Drive-by Radio

The radio industry is about to do it again -- ready, aim, fire -- shoot itself in the foot.

For an industry that used to do research and presumably knew how to read it, many radio groups are now overreacting to Portable People Meter (PPM) dynamics by cutting the talk and playing more music.

It's never wrong to play a lot of music.

But when there are iPods and cell phones, laptops and WiFi why is radio trying to do less personality?

Two reasons:

1. It's cheaper (music played with voice tracking is downright cheap and boring radio). When was the last time anyone ever requested a voice tracked radio station? Listeners tolerate it, but in fewer numbers every month.

2. Radio execs think because music intensive stations seem to do better in PPM ratings, that talk needs to be cut back even more.

Both of these excuses are related to the other.

If playing constant music gets better ratings, why foot the expense? Or, if we have to cut expenses, it won't cause a loss of listeners.

When WCBS-FM sounds like an iPod, you know you've got trouble. Their Bob Shannon is a certified musicologist -- a good thing for CBS-FM listeners. Who gets to hear him musicologizing (just made that word up because it sounds so good)?

And they are not the only ones.

Look at PPM results and you'll see stations that play music get numbers. AMP in LA got two million cume (or whatever you call it) virtually overnight leading some radio optimists to say, "see, radio can't be dead if there are two million listeners to one station".

Of course it is dead.

Strategies like this are what's killing it off.

Go to the streets.

See how many people you can find listening to a radio.

Sit in some cars -- is it radio they are listening to because if it is, you've just turned your station into a mini-iPod.

That is, until you decide to run commercials.

And there you go again. Long commercial breaks so that you can have an excuse to run long music sweeps and get better results from the People Meter.

So, let's get this corporate think right.

Music intensive stations are good -- especially when you shut your jocks up and prevent them from being personalities (which, remember, is cheaper for you).

Except when you need to stuff all the commercials in two or maybe three stop sets without regard to the poor suckers who are paying you to run their ads in a virtually unlistenable scenario.

I get it -- radio as usual.

This business of using the People Meter as an excuse to do cheap corporate radio is really the final nail in big radio's coffin. What makes consolidators think that making radio even more vanilla is going to build loyalty and drive listening?

Isn't it true that with PPM, any sound that is encoded will get recorded as listening even though -- forgive me for this -- it is not really listening?

I can walk into Pep Boys and someone can have the local voiced tracked hip-hop station on and that station gets credit for my "listening" and projects thousands of more like me.

Only a fool would believe that trying to program radio for people who do "drive-by" listening, if you will, is smart strategy.

Jim Owen, of KSLX in Phoenix, quoted in Tom Taylor's Taylor On Radio-Info is closer to the truth when he says:

" Lots of music is very important for a music station in PPM, with lengthy sweeps and two-song segues within. But let’s not lose sight of what they come to us for in the first place. Live breaks must be part of the music sweeps – put a person in there along with the voice guy. Tighten up all the production. And yes, there needs to be ‘less talk’, but that primarily means you need to make sure you’re doing ‘right talk.’"

And Paragon Research's Mike Henry is more direct when he adds:

"Based on how most radio companies are reacting to PPM, the headline could have been ‘Surgeon General finds that many radio companies are addicted to PPM; shorter life spans expected...'"Tell me another industry that would completely change its consumer proposition, not because of changes in the consumer, but simply due to changes in the way their consumers are surveyed...It’s ridiculous to watch radio companies and programmers change their strategic tune about what PPM really means, every time a new pattern emerges. "

Meanwhile you see interlopers trying to fill the vacuum radio is leaving.

Goom Radio, all that and more in the trade press lately, is simply an attempt to sound like radio stations when they actually entertained. We link, you decide.

Nothing against Goom, the European entry headed to our shores, but didn't radio used to do this act -- better?

I mean, hell -- when the icon of Repeater Radio, Ryan Seacrest speaks out about having his tongue tied by corporate poo bahs, has radio finally gone too far?


It's more of the same.

They are just going to continue to see the world through the eyes of radio.

You know, everyone listens to radio.

Hundreds of millions of people listen every week (forget that they keep listening for shorter time periods).

If you're not for what we do in radio, you're a radio hater.

Who needs research?

We're smarter.

Personalities are a problem and they cost too much -- people don't want to hear them anyway.

A great, slick and deep voiced LA talent is better than that stuff you call talent in Nashville (sorry, Nashville, I'm with you on this).

So Einstein is out of his box again.

Radio CEOs and their minions are doing what radio has done for the past 15 to 20 years, making up the rules as they go.

That's why radio people love the Arbitron "diary".

It is so easily manipulated -- you can almost make it turn out anyway you want. But now that they've fought the good fight and have to accept the People Meter -- watch out, to them it's still going to be the diary (only different).

Enough about these fools.

For those of you who think programming to the People Meter is a mistake:

1. PPM is a great excuse to do local, personality-based radio. Listeners like personality and you will get credit for more listening if you can make your listeners like your station better.

2. Your aim should be making local programming innovative and compelling. PPM will likely give you credit for more "listening" than a diary -- even though it's not really listening.

3. One commercial and then music and on and on with four smaller sweeps an hour will work just fine on PPM. In fact, it will do better than two or three overweight commercial clusters that waste your advertisers' money.

4. Better playlists -- more variety, some non-licensed music carefully picked will endear you to the audience that many radio people still assume will tolerate repetition.

5. One thing PPM can let you do is stop sounding like a broken record -- saying the call letters every chance your jocks open their mouths and saying absolutely nothing.

6. I'm with Alan Burns, the consultant who got the industry's ears recently, when he said stop making radio about you -- make it about your listeners. Actually, great entertainers do this instinctively. Only the faux personalities that corporate radio has cultivated make it about themselves through the use of Repeater Radio or voice tracking.

So, as PPM gets rolled out to more markets, the audience will continue to get rolled by their favorite radio stations.

Stop and think.

In this world of iPods and WiFi, why do listeners need radio when they can bring their "own" radio with them everywhere they go?

The deepest cut of all is the notion that gagging a personality in an era that has so few left anyway will work in the long run.

My guess is that you don't program a radio station by the rules of the ratings methodology you are using -- that's far too ego-driven.

You program radio for the audience and when you can make listeners crave you -- the People Meter will finally give you the credit the dairy method never could for more realistic listening levels.

Without listener loyalty radio is just -- another "drive-by" medium.

Don't confuse being in the same room with an encoded signal for listening.

And don't program for an encoded system or you're doing drive-by radio.

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