[I warn you now, this one is going to be long. But for some of us, I hope it will be worth it.]
Sic Transit Scott Muni
Some of the listeners in Philadelphia are still shocked and in mourning this week, as after forty years (almost to the day) WYSP left our radio dials. After six years of fumbling, stumbling, and bumbling through format change after format change following the departure of Howard Stern to the wilds of Sirius, CBS radio finally gave up on “your station in Philadelphia” (as the call sign originally stood for) and moved its profitable sports format to the FM dial. With the flick of a switch (after a few seconds of dead air because of a disc jockey who wasn’t used to backtiming to an exact top of hour), 94.1 FM in Philadelphia became WIP-FM.
To say that no one saw it coming would be unfair. After all, WYSP had faced the brunt of a lot of unwise experimentation on the part of CBS. It spent some time as “hot talk” “Free 94.1″ after programming wizards failed to realize that it wasn’t talk that listeners wanted, it was Howard Stern talking. Then they tried “the rock is back,” but the rock wasn’t quite really back. They moved their hosts around and fiddled with playlists. They even experimented with letting listeners vote online for which song the automation system would throw in next. It was a mess and probably should have been put out of its misery long ago.
The death of the former top-rated music station in the market has pushed some folks into writing obituaries for music radio. Usually including such woefully misguided phrases as “the iPod generation” and “the age of Pandora,” these doomsayers are making the same mistakes that programmers all along the FM dial have been making for over a decade (if not longer). Music radio not only isn’t dead, but it could thrive once again. And I’m going to tell you exactly how it can do that, if you’re only willing to listen.
Know Thy Enemy, and it isn’t MP3.
First off, if you’re a GM, OM, or PD at a music radio station, I want you to get a can of spray paint. Then I want you to spray these words where your jocks (and if you don’t have jocks then you’d better go get some — don’t worry, I’ll wait) will see them every time they look up. Then spray them on the wall of your office so you have to look at them constantly too:
The iPod Is Not My Competition.
People haven’t been switching from radio to MP3 players because they prefer their own music to radio, they’ve switched because they prefer their music to bad radio! And let’s face it, for over a decade most of music radio has been pretty darn bad. If radio can provide a real alternative to portable music boxes, then listeners will come back.
Unfortunately too many programmers and consultants have been trying to outdo the iPod on its own territory in an attempt to get their listeners back. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, ignore the iPod and concentrate on the things that radio can do that iPods can’t or don’t do well.
Broaden Your Playlists
One reason that people prefer MP3 players to radio right now is the sheer amount of and variety of music that they can play. For example, my iPod (I know, I’m a heretic) has 6,180 “songs” at the moment. When you take out podcasts, spoken word, and comedy that probably leaves about 5,000 (give or take) different songs.
At the same time that people have been expanding their playlists programmers, consultants, and other people who should know better have pared down their playlists to a degree that’s almost criminal. When I was music director at WVLT back in 1999 (running a format that Bill Gravino and I pioneered which we called “Fred,” and a lot of other stations would execute poorly as “Jack”) I expanded our music library to over 1,200 songs and our currents rotation to 35. I was an outlier then, and even more so now when most stations seem to be limiting themselves to about 300 songs if we’re lucky. This leads to stale playlists and a feeling that the same songs are playing over and over again (often because they are; one classic rock program director I knew never noticed that Selector was playing John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb” every day in the 3 PM hour, but his listeners certainly did).
And the worst of it all? It doesn’t need to be that way.
Let’s take one easy to define format: a “decade” format. Whether it’s 70′s, 80′s, 90′s, or even 40′s doesn’t matter, with a decade format you’re looking at a ten year window. If you take the top 100 songs of every year of that decade (all of which should be at least somewhat familiar to your listeners) then you’ve got 1,000 songs you should be playing. Naturally some are going to be weighted heavier than others; you’ll want to play the top 20 of each year more often than the bottom 20 to say the least. But no matter how you weight them that’s still 1,000 songs. More than enough to play 12 songs an hour for three days straight without repeating a song at all let alone in the same daypart. When you add in what I like to call the “oh shit” category (one hit wonders and other stuff that made a splash but didn’t make the top 10) in light rotation not playing more frequently than once every 10 days or so, you’d have plenty of variety to keep listeners with you.
And when you get into broader formats you have even more stuff to pick from. A Classic Rock station could take the top 100 rock album tracks of each year from 1968 through 1989 and have a library of 2,200 songs (six days no repeats). A Modern County station could take (in addition to its currents and recurrents) the top 100 country singles from 1990 (the dawn of Garth) through 2009 for a classsics pool of 2,000 songs.
There really is no excuse to only be playing 300 songs nowadays, if there ever was. In the case of music radio, familiarity breeds contempt. Mix up the stuff they know by heart with the stuff they all but forgot about and you’ll have a winning format.
Don’t Kill the DJ
The one thing that radio has that makes it stand out is the disc jockey. And it’s the one area where radio has been shooting itself in the foot the most.
The biggest, most successful, and best music radio stations of all time, from the dawn of rock until the departure of teh Howard, have been personality driven. This is one area that talk radio has been kicking music radio’s ass for ages and the bosses have never thought that what makes talk radio successful is not the talk, it’s the hosts. People like listening to their little friend inside their radio. “That bright good morning voice who’s heard but never seen” as Harry Chapin put it, who keeps you company throughout the day.
Not only should you make sure you have DJ’s (because jockless radio is boring, and if people want jockless music they will listen to their iPods or streaming music) but set them free. Throw out the liner cards, except for your calls and slogan, and let them make their personality shine through. Let them be themselves. You might even consider letting them have some degree of free rein in the music they play, picking their own songs (even if it’s only from your 2,000 song library) so that their show is an extension of their personality. Listeners will find it interesting and will thank you.
#^@# it! We’ll do it live!
The one advantage that live music radio will always have over MP3′s, podcasts, and their ilk is in that “l” word that broadcasters keep forgetting about. “Live.” Live radio is timely. You can interact with live radio. There are things that live radio can do that internet “broadcasting” can’t and you should take advantage of them.
Local, up to the minute information is one example. Believe it or not, music listeners won’t tune out of a 60-second newsbreak once an hour in drive time (or even out of drive time) if it’s well presented and relevant to your audience. Traffic and weather should be a must (or at least weather if you live far away from highways and traffic jams), as should some sports scores or even light discussion by your jocks. Let them talk about the big game that night or the night before during a talkset.
With live radio you can open the phones, too. Let listeners talk back to disc jockeys, and consider playing better calls on the air over an intro if the disc jockey has gotten listeners talking. And don’t forget to take requests!
You can’t do any of these things jockless, and you can’t do them well voicetracked. Your signal is live, so your jocks should be too.
We’ve only just begun….
These tips are just that: tips of a much larger iceberg. It’s not a magic wand, but the vaguest outline of a blueprint for rebuilding music radio. Not everything I’ve said here will work with every format, but the basic concepts behind what I’ve said will, and can do so with just a little work on your end. Please consider what I’ve said and take my words to heart; it’s not too late to save music radio but we need to act quickly.
And if you’re a GM or OM who wants to save your station, and agrees with what I’ve said, feel free to contact me. I’d love to come work for you and put my theories into practice.