When using news to attract P2s and serve P1s, you want to program your news content strategically to increase your market share significantly.
You can use radio news to catch new listeners (including some P1s of your competition, if your quality content is giving people a strong reason to tune in), but how to program radio news content to boost Average Quarter Hours? Some ideas for Full Service AC stations (as well as News/Talk formats), based on a conversation with veteran radio programmer & consultant Don Watson.
This article will give you ideas & insights on:
- how to schedule one or more newscasts an hour effectively
- how to program your newscast to counter your competition’s
- how to grab (and hold on to) people’s attention for your content
- how to make the most out of your most essential quarter hour
- how to pull listeners into your two secondary quarter hours
- how to deal with your least significant quarter hour
- and much more (around 2.300 words)
“Create this very hot reason to keep listening”
Schedule your news earlier
A classic news position is obviously the exact top of the hour. However, some programmers will use a ‘5-minutes-before’ (or similar) strategy. Not only to create an image of reporting news faster than others, bit also to convey to listeners (of their competition) that they’re back in music again while others are still talking. Watson, who launched his career in the 1960s, calls it “an old trick” that many Top 40 stations were using. Larger markets included up to four CHRs, with the #1 usually having a 20% share, and the others having 15, 10, and 5% shares. Knowing that many listeners were selectively tuning around the top of the hour, when most stations had news (back in a time when they were legally required to do so), innovative PDs were looking for ways to capture the competition’s audience. They figured out some clever tactics that are being used to this very day!
Get into music/content faster
Before specialising in News/Talk, Don Watson gained experience in music radio. Starting in 1963 at KOLD in Tuscon, Arizona, he moved to KOY in Phoenix in 1968. Back then, KOY was the leading station there. While others had news at the top of the hour, KOY moved its news in front of that, allowing them to end the newscast at exactly one minute before the hour, followed by a Station ID, and a really popular song. Over time, listeners of competing stations learned that they would miss the first minute of a great song on KOY if they would stick around the station they were now tuned in to. “CNN does this today. They start at 2 minutes before the hour, with their ID, intro and headlines. They’ll be into their first story before any other network. I think they are profiting by it, because there’s no question that CNN leads.”
Maximise your first quarter
The first quarter is usually the most important one for a station’s ratings in that hour, as (somewhere around) the top of the hour is a habitual tune-in moment to hear the news. While programming your newscast slightly before the hour can help you catch listeners from other stations who begin their news later, what should you do if you can’t determine where your news is going to go? What if it comes with an exact time marker (e.g. precisely 00’00”), as it’s delivered by an external provider? You always want to use the (local) time window right in front of the (nationwide) newscast to promote what is coming up right after the news. Watson advises to go into network news with your headlines, promoting that you have more details after. Station imaging can help you create a dramatic attention moment before promoting these headlines: “Our news is first, that kinda’ thing. Create this very hot reason for people to keep listening.” A possible format is: local headlines, network news, and then details of those same local headlines.
“Adapt that transition in the most ponderable way”
Use news actualities strategically
As a News/Talk programmer & consultant, Don Watson has always been a strong believer in using “cold open audio” as an effective attention-grabber. Actualities (soundbites of people in the news) are often used within a story, but are also helpful as a lead-in for stories. Coming out of the network news, for example, you could cold open with an actuality, followed by your anchor’s explanation of the story. Then, the host could identify the station and position its news (“This is KXYZ News, I’m John Doe”), before continuing with story #2, 3 & 4, and doing a presell (“Sports and weather next”). After commercials, sports and weather, on a music station, you could ‘promo’ the jock and roll into the music sweep, having your presenter talk over the intro. Music stations can use news as an audience builder, and tune-in motivator: “Increase your P1s, and extend your Time Spent Listening, by promoting your next newscast.”
Offer updates in between
Music stations (like Full Service AC formats) usually have two newscasts an hour; one at the top, and one at the bottom, but Watson is asking: “What about 20/20? Why be traditional? Why not say: in 20 minutes, so-and-so from the newsroom will update the top headlines?”, he says in reference to a structure where you have news at 00’ with updates at 20’ and 40’ (if listener expectations for your station are hearing a lot of content besides music). An update after 20 minutes can be a great way to pull your audience into your second quarter hour, and it can be easily marketed with a classic slogan like 20/20 News. For affiliate stations that have to feature a network news update at the bottom of the hour, traditional positions such as 00’ and 30’ are fine. An alternative could be 15/15 News, where you run a longer newscast at ‘00, a shorter one at ‘30, and very short ones at ‘15 and ‘45, maybe only during morning show and drive time hours.)
Maintain your program flow
Radio researchers in Denmark, a PPM market, have found that when an attention-grabbing news jingle hits the program flow unexpectedly, this sudden interruption is a major switch-off moment for several reasons (see: Radio Listeners Behave Like Pavlov’s Dogs). Therefore, they conclude, you want to ease the news bulletins into the flow and let your presenter introduce your newsperson in a natural way. Don Watson confirms that “informalising” the beginning of a newscast (by making it a conversational moment) is something they have dealt with in the States as well. “Depending on your format, you’ve got to adapt that transition in the most ponderable way.” His advice is to use focus groups to test transitions with your P1 listeners, asking questions like: “Which version of this transition are you most likely to listen to? Which one are you most likely not to listen to? Which one is a turn-off? Which one is going to make you turn the volume up?”
“Recycle listeners as often as possible, for as long as possible”
Determine your content approach
As you go through your broadcast day, your main topics may stay the same, but you probably want to use a different approach for each daypart, and lighten things up towards the evening. “I’ve recommended different ways for different stations, depending on their market and how they’re doing business”, Watson says, explaining that while some stations like to be outrageous, others prefer to be serious. To determine your station’s content approach (which is another way of differentiating yourself from your competition), you can lay down a list of 20 topics in front of a focus group, and ask participants to add a priority number to each item.” Your news director then knows which topics your listeners find relevant, and in which order. It may help to make your content more appealing to the target demographic.
Backload your fourth quarter
When creating a good format clock for your Full Service AC or News/Talk station, you want to see the whole picture and think about all of your content, including commercial breaks. “How much commercial inventory do you have in the first versus the fourth quarter hour?” and “How much do you backload into the fourth quarter hour, close to the top of the hour?” are good questions that Don Watson brings up. As in American radio markets, the first, second & third quarter hours are (in that order) the most significant ones to determine ratings, many stations program the longest stopset towards the end of the fourth quarter hour. Should we be afraid of loosing listeners during that chock-full break? Maybe not, if what’s following that is always compelling: “At the top of the hour, you’ll reset the clock and everybody comes back. They know: when they want to know what’s going on, they’ve got to be there once the news begins.”
Create vertical ‘repeat listening’
When news is your station’s (main or additional) service to the listener, you’ll probably include most of your newscasts in the morning show and afternoon drive. Based on people’s life & work rhythm in most western markets, these will be the hours between 6-9 AM (or 5-9 AM) and 4-7 PM. The art is to bring your morning listeners back in the afternoon. “You want to recycle listeners as often as possible, for as long as possible”, Watson says, suggesting a series of special reports (of which people want to hear every part) as way to make listeners come back later. You could broadcast one part in the morning, repeat that same part during lunch (when you may have many new listeners), and then air a new part in the afternoon, which you have promoted during mornings and lunch. That’s a great way of creating tune-in appointments, something that’s believed to be key for PPM markets (as listeners tune out, and tune in again, many times a day).
“Say there’s a reason to be listening in that fourth quarter”
Anticipate on ratings surveys
Speaking of ratings, Don Watson shares a nice insight from the pre-PPM days of handwritten diaries, which are still being used in smaller markets in the United States (and in many markets outside). Arbitron (which later became Nielsen) used to start these diaries in the middle of a week, at midnight on a Thursday. All well-programmed stations would therefore launch new promotions, new contests, or special content when the audience measurement begins. In this case, on a Thursday morning. “Thursday leads to Friday, the beginning of the weekend. You wanted to have a jump start, and get those first four days into the diary. By the time Monday would roll around, many diary keepers were usually running out of patience, scribbling the same thing on Tuesday morning what they did on the previous Thursday morning. They were conscientious about filling out the diary on that first day.” He noticed that the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday reports essentially became a mirror image of what diary keepers recorded on the Thursday (and Friday) before.
Establish strategic tune-in occasions
“If you were a savvy program director or news director, and you understood how the game was played, then you could very easily ‘hype’ your listeners to make sure that they put certain things into the diary at certain times.” Watson recalls that contests or promotions would not only start anywhere on a Thursday between 7 and 8 AM (the most listened-to morning show hour), but at exactly 7.20 AM. “You would get them deep into the second quarter hour, and always keep mentioning 7.20… 7.20… 7.20.” As a result, there was a good chance that many diary keepers, (sub)consciously thinking of this contest at 7.20 that they heard about, would fill in to have started listening from the top of the hour through at least 7.20, therefore making both quarter hours count for the station. Many programmers would also use the engrained 7.20 contest moment as an opportunity to presell other special things coming up (later in that hour, show or day).
Reward listening all hour
While 7.20 is a perfect moment for a great contest, Don Watson considers 7.40 to be a great additional moment for an interesting feature, which could be a popular benchmark (for a music morning show) or a special report (on a news radio station). He therefore advises to not only do something rewarding in the second quarter hour, but give people a reason to stay tuned for (or come back in) the third quarter hour as well. That’s because “the first quarter hour takes care of itself” as it features not-want-to-miss content. As the second quarter includes a contest, and the fourth quarter has many commercials, the third quarter is great for a content piece — ideally, like a contest, something that runs for multiple days, such as a series of special reports. The hour is completed by other (but still interesting) content in the fourth quarter; the least listened-to one. “We’re never going to say: you’ve got a lot of commercials you’ll have to live through; we try to say that there’s a reason to be listening in that fourth quarter hour.” In a future article, we’ll talk about what makes a great news story great; the elements of engaging radio content. Stay tuned!
Thanks to News/Talk radio consultant Don Watson for a great conversation that led me to write this article. Don can be reached via firstname [at] newstalkradio [dot] com.
Header image: Thomas Giger