Even if listener focus groups can tell you a lot about your positives & negatives, you always want to follow your own instinct as a radio professional.

That’s a great takeaway from my second talk (click here to read the first one) with News-Talk radio expert Don Watson, who’s been presenting, programming and consulting within speech formats for decades, both inside and outside the United States. It’s obviously essential to know your core listeners well, so you can serve your target demographic well. But how to go about reaching today’s mobile generation; hopefully tomorrow’s radio audience?



“You’ve got to program to them”



Young listeners are the future of radio, including that of News/Talk (image: Flickr / Garry Knight)



Make your content matter

What do you think of a young generation who doesn’t grow up with only radio, TV & print, but with social media? Is that a topic that program directors should be concerned about?

“Music formats don’t have that much to be concerned about. The music tends to take care of itself. If program directors are sharp; understand that music is the format, and keep chit-chat down to a minimum, young people will respond. With any kind of spoken-word format, the issue is different”, Watson says, adding that Nielsen’s 2016 ratings analysis indicates an overall popularity increase for News-Talk radio compared to the previous election year. He believes that “younger people are becoming more in tune with politics” and are more willing to get information besides the music. “Anyone in News-Talk radio must have been pleased to see the results, if we can believe everything that we saw in the survey.” Nielsen’s January 2017 PPM analysis shows the ‘Trump effect’. The company concludes on its site that ‘News/Talk has been revitalised by current politics and is breaking new ground with younger listeners’.



Captivate your future listenership

Do you think this is a longer, ongoing trend that will continue after this election year?

“We’ve never had an election like this one, so the uniqueness of it, and the uniqueness of the candidate who won, is absolutely driving it. Plus, we’ve had a couple of other candidates who seemed to be saying things that really resonated with a younger generation. I think all the rules were broken this year. That just seems to be drawing a lot of the younger people who now seem to be connecting with News-Talk radio.” He points out that you’ve got to get young listeners into your audience when you want to succeed in the future. “The question is: are you smart enough to get where they are, playing their music, and talking about those things that are resonating with that demo? Whether it is male or female, I don’t think it makes that much difference; you’re looking for quantity of numbers.”



Increase your 25-34 share

On the other hand, there are many News-Talk listeners who are in their 50s, 60s or even 70s, because they just have more time to listen. Everyone will be interested in Trump, but you’ve got to talk about Instagram, for instance, if you want to draw a young audience. That might not be relevant for someone in his late 60s.

“Yeah, absolutely. What I’ve always suggested is: aim low; program for a younger demographic. You’ll always get the older demos; they’re always going to be there. What they don’t do, is do a lot of selective listening; going from one to another to another. They’ve found the station they want, and will stay there. You’re always reaching down; looking for those 25-34s. You’ve got to program to them, remembering, though, that you still have the older demos listening. You can’t somehow push them away by a presentation that’s so youthful that it ignores them completely.”



“You’re always going to have listeners who agree with you”



Make your station colourful by welcoming contrasting views (original image: Flickr / Thomas Hawk)



Trigger your audience’s response

Speaking about programming tactics to capture an audience, Don Watson finds it essential to give people a great reason to stay tuned when the news (a tune-in moment for News-Talk listeners) is over. “When you come out of your newscast, dive right into what you think, right now, is the most important thing you need to be talking about. Wherever they’re listening to you, people should be nodding, saying: ‘yeah, that’s right!’ You want them to be ‘talking back’ to you that way, pulling them into your little orbit of knowledge, information and chit-chat, and to bring them in. I don’t care if they’re 25 or 55, I want them to understand and appreciate that I know what they’re pissed off about, or what they’re happy about. You’ve got to do all that in those first couple of minutes, as you start up your show”.



Cover your topics widely

There are several ways to keep people listening. “You may have a special guest coming up in the second quarter hour that you are promoting, so they will stay with you through that first quarter hour.” Another engagement trick is putting listener calls on air, but they’ve got to be “callers that are so provocative that listeners are going to sit there and say: yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah; that’s exactly the way I feel; I’m glad to know that I’ve got people out there with me”. It’s paramount to include enough contrast by allowing people to share new ideas. “Don’t always put listeners on air who agree with you. Shakespeare wrote about conflict. It’s got to be that underlying current that drives the format.”



Include your opponent’s opinions

You probably want as many people as possible recognise themselves in terms of opinions, and put different voices on air; younger people; middle-aged people, older people…

“Absolutely. You’re always going to have listeners who agree with you.” He mentions a great lesson that Rush Limbaugh learned early in his career. “If you’re talking about the Republican side of the issues, you know you’re going to have those people listening to you, because you’re preaching to the choir. But what about the Democrats; those people who don’t agree with you? How are you letting them get their expressions on air? You’ve got to have that dynamic of people in contrast to one another.”



“They’re looking for a utility”



Give your audience what they want to hear, when they want to hear it (image: Thomas Giger)



Entice your P1 audience

Even program directors in very developed markets mostly battle with direct competitors; stations that they share their Preference 1 audience with. “You only need to look at those stations which are in (or close) to your format. Your P1 listeners — who’s sharing them? It’s the only thing I would be concerned about if I were a programmer; maintaining my P1 share, and trying to bring my P2s and P3s in as much as I could.” Watson realises that many News-Talk fans also have their favourite music station, which could be anything from Classical to Top 40. His advice is to know your listeners well, where they’re going if they’re not listening to you, why they’re going over there, and how you can possibly get more of their Time Spent Listening.



Time your promotions well

Before promoting your station through marketing, you want to have a great on-air product first. “If you get them to come in and sample your station, and if they, after listening for 5 or 10 minutes, say: ‘nah, I don’t need this’, trying to get them come back again one more time is very expensive, and very time-consuming.” To him, a successful radio station is built on great personality. “Really good talent is winning the ratings war constantly; book after book.” His own presenter career, which included hosting morning shows, was influenced by stations he had heard while growing up. “I had been listening to Chicago radio from when I was about 8 years old, and could understand why a successful station sounded good. By the time I got on air, when I was about 18, I was doing all that I had been listening to, and that had been impacting me for the last 10 years.”



Define your focus audience

As a programmer, he’s learned the importance of really understanding your audience. “Know where the peak is in terms of age with a slope down to either end. Take that 40-50 percent in the middle, and actively go after them.” His advice is to do 4 focus groups a year; once every quarter, to keep track of your target audience’s interests and needs, which may change over time. “What do you want to hear? That is the number one question. What are you not hearing enough of? That is the number two question.” It’s often a combination of interesting topics and practical service bits, including the 3 Ts (time, temperature & traffic) and the weather. “When people wake up in the morning, they usually haven’t been in touch with the world for 8; 9; 10 hours. They’re looking for a utility, like flicking on the light switch.” Listeners will often program their clock radio to switch on at the top or bottom of the hour. “You better have an information flow that satisfies your audience. You service them best by knowing exactly what they want.”



“What you’re looking for is total honesty”



You therefore need neutral researchers, who are asking good questions (image: Thomas Giger)



Be your listener’s base

The service elements that we used to do in radio, like time, temperature & traffic, we have on our smartphone nowadays. One click on an icon, and I see the local weather for the whole day. So is it still that important to include this information on the radio?

“Not so much during the day, but in the morning, you can’t be walking around, brushing your teeth and always looking at your cell phone. You’re listening more than you’re doing anything else”, Don Watson says. Good Morning America and the TODAY Show therefore think a lot of how they sound. “People get the information by listening, because they’re wandering around in their home.” Radio is a background information & entertainment medium in the morning as well. Your content is ideally based on research in order to give listeners what they need to start their day. Apart from news, weather, traffic & sports updates, quick, 2-minute interviews related to a big story could be a good additional ingredients for many News-Talk radio morning shows.



Choose your researchers carefully

Let’s say that I’m in a focus group; in the middle of a group of people that I don’t know. I might want to impress those people. So I might say, for example: I’m interested in political discussions on your station. What I’m really listening to, though, might be showbiz sleaze on another station. How do you make sure that focus groups are reliable?

“It depends on who you hire to create the focus group, and who diligent they are in doing the pre-interviewing before the focus group is held. When you hire the right company, they’re weeding out the people that are bullshitting you and just giving you information that they think you want to hear. When you get the right people in your focus group. When the person leading the focus group understands the dynamics of your station and what you have on air, then you can exclude those who don’t listen to your station.”



Verbalise your questions well

Getting sincere answers often comes down to asking good questions. His examples indicate that you want to ask direct, but open questions to receive detailed answers: “Tell me why you listen in the morning. What do you think of this? What was he talking about this morning that made you smile? What pissed you off this morning about anything you heard?” To be able to ask the right questions, he says that your research company should know your on-air output very well. “Then they know whether or not these people are giving you the truthful answer.”

Instead of hiring a fieldwork company, why not do it yourself? DIY, hahaha.

“Haha. I believe in outside companies, because they don’t have any reason to not be brutally honest. What you’re looking for is total honesty. People on the inside are interested in self-preservation, and they have friendships inside the station. There are a lot of things people want to hear, and a lot of things people don’t want to hear. I want a focus group that tells me what is wrong, because I can work with that information, and turn the negatives into positives.”



“You will have to make decisions contrary to the common”



Program directors and station managers can learn from Harry Truman (image: Truman Library)



Diversify your focus groups

Even if all participants are either your or your direct competition’s P1 listeners, and even if all segments of your target demo are well represented, a focus group is still a small sample, like 15 people. Should you therefore also be doing additional research on a larger scale, like asking 150 or even 1500 people what they think about a certain topic, for statistic validity?

“The answers are: yes and yes”, Watson says with a smile, adding that this should be not a real problem, as long as you use different participants and different topics & approaches for every focus group. Where one session might focus on discussing about topics, another session might be about responding to audio. “For example, we’re gonna’ find out how the interchange between players in the morning show will hold up. Does the average listener enjoy those interactions? Or we focus on the host, such as his personality, voice, and approach. You’ve got a lot of inserts of audio, which you can play for your focus group.”



Keep your sessions casual

When doing a focus group, I would avoid a cold setting in a research institute where participants (feel that they) are observed from behind a one-way mirror, and just have a living room where where you can see how listeners behave.

“I’ve been part of those. You’re trying to informalise the setting as much as you can, and have a lot of cameras around the room, which are hidden. All you’re going to tell people as they come in is: ‘we’d like to have a free-flow discussion, and listen to a little bit of audio’. Sometimes, it’s more like a cocktail party. ‘Hey — it’s gonna’ be a party here for WXYZ, and if you’d like to be part of it, and listen regularly, we’re going to have a drawn for tickets, so come on down.’ You’ve got somebody with a microphone on, who walks around, talking to people that are representative for the audience.”



Trust your gut & know-how

He agrees that focus groups do have a small sample size, so we should not blindly follow them. “Take it with a dose of salt, and as a part of the overall picture.” In his opinion, as a PD or GM, you should follow your instinct and experience, even if others think (or research indicates) differently. “Sometimes, you’ve got to make a decision and say: ‘I’m gonna’ go against the popular decision now’. Or: ‘I don’t care what they said in that focus group yesterday; I will put my 25 years of experience behind me’. The most important thing I learned when I first started out as a program director is that you will have to make decisions contrary to the common opinion of everyone around you. Sometimes, you just have to say: I’m right, and I’m gonna’ do it’. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to be right, but at you’ve made a decision. Harry Truman had it on his desk: The Buck Stops Here.”



Don Watson can be reached via don [at] newstalkradio [dot] com



Header image: Thomas Giger