Radio's New Obsession with Cume

By Jerry Del Colliano

For decades, radio stations relentlessly pursued quarter hour listening dominance.

We sold advertisers and agencies on the importance of buying commercials in a setting where listeners listened longer.

That was, until now.

Until Arbitron's Portable People Meter came along and changed everything. Or should I say, the radio industry changed everything based on its understanding or misunderstanding of this new technology.

Some context is needed.

I'm sure old timers (that's is anyone who was hired one year ago or longer) remember that we swept across the quarter hours with music to -- all together now -- try to win an extra five minutes of listening in the subsequent quarter hour. Under the diary system, that's all it took to get credit for two quarter hours.

Sweepers, jingle-assisted segues -- always content and not commercials on the quarter hour.

In the minds of program directors, this helped boost quarter hour listening.

Of course, it didn't. As playing tricks with listeners in the hope that a diary keeper could be influenced to report longer listening was a figment of our imagination.

The radio industry has a great imagination especially when it comes to ratings.

In reality, the only way to influence the diary reliably and effectively was to make your radio station their favorite radio station because under the diary recall system, respondents would tend to recall listening just before they had to return paper diaries to Arbitron.

If CBS-FM is your favorite station and you kept an Arbitron diary -- unless you were a super geek -- you'd recall your listening not by how many times the station played music across the quarter hours but by how long you thought you listened to your favorite station -- or other stations.

This little detail is forgotten in today's PPM world because in radio, we are all experts (including me, as you can see) in our own minds.

The problem is we're at it again.

The People Meter is picking up a disturbing trend --shorter listening spans.

However, less listening is offset by more listeners because the meter can actually record radio listening that isn't really happening as long as respondents are in earshot of an encoded signal while their portable device is in their possession.

So, now market by People Meter market, you see that the switch pitch is on with advertisers. That troubles advertisers who pay to have their messages heard and don't think that shorter time spent listening is good for them. It's also not good for stations when it comes to maintaining their ad rates.

Our present "industry think" is that if you play music all the time and minimize the talk -- the old "more music theory" -- that PPM listening will also increase. And, it apparently does.

What stations cannot do is get radio listeners to listen longer thus the switch to a new benchmark -- cume-type figures.

Anyway ... how would radio expect to get listeners to listen longer?

Most financially pressed group owners have cutback on-air personalities, bargained off their beloved 50-minute music sweeps for unlistenable stop sets of commercials. No contests. No excitement. No real reason to say -- that station is my favorite.

Again, look at one of the last of its breed -- WCBS-FM and you see that they dominate PPM cume for two reasons:

1. They are a companion station.

2. Their listeners can say CBS-FM is their favorite station.

By companion station I mean, a station they like to have on because it is good company.

And most important -- and what should be the real goal of any successful radio station -- is to make it the one that their listeners can actually say is their favorite station. That's what I did right here.

A New York radio station is one of my favorite stations and I live in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It's not even about the music. I've heard it all and played a lot of it while I was working at stations. It really isn't.

And choose your own favorite station and take the test.

As I would say, let's brainstorm about this. Find out how to make your station a listener favorite. Don't rely on old PD wisdom or Arbitron fly-ins.

Of course, we won't do this. We know everything when it comes to manipulating audience ratings.

That's why commercial free days are popping up even as we piss off more advertisers by delivering shorter time spent listening.

Never mind -- average quarter hour didn't matter anyway, we will now have to argue.

Cume is radio's new obsession -- and a fatal one in my view.

And we get cume by being on everywhere and by shutting up and playing music. Here's an interesting article in the Denver Post on the new world of PPM and shorter listening spans.

CBS is doing "commercial free Mondays" on many of its stations as a ploy to get increased listeners. It will probably work. And CBS is selling the commercial free days to advertisers and focusing on new ways to monetize the time without specifically running spots.

But other groups are doing the same thing and screwing it up.

One of my Repeater Reporters checks in with this embarrassing situation:

"An Entercom station here in Indianapolis, classic hits WNTR is doing "Commercial Free Mornings" with no spots between 9 and noon every day.

Oh, what they don't tell you is they're loading up long 10-unit breaks in the other hours.

Oh, and another thing: There's no jock on during these hours, either. Just a weird pre-recorded back-announce voice, which identifies some (not all) of the songs. And it gets many of them wrong! Sounds terrible.

They're also doing the "Now we're LIVE" thing. "It's Saturday Night Live! That's right, tonight we are LIVE from our studio!" Wow. So now we know you're not live the rest of the week!"

Another reader identifies what radio is doing with PPM right now as over-steering:

"PPM causes 'over steering' If you've ever had your car hydroplane or skid on ice the tendency is to yank the wheel in the other direction, and all you do is over steer...PPM results overnight to paranoid programmers is a BAD idea. It's killing any spontaneity that Radio has left."

One of my mentors, Marlin Taylor, who first hired me at Jerry Lee's FM station in Philadelphia as always put his finger on the problem:

"When I conceived the idea of commercial-free blocks back at WRFM in NY in 1969 ... we never, never spoke of not airing commercials, after all they were our lifeblood.

We called them "Total Music Hours ... where, in the next 60 minutes, you'll hear 59 minutes of music!"

So, let's take a positive look at this situation and see if we can shed some light:

1. "Commercial free" days are not bad in and of themselves if they are portrayed using language that does not make commercials as seeming to be bad. But encourage personality and keeping company with listeners not just blah music sweeps.

2. Make the commercials you run better -- and encourage testing of spots to help advertisers be more effective in their campaigns.

3. The only way to win at the ratings game -- and this includes PPM technology -- is to make it your goal to have listeners articulate that your station is their favorite station and to do this you'll need personality and companionship.

4. Radio is mortgaging its future by cutting personality time for more music alone just because it seems to build PPM cume.

5. Cume is nice. But time spent listening is the benchmark radio sold to advertisers for decades and now more than ever, time spent listening is what advertisers crave. Trying to switch pitch them at this late date will fail.

Oh, and dump those long stop sets.

If you don't have the guts to do it during the week, try one unit breaks out on the weekend and see how good they sound and how long music sweeps in an age of short attention span is simply our arrogance that we know what listeners want.

What listeners want is -- a station that is listenable and eight unit stop sets are not listenable. And 50-minute music sweeps are, well -- unremarkable.

Steve Eberhart's history of KLIF in Dallas and the radio pioneer Gordon McLendon sums it up today as it did decades ago:

"Time and again -without exception -successful broadcast operators have proved that in order to survive and prosper financially, any radio station must provide a programming service of utility to a meaningful segment of the potential listening audience. Neither sales nor general administration nor engineering comes first. Programming does. The station failing to provide some service of unique programming utility to one or another reasonably large demographic element of the population is doomed.

The programming-ahead-of-sales philosophy was really Gordon's broadcasting credo. 'You can have the greatest sales staff and signal in the world and it doesn't mean a thing if you don't have something great to put on the air,' he would say. If he kept his eye on the programming, Gordon assumed, station advertising sales would take care of itself. And, of course, he was usually right.

Dickey Do, Fagreed and Slogan Hogan -- are you listening?

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