how often do listeners tune out anyway? I've concluded that today's listener is more concerned about what they might miss than what you say is upcoming. That's a big difference. If a station gains the reputation for being live and unpredictable, it will teach even older listeners -- don't touch that dial.

5. Eliminating fluff and clutter is more in the stations interest than ever before -- and it was always in the station's best interest. Too much chatter. Promos that are repetitious and long. Features that, in the end, don't matter. Endless commercials. Traffic (in some formats). Just about any feature that can be sold to an advertiser is probably suspect here. Clutter is an open invitation to go elsewhere.

I found that teaching young people involved new techniques to keep their attention -- and I don't mean PowerPoint slides. They hate that. Different tempos in presenting information. Lots of discussion. Bits -- yes, bits -- that help launch a topic. In a recent class I asked everyone to bring me one social networking site that I may never have heard of (you know, other than MySpace or Facebook). For 45 minutes, the students went to the computer and put their sites on large screens visible to all. In the end, many techniques were involved in communicating for an hour and fifty minute class. When I went to college, someone wound the professor up and he or she went like the energizer bunny for two hours.

All of us -- no matter how old we are -- have a shorter attention span in this fast-paced media world.

Adapting to shorter attention spans is easier than ramming HD technology down the throats of listeners. My programming friends will have a field day with this challenge because that's what radio programmers do -- adapt and change.

This reminds me that I have been asked -- and I have accepted -- an invitation to teach at the upcoming Conclave in Minneapolis. Somehow I have managed to miss this great event which radio people revere. I'll tell you more in the future, but it will be fun to have a "class" of real live radio executives talking about traditional and new media. And will be great fun to meet many of you in person and see old friends.

One more thing -- you win the short attention span battle one minute at a time -- not one show at a time.

This is something we definitely can do.

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