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?
- An Open (News)Letter To Radio - December 6, 2023
- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023
- Is It Time For The Music Industry To Write Radio A “Dear Genre” Letter? - December 4, 2023