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Mar 04, 2005 | Articles

Radio's Dilemma -- The Solution (Part 2)
by Guy Zapoleon

How do we get out of the current state of the industry and create truly compelling radio once again? Take your excellent brain trust and interpret the research for the station looking for custom solutions, not rehashed ideas that have been used in a thousand markets. Wipe the slate clean and see if you can come up with something fresh and creative.

So, how are we going to save what once was a great industry? First, like being an alcoholic, you have to admit there is a problem. While it may start with the jocks and programmers, it has to reach all the way to owners, stockholders and Wall Street.

We need to be like the newscaster from Network and scream from the roof tops "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" All of us in programming need to keep on screaming until our owners and Wall Street listen or we'll all be working in another industry in five years.

The solutions are easy but the road back is long and hard . . . and starts with eight basic steps:

1. Admit there is a problem and take a hard look at ourselves.

2. Build a brain trust to create and execute your strategy.

3. Get to know your listener and ask them what you can do to be better.

4. Create custom solutions for listeners.

5. Make a promise and deliver on it RELENTLESSLY.

6. Give the consumer better variety and a better product.

7. Create a unique radio station with great live personalities dedicated to serving ALL the needs of the local community.

8. Tell the listener about how you listened to them and how you improved, both on the station and most especially with outside marketing ALL THE TIME ? market . . . market . . . market!!!

1. Admit there is a problem and take a hard look at ourselves.

It is critical to do research not just on individual stations but on radio as a medium and how we can get back the people we've lost and make current listeners more satisfied. If anyone doesn?t think this is possible take a look at the Cable TV industry that was on the ropes and faced with extinction due to the explosion of Satellite TV. They took a hard look at themselves and what their viewers wanted which was better quality programming and more variety (sound familiar?) and came up with the Digital Cable solution. This was right out of a Ries and Trout book on marketing basics -- they covered every advantage Satellite had and offered the same variety (the same channels), then they took on an aggressive TV campaign to reposition the Satellite industry and preyed on their weaknesses (system unfamiliarity and limitation to one set per setup). Again the same kind of advantage radio has over either Satellite or the Internet.

2. Build a brain trust to create and execute your strategy.

More important than any single aspect of a great radio station is the people who create the product, staff and manage it. As Nationwide Communications President Steve Berger always said, "Only the best people." If you want greatness you have to have the best money can buy. It?s like the ?all or nothing? principle -- if you don't have someone excellent in a given department then you have a weak link and your chances to be great are slight. With two or more weak links and your long-term success -- even your chances to succeed at all -- is greatly compromised. Contrary to the standards in consolidation, I agree with John Gehron who always told me you can't have a programmer devoted to programming two radio stations and expect the same quality. That extends to air personalities -- you can't have voice-tracking and expect the creativity and immediacy that a live air talent provides reacting to local events and connecting with listeners.

Your brain trust should include outside experts to provide outside perspective. It's so easy to lose sight about what is really right or wrong with your station, so a good consultant who works with that format can boil it down for you -- the keys to success or failure. Many times the PD or GM already knows the answer but they don't have the credibility from the inside -- often perceived as making excuses. A noted consultant can come in and lend credence while getting the local team the tools and understanding they need.

The average programmer who has worked in the business cannot match knowledge with a consultant -- someone who has been in the radio business for years and seen many stations and formats in different markets and competitive scenarios.

Most consultants have had the experience of working with many different research companies and seen many different ways of putting a questionnaire together and many different interpretations of the same results. The wrong interpretation of a study has the potential to destroy your station and the consultant has the programming expertise to interpret and read between the lines.

While a strategic plan may be simple in concept, there are a thousand details in every plan and it takes a lot of expertise to insure that every detail is correct. A good consultant is your INSURANCE POLICY in getting the strategic plan executed with excellence. Look at your consultant as a FILTER for programming to help the PD and GM understand programming and marketing issues that they generally have not faced.

3. Get to know your listener and ask them what you can do to be better.

You need to do research all the time -- most operators who do one perceptual a year or even every few years and act like the competitive landscape is not changing may be penny wise and pound foolish -- everything is changing ALL THE TIME! Listeners are changing, competition is changing, the format is evolving, and there is new competition from other media.

The Australians and Germans get it so much better than we do. They have their own research departments and a research consultant with monthly perceptual tracking to compare to ratings. They can tell exactly what caused a decline that month instead of waiting letting the problem linger and damage the station further.

At this point that is probably too much to ask -- we can't afford it. So two perceptuals a year gives us time to fix a mistake before it can do permanent damage. In a cluster of stations you should be doing a market format viability study for the cluster every year to measure market changes and desires of the individual formats (if need be this can be one of the perceptuals).

Hire a researcher who tells you the truth you need to hear (not what you want to hear) and help you design a custom strategy that produces lots of success stories. Some of the names I respect most are Mark Ramsey of Mercury Research, John Coleman at Coleman Research, John Parikhal's Joint Communications, and Ted Ruscitti of Ted Ruscitti Associates. What you don't need is cookie cutter strategies and a researcher who will avoid the brutal truth to not upset the client. We're in a time where it is so competitive (with all mediums) that we always need to hear the truth about our stations if we are going to win and more importantly if we are going to continue to be an important part of our listeners? lives..

4. Create custom solutions for listeners.

Take your excellent brain trust and interpret the research for the station looking for custom solutions, not rehashed ideas that have been used in a thousand markets. Wipe the slate clean and see if you can come up with something fresh and creative.

Today everything has become so homogenized that a few people are making decisions for millions and I agree with Gerry Tabeo who worked with CSS sales training and his own creative idea facilitation company on how this influences the creative process. He states that the best ideas come out of a free idea exchange with judgment withheld; that interaction of people's ideas create new twists and new creativity.

When you brainstorm, don't put a numbered limit to the amount of ideas someone can write down because the more ideas the more likely you are to find at least one great creative idea. When we remove more and more people from the creative process there are less unique ideas that creates sameness and breeds stagnation.

5. Make a promise and deliver on it RELENTLESSLY.

Ries and Trout they talk about a relentless pursuit -- use the research to find listeners needs, desires and expectations then make a promise to your listeners and never stop delivering on that promise.

6. Give the consumer better variety and a better product.

That has a lot to do with great promotions and great personalities. Where do we start to find our answers to today's problems? Search out history for when radio was successful.


I grew up in this business loving radio from the time I was 13 with my little transistor tucked under my pillow listening to Cousin Brucie on WABC. I hung on every word as did every teenager in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area back in 1965. On WABC we were all thrilled by the best music( not much more than the Top 14 hits), presented by great personalities in all dayparts, with exciting jingles and ABC news to let me know what was happening in the world. Then I moved to Los Angeles when I was 15 and grew up listening to KHJ -- great for a different reason. KHJ had seamless production making every song sound better than on any other radio station I've heard before or since. KHJ was a combination of Bill Drake with his "tight" format, shorter playlist, short jingles and promos, and 12 second jock raps. PD Ron Jacobs was the creative force behind KHJ who created the non-stop contest concept where there was an incredible contest every one to two weeks. (By the way anyone who is looking for a mirror on the great radio of the past should pick up the KHJ book from Ron Jacobs). Production directors spent all day creating contest promos.


Now with music most experts agree that a tight playlist is the answer to better ratings . . . and it is short-term, but unless you test your music three or four times a year that strategy has long-term ill effects. At many Oldies stations by playing Oh Pretty Woman and Good Lovin? every five hours for five years, we've single-handedly burned our core library. Strategies like that have chased all passionate oldies TSL-delivering fans to their CD collections and turned a foreground music format to utility format that is primarily used for ten minutes in the car or as background at work. If it can happen to Oldies, it can happen to other formats. Greg Strassell at WBMX developed about 25 great ?oh-wow? titles that had low familiarity but high potential -- playing these over the years has created more gold titles to fall back on versus most Hot AC's. Listeners want variety and the way to get that around a tight core library is the right features and the right ?oh-wow? titles for your passionate TSL-giving listeners.

8. Create a unique radio station with great live personalities.

The main job of most PD's in radio's hey day was focusing on the jock ? talking everyday to see what they had planned, to fill them on any late breaking entertainment or hard news and to spend time critiquing their show. The time it took personalities just to prepare their three-hour show was as long as the show itself! They looked at it as their SHOW spending years to come up with a unique style and honing to get ready for the big time. Today we tell personalities that it is not their show and to simply concentrate on selling the station. When we went to this approach in the 80's, radio began to lose its personality in every daypart except mornings where that type of mindset is still allowed.

9. Tell the listener about how you listened to them and how you improved, both on the station and most especially with outside marketing ALL THE TIME ? market . . . market . . . market!!!

Lessons From Great Radio Companies

At the end of my tenure as National PD twelve years ago, there were some incredible radio companies, like Edens and Nationwide Communications where I worked. These were companies that knew it was a dogfight every single day, and gave you the budget necessary to staff, create and market a great radio station. These stations had a FULL staff (not one we shared with two other stations) and our staff was dedicated to creating a great on air product and giving the listener instant gratification with promotions. Since the Edens promotional dictate was 100 appearances a month, their promotions department was staffed with 10-15 people that was focused on keeping the listener happy.

What if you're currently successful?

Some people think that the model that great companies of the past used is no longer relevant. That?s completely wrong -- it?s a model that still works and will work again?The time to start using this ?reinvestment? strategy and these tactics isn?t when the ratings are in the toilet. Learn from the great companies of the past and take out an insurance policy, spend money on people, resources and marketing to maintain your success Cutting off the money supply necessary to keep this strategy in place is like wondering why your car won?t start when you don?t put in any gas in it. It?s plain and simple it takes a large consistent investment every single year of its existence to maintain success. The alternative is not to spend the money and wait until your station is in huge trouble -- and it's too late to build it back up. Then you have to spend five times your normal budget to launch a new format and spend years rebuilding the relationships you have with advertisers. Doesn?t seem like much of a choice -- Invest enough money in your radio station every single year and you will more than make that back in ratings and revenue increases.

How does it start?

Just like anything else, one radio station at a time. Even without a huge budget you can take all the basics from a great station like KHJ. Become a totally local targeted station that is always on top of what is happening in the community, plugged into local events as well as what is happening nationally in news, entertainment, and pop culture. Find young talent with potential and teach them how to entertain using an economy of words. Give every air personality a job and make them feel part of your success. Train the programming and marketing staff in strategy and tactics so that you have a brain trust of 7-10 great minds. Use this brain trust to create excitement on the air in every way possible -- through personality, promotion and production values. Borrow a page from Ron Jacobs at KHJ and create the non-stop contest brand and capture the listeners? imagination. Be that friend with connections to get your listeners into events and give them prizes that they can only dream about. Make the production values totally plugged into what is happening today. Find cost effective ways to market outside and create a ton of events and personal appearances. Build P1 listeners one at a time. Make your radio station a well-crafted brand that is intimate with listeners and the local community. Do that and you create an unbeatable winner!