Surprise: what your radio station is airing now, is almost irrelevant in the context of audience perception and listener behavior. It’s about what people expect to happen next.
Success in the ratings is determined by many factors. One of the most important is obviously a solid programming structure. Formats are the foundation to build your radio station on. They also show your audience what to expect from you. Keep your promise every time that people tune in, and they’ll grow into more loyal fans with every listening experience.
- How marginal songs on your playlist affect your station’s entire music image
- Why established audience perceptions overrule current listening experiences
- How to make radio audiences listen more often and stay tuned for a longer period
- Why rational positioning statements need an emotional subconscious addition
- How to replace existing expectations and create open-minded listeners
- What radio programming book I can recommend to read about this
Case: Dutch local radio station
A few months ago, I was driving through the area of a local radio station. It’s almost completely run by volunteers who have the best intentions – they bring a lot of local news and are really involved in the community. But the product can be improved. Their content is not professionally presented and the music database needs a clean-up. The station plays a schlager from the 1960s right after the latest David Guetta. How’s that for a change? :-)
Music combinations vs. music clusters
Personally, I’m not a fan of 300-song based formats. I love to hear some variety. And of course, in a local market of 25.000 people, it’s not easy to reach the necessary critical mass to survive – national and regional stations can be heard in that same market. So I understand why this local station wants to appeal to a wide demo; I just wonder if their 8-to-80-years approach is realistic. These music combinations just don’t seem to work (imagewise). Not if we can assume that people who like David Guetta get turned off by schlagers, and maybe also vice versa. (I must add that I don’t have music cluster research yet to back this up.)
If you can’t afford AMTs
Apart from a wide array of music eras and styles, I feel that many songs (and presenters) on the station don’t meet the quality standard. Even if you can’t afford Auditorium Music Tests, you can get far if you know your audience, pop history, radio basics, and have common sense. I would create a variety, but quality, AC format. Asking a group of staff members (together representing the entire target demo) to help select songs for the database is a first step.
Listening experiences determine audience expectations
Listening to this station over many years has taught me that ‘they don’t play good music’ and that ‘the presenters are not professional’. This perception re-appears anytime when I think of this station, like when I drive through the area and wonder how they’re doing now. When I tuned in a few months ago, they actually played a great pop classic: a typical top-testing song that you hear on every big AC station. Right now I can’t recall the title. But I do remember that I was surprised that the station played a good song!
Perception is everything (thus reality)
And now something interesting. Even though I liked the song that was playing, my very next thought was: I’m not gonna’ like the next song, and the presentation will be amateuristic. It’s interesting, because 1) I couldn’t possibly know what song was scheduled next and 2) I had no idea who was running the current air shift (the RDS display didn’t tell me). Both of my assumptions turned out to be right and I decided to listen to something else. I was even happy in a way, because the station once again confirmed what I already ‘knew’.
While driving home, I remembered a lesson from a radio programming book which I’ve read a few years before: Radio Programming: Tactics & Strategy [book]. Former program director, general manager and current consultant and music researcher Eric Norberg shares valuable insights on the psychology of radio listening. Especially what he writes about audience expectations is essential to keep in mind when you’re programming a station:
‘Successful programming consists of fulfilling listener expectations, and listener expectations are based mostly on what the station has done in the past.’
Previous experiences determine current expectations
In a chapter about the basic principles of radio programming, Norberg explains that in this context, ‘what a station is doing at any given instant is almost irrelevant to the established image of the station’. This theory matches with my practical example above exactly. Based on my previous listening to the local station (over a longer period), I was convinced that even though I liked the song they played now, the next one would be a turn-off. (And they’ve met my expectation once again!)
It’s clear that the next time I’m in their broadcast area, my perceptions (like: ‘they don’t play good music’) will be stronger, and I will hesitate for a longer time before giving it another try – until there comes a point when I don’t bother trying at all. But now the positive side: a carefully planned and consistently executed radio format leads to a positive brand image that gets stronger all the time and boosts your ratings! As Eric Norberg [book] points out:
‘If your station matches listener expectations when they tune in, they feel rewarded, and the behavior of tuning in your station more often and listening longer is reinforced.’
Emotions make positioning statements powerful
This explains why the most successful stations in a given market are usually the ones that offer a great product and constantly and consistently keep their promises. Positioners are communicated in a rational way (through liners, such as Today’s Best Music’) that listeners perceive consciously. Could it be true that liners become more powerful when you fulfill the expectations of your listeners? Because they will translate this message subconsciously into emotions (how they feel about your brand and others out there). This may drive their listening behavior.
Problem: established radio station brands
This leaves us with the question what the mentioned local station could do, to change the perception (if they need to). Maybe local people accept the music and presenters as they are and just tune in for community news. Anyway, it’s hard to change perception when a station is in the market for a long time. This station exists for two decades. Meaning: listeners, and not-listeners, know (or think they know) exactly what to expect.
Complete relaunch: option or not?
In a situation like this, you could try to erase existing listener expectations from the audience’s mind. This could be a complete re-launch, including a new name and maybe even a new frequency, to really make a fresh start. It might be tough choice for a heritage station like this one, though. The disadvantage of having to build a complete new audience from scratch (as they would launch a whole new brand) might be greater than the benefit of starting with a clean slate (without any listener expectations).
Radio program format clock restructure
I might go for a compromise: keep the existing audience, and hopefully attract new listeners, by ‘just’ refreshing the complete basic structure. Keep the better talents and offer them coaching, clean the music database, create a consistent (even predictable) format. The station’s hot clock that defines what’s being aired in a given hour could be re-designed to ‘paint a fresh picture’ in listener’s mind, especially those who are not P1 listeners yet.
- Successful programming is based on fulfilling audience expectations
- Listeners that feel rewarded, will tune in more often and listen longer
- Audience expectations are based on what a station has broadcast in the past
- If your image is positive: reinforce it by keep on keeping your promise always
- If your image is negative: erase the existing listener expectations over time
- Re-launch (or re-structure) your station to create a new image
- Good resource: Radio Programming: Tactics & Strategy [book]