Today's trip back in the JacoBLOG Wayback Machine is just a short four-year jaunt back to this month in 2019. Back then, most radio broadcasters were acknowledging their competition from other content creators.
Just one year before COVID, the “Subscription Economy” here in the United States was rocking, but nowhere near the levels we're experiencing today. For starters, the video streaming world was still relatively small. Disney+, HBO Max, the modern version of Paramount+ and many others didn't even exist.
There's no doubt that as we look back at the history of media and tech, there may likely be a dividing line at March 2020 – when the Coronavirus literally stopped the world. Maybe we'll actually discuss dates as PC – pre-COVID. That's because things truly changed for all of us, especially our media lives, once the pandemic hit exactly three years ago right now.
And that goes to the heart of our post from the past you're about to read. Today, there's a growing acknowledgment that broadcast radio cannot just sound like the same, reliable, and predictable medium it's always been. To delight and enchant today's fickle consumer, often mired by too many choices, radio has to serve up surprises, an occasional curve ball, and even an “oh wow” or two from time to time. Back in the 70's and 80's, it happened with great regularity, especially on the weekends, where the reins were always loosened.
Earlier this week, I talked about the 4-day workweek, and how it would create a divided week of Monday-Thursday and Friday-Sunday. That long weekend will need to be rethought, perhaps with programming content and personalities that don't sound just like the other days.
Back in the day in radio, that's not far off from how radio sounded, as you'll soon read. – FJ
Once upon a time there was a radio format called “AOR.” The acronym stood for Album Oriented Rock, and it represented an exciting group of influential stations in markets all over America. It exploded back in the 70s when many cities and towns had 2 and sometime 3 AOR stations, all of which were playing rock n' roll from the 60s and 70s – as we now know, the golden era.
And part of what these stations were all about was special programming, mostly on the weekends. AORs multiplied and knocked down impressive ratings in market after market, syndicators like Westwood One, Global Satellite Network, MJI, the ABC FM Network, The Source, and others sprouted up with shows to fill the void. Many of these made AOR stations more interesting, providing programming and content not available anywhere else. Typically, they were hosted by some of the biggest personalities in rock radio who brought their special perspective and style to these shows.
One of the most successful was the “King Biscuit Flower Hour,” debuting in 1973, presenting original concert programming through the early 90s. D.I.R.'s Bob Meyerowitz conceived the show – a one-hour concert program highlighting the biggest and best bands of the era. The King Biscuit recording truck would park itself outside theaters and arenas, record the show, and distribute it first on reel-to-reel tape, later on vinyl records, and finally on CDs.
As a programmer, I loved the show. Live performance is what brings music to life. And “King Biscuit” broke out long before there was MTV and regular concerts series on television. Every week, I'd receive those disks, always a well-recorded show, and would pull off one track to put in rotation that week to promote the show. (Don't tell anyone about that – I never told D.I.R.). It gave us a chance to play a great live version of “Wheel In The Sky” or “Gimme Three Steps” or “Sultans Of Swing” for a few days – a way to sound just a little different from the competition, while promoting the upcoming show.
How were the ratings? Well, it was difficult to break down Sunday nights in a meaningful way. You could see the 7-Midnight performance, but more often than not, “King Biscuit” was locked in with a bunch of other shows that ran every weekend. The Arbitron diary system wasn't granular enough to make those kinds of calls. So, as we used to say, it was good image programming for the radio station, whether lots of people were listening on Sunday night or not. And we continued to program and promote it.
Contrast that with today, especially in PPM markets. Statistics don't exist on the number of syndicated shows that have gone by the wayside in the past decade or so, but there are clearly fewer of them available to stations today. And special programs created by syndicators around holidays, concert tours, or the release of a new album have also dried up.
That's because, in general, the consensus is these long form programs aren't congruent with metered measurement. And it's easy to just say “no,” rather than take a risk or give away commercial inventory to a syndicator.
I was thinking about “King Biscuit” while reading a New York Times piece about the cancellation of Netflix's reboot of “One Day At A Time.” After three seasons on the video streaming juggernaut, journalist James Poniewozik lamented the axing of this show.
This new version of the 1970s Norman Lear show reimagined the story line, coming up with a modern-day twist featuring a single mother from a Cuban-American family trying to figure it all out. And yes, there was a “Schneider” on this new show, too, although in this version, the guy is a hipster.
The show has received consistently strong reviews from both critics and viewers – impressive for a an updated version of an original hit (think “The Odd Couple,” “Charlie's Angels,” “24,” and other stinkers). But they weren't enough to save the show from the Netflix pink slip.
Oddly enough, Netflix – a platform that does not have to endure the vagaries of the ratings – tried to sound as brokenhearted as “ODAAT” fans were feeling on social media:
The money line?
“…simply not enough people watched to justify another season.”
You have to wonder what the minimum performance threshold is on audience size/streams for a show in order for Netflix to consider it a success or at least worth renewing. Remember, we're talking about a subscription service here – not a ratings/rate/revenue model like on network television.
And that's a similar calculus that radio broadcasters are tasked with when they examine special weekend and other special programming. In public radio, these shows come with an actual price tag, so there's an ROI question. In commercial radio, the “cost” is whatever ratings hit a station may (or may not) take as a result of running a syndicated show that wanders outside its conventional format boundary lines.
But then there's the “cost benefit analysis.”
Is there image upside in carrying a show like “Little Steven's Underground Garage” or “Passport Approved” with Sat Bisla? Does it make a key portion of the audience happy, and does it help build a better brand? In the case of Little Steven, there's talk and vintage classics that may not be familiar. And with Sat, it's exposure to music from around the world that – by definition – the audience hasn't heard.
Both Steven and Sat are wonderful, informed, and passionate storytellers. They're true believers in the music they expose and play. And that kind of personality is something that is often missing in action from so many radio stations, especially over the weekends.
Neither of these guys know what a “safe list' is. And that's the point. They're featuring music that isn't going to make a conventional playlist or survive the arbitrary dial swings and pencil marks of music tests.
So, perhaps a meter or a diary will fall by the wayside on Sunday night. But is there an upside to running a special show that gives a station image value even though it's not a ratings winner?
And in the big picture of a radio station's story arc, what is really lost when a cool, special program is dropped from a lineup? Obviously, that's a market by market, brand by brand, PD by PD decision. As they say, “your mileage will vary.”
But there's more to the analysis than just taking a black and white view of a data-filled ratings spreadsheet. There's a less calculable image component that is much harder to factor in or appreciate.
The Netflix team is smart – they obviously did their due diligence on the cost of producing this show versus its streaming engagement and whatever other data matters. And “One Day At A Time” ended up losing – as did those who loved the show.
In the short run, it's hard to imagine Netflix being hurt by this decision – in spite of their “empathy” and “sadness.” They're the biggest player in their field with the best programs, the strongest awareness, and undoubtedly, the best audience ratings (if we only knew what they were).
But over the long haul, more decisions like this one could begin to erode their brand equity with the same consumers who dutifully shell out money every month for the privilege of watching video content in the comfort of their own homes. Between Hulu, YouTube, and upstarts like Disney, there will very soon be even more viable video streaming options.
I'm not suggesting radio programmers throw caution to the wind and give every syndicator an open invitation into your stations. The higher stakes that come up with ratings challenges and revenue generation force them to be very choosy and analytical about the programs they air – even on Sunday night.
I've found that PDs often shy away from promoting these shows, either due to inventory pressure or because they simply don't want to put much effort into them. And of course, that becomes the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of failure. If you don't talk about these shows or creatively market them, you know what's going to happen. People simply won't find them on a weekend evening.
The next thing you know, you'll be sounding like the Netflix team:
“We're cancelling ______________ because simply not enough people were listening to justify carrying it.”
So, what should the litmus test be for evaluating these shows? Yes, ratings matter but the truth is, they tend to be wobbly and unreliable. Then, there's the subjective call about whether the show is any good – is it well-produced, how's the talent, and does it fill a void?
As a programmer, I took those variables into consideration, but for me, the tie-breaker was whether the show gave the station programming we simply couldn't provide locally – whether it was artist interviews and performance, perspective and history, or production values we could never have achieved in-house. I saw it as a form of content dessert – something a little special that was just different enough from the regular format.
I also had a pretty good handle on what would truly make my audience happy – not all of them, of course – but the ones who loved the station enough to bother tuning in on Sunday nights.
Back then, none of them had social media accounts, YouTube channels, or even “communities” to interact with.
Today, they all do. And a special program that's well-marketed, effectively “socialized,” and taps into influencers across these platforms has a a chance to expand the tent, build the brand, and maybe turn some P2s into P1s.
The thing is, I've rarely seen radio stations do an effective job of marketing special programming in the social space. Most don't even try.
If radio doesn't take the time and effort to make special programs special, why should the audience care?
I'm not suggesting Netflix did a bad job marketing “One Day At A Time.”
But it's easier to cancel a show than it is to figure out how to market it to a passionate, sharing audience.
And it comes down to answering this question:
Does it make your station sound more special?
Could you actually imagine hearing an “oh wow!” or two?
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Carter Burger says
Interesting your thoughs on the “reimagined” One Day at a Time. I think I watched the first 10 minutes of the first show and never watched it again. Instead of “reimagining” old shows, why can’t we create new shows? Or is Hollywood just that low on ideas.
That being said, King Biscuit was required listening in my house. Programmers lack of ideas showing again since we can’t seem to make a show like that work? Nobody sounds ‘special’ anymore. The stations in Atlanta sound just like the stations in Cincinnati that sound like the stations in Chicago that sound like the stations in Denver.
Fred Jacobs says
Hollywood is in the bargain bin of ideas. The reboots, prequels and sequels say it all.
Thom M. says
There’s another purpose that these syndicated features filled, at least for medium and small markets. They sounded more professional than the part time personalities that we had access to. The shows were an opportunity to sound like a big market when we, otherwise, had to put less experienced rookies on the air. Today’s technology has changed that equation. We can fill our weekends with prime time personalities without giving up any inventory to a syndicator. Since today’s listener comes to us with a very specific expectation, we can deliver that with a very consistent product 24/7.
Fred Jacobs says
Thom, you’re right. Back in the day, shows like KBFH and Rockline could help make a small station sound BIG.
Fred Buc says
Back in my programming days, we used Sunday night syndications to expand the fringes of our regular AAA format. Programs in World Music (Putumayo), New Age (Musical Starstreams), The Grateful Dead Hour, King Biscuit, Acoustic Cafe, etc. I agree with you, Fred — we had to find ways to creatively promote them throughout the week in order to get the weekday listeners to tune in. And these shows proved to be a welcoming, refreshing sound for the station. Although I’ll be honest… we kinda wrote-off the idea of trying to generate any measurable revenue in this daypart other than direct sponsorships of the programs themselves.
Fred Jacobs says
Dave Mason says
These special features can fill a few “holes” in the world. If variety is still important (as in a “variety of my favorite songs”), things like “The Top 10 at 10”, “The Beatles Brunch/Breakfast/Blast”, “Floydian Slip”…”Rewind”, many of these shows air in “off hours” -but you can use them as an awesome imaging tool. “The Complete Album Side” at midnight was a great way top image your station as “The Album Station” when no one was really listening – but the thought that a station would devote 20 minutes to one side of an album ? Great imaging. I’ve always been a fan of “specials” -whether it be “KBFH” or “Four at Four” -giving your listener another reason to check in!!
Fred Jacobs says
Tito López says
Syndicated shows were a great tool to spark interest in music in English on radio stations where I worked in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s in Colombia.
The first was “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem. The idea was to convince our listeners that the music playing on the station was completely up to date with what was happening in the rest of the world. It was distributed by ABC Watermark. Later it was distributed by Tom Rounds’ Radio Express for Latin America and the rest of the world outside the United States.
We also bought HotMix from Radio Express, with mixes of Dance music for the weekend.
Then we import “El Pop Británico”, the Spanish version of the BBC’s “Top of the Pops”, with the biggest hits of the moment in the UK.
After listening to Scott Shannon in 1985 in New York, we decided to change the “AT40” to Shannon’s “Rockin’ America.” This allowed us to establish a good relationship with Westwood One, who were also supplying us with “Future Hits” by Joel Denver.
We had a series of BBC concerts and later we booked “Top of the Pops” in English.
These and other programs, such as the “Europarade” that Radio Nederland distributed free of charge in Spanish, served to keep our country connected with the rest of the world, which was just trying to get out of underdevelopment and entering the world of globalization.
Those shows inspired me to do 2 syndicated shows: one I did from the United States in the mid-80s called “El palpitar de Nueva York” and a Salsa and Tropical music show called “Tropical Latino”, which was broadcast by more than 120 stations in Latin America, the United States and Europe.
I love syndicated shows.
Fred Jacobs says
Good one, Tito.
Eric Jon Magnuson says
During that era, there were also some regular TV/radio simulcasts of music shows. Nationally, that apparently included Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and (in its first few years) Friday Night Videos, which were recorded/produced in stereo. (Even after stereo TV became common, ABC might’ve used a similar approach for the ’90s version of In Concert.) But, even though I’m too young to really remember it, a local example in Madison around 1980 was the Television Live Radio Hour (shortened to Television)–which was produced at WMTV’s studios (possibly live) and aired on both that station (after SNL) and (in a stereo simulcast) WIBA-FM.
Even though such an approach almost certainly wouldn’t work today as a regular offering (for various reasons), it’s still very much interesting.
Fred Jacobs says
The media world has changed. Back then, it was an electric thrill to see a favorite artist or group in concert on TV.
Ken Martin says
I run classic AT40 with Casey on weekends and can tell you the streaming numbers explode. A lot of it is out of market listening but that’s got to translate to some local listeners IMHO.
I also run specialty weekends. They focus on the 80’s, Yacht Rock or something else. This weekend I’m doing a Women of Rock weekend. For a female focused station in March Women’s History Month, I think it makes us stand out, even if the audience isn’t in the office to listen.
Fred Jacobs says
More variations on the theme, Ken.
K.M. Richards says
Ken beat me to pointing out that a LOT of Classic Hits stations run the American Top 40 classics. And I think part of the appeal of that to listeners is hearing some of the songs that were on the charts then but which did not have the longevity to be programmed in the main format today.
As for the live concerts, I wish the syndicators would dig into their vaults and find the episodes of King Biscuit (or the Star Tracks concerts that replaced the interview program of the same name once per month), remaster them digitally, throw in whoever they are running barter spots for nowadays in front of the local breaks … just like they did back then, and offer them up to Classic Rock and Classic Hits stations. If they only released the concerts of artists that are still on our playlists now, I bet they’d be surprised at how many markets they could clear.
I’d run classic Star Tracks concerts by 80s artists in a heartbeat.
Mike N. says
“Is there image upside in carrying a show like “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” or “Passport Approved” with Sat Bisla?”
I agree with you on it but many of the programmers I have worked with don’t.
I’m from the sales side and I love some of the syndicated/special programming. It does give the station another image – many times a SALABLE image – that adds to the lifestyle narrative we present outside of just pure demographics. A rock station I know rarely plays the Dead but they do for an hour on Sunday Night. Guess who gets all the Jam Band money when they tour?
Hipness, Specialness, Lifestyle – whatever you want to call it, risking a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning/night to do something unique won’t turn off your P1’s and may get you another preset.
Thanks for the great article.
Fred Jacobs says
Gotta “shake it up,” Mike. At least on weekends.