The headline of today's post might just have well as been:
Radio Rediscovers That Good Programming Wins In PPM
In case you missed it, WMGK (Beasley's Classic Rock station in Philly) did the unthinkable this week – they threw out their usual format, put their call letters on the shelf, and for one day became wall-to-wall Rolling Stones under their “new” moniker – WMCK. The day-long tribute to Mick Jagger and the Stones in honor of the band's concert at the Lincoln Center wouldn't have raised a lot of radio eyebrows, except for one thing:
It killed in PPM.
How do we know that? It's a little known fact that Nielsen and Media Monitors produces next day ratings in PPM markets. Called “Audio Overnights,” the service allows broadcasters to actually see results of what they did yesterday.
Thanks to Inside Radio, the results of WMGK's (or WMCK's) Stones stunt was not just impressive – it was spectacular. And it should prove to be a philosophical game-changer for programmers in PPM markets who ascribe to the 5-word philosophy of boredom:
Set it and forget it.
Like folklore, passed from generation to generation, it became a radio programming truth that blandness, banality, and sameness was the way to win in PPM. Stations that dropped in “Oh wow!” elements became rarities in metered markets, and “good programming” became synonymous with tight playlists, numbing consistency, and music scheduling prowess.
That's not programming.
Programming is what PD Bill Weston and his live & local WMGK staff pulled off on Tuesday. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about this stunt is not that it worked, but that other PDs were surprised at the results.
And lest you think the entire day was simply one great Stones song after another, “WMCK” flipped all its daily benchmark features to the Stones-inspired theme of the day. “Breakfast With The Beatles” became “Scones With Stones,” for example, keeping the theme of the day consistent – while showing the station has a sense of humor.
The WMCK stunt worked, compared to an average Tuesday (or the day before) on WMGK:
But Nielsen/Media Monitors proved another Classic Rock truth – the format is often as popular with younger demos as it is with those who grew up with an iconic band like the Stones. On WMCK Day, 25-34s were the leading demo, coinciding with all those Millennials paying big bucks to see a bunch of 75 year-old rockers prancing around the stage.
Not surprisingly, Weston integrated his staff of knowledgeable, trusted sherpas – his airstaff – to provide coverage, color, context, and excitement. Andre Gardner broadcast live from the Lincoln center, while Debbi Calton wrote an extensive blog/review of the show that appeared on the station's website.
So, let's review 7 lessons learned from WMGK's Stones stunt:
1. Music and culture are lifestyles – not demographics – As we continue to see in Nielsen ratings – both diary and PPM, Classic Rock isn't just a Baby Boomer format. But to grasp that reality, simply attend an Elton John, Who, Aerosmith….or Stones concert when they come to your town and “research” the crowd. By the way, Nielsen Music's webinar on Wednesday confirmed the appeal of Classic Rock music to America's youth. It's “pan-generational appeal” is underscored by the fact than fans of Rock are 34% Millennials, 33% Gen Xers, and 28% Baby Boomers (and older). Weston expanded his station's demographic appeal by speaking to the larger cultural moment – rather than being tethered to a format.
2. Live & local works – Every time I hear a pundit extol the virtues of voicetracking, while diminishing broadcast radio's ability to personalize music with a life airstaff, I shake my head. On Tuesday, WMCK proved that radio can be more interesting, fun, and compelling than a Stones channel on Pandora. The reason why DeBella, Gardner, Calton, and the rest of the MGK air aces made this stunt work is because of their day-in-day-out connection between the station, Philly, and the hometown audience.
3. Capturing the local zeitgeist – It may be Programming 101, but it's become all too rare. Promotion/marketing gurus like Paige Nienaber preach the wisdom of radio being in the moment, talking about what the community is talking about. How risky was it to flip WMGK into an all-Stones station on Tuesday? In retrospect, it was a slam-dunk, but if it was that simple, why don't more stations seize the moment?
4. Showing up – You've heard the old adage from Woody Allen: “80% of success is showing up.” That axiom also applies to radio. It's not just enough to play “Shattered” and “Satisfaction” all day long. Showing up at Lincoln Center, having the airstaff attend and cover the concert, and having presence earn brand image points for a station like MGK. And apparently, it works in the ratings, too.
5. Online & on-air – A look at many station websites and apps reveals a world frozen in boring consistency. Oftentimes, radio fails to sync up its digital assets with its OTA programming. Calton's review of the concert and the station's graphic department made sure WMCK wasn't just coming out of the speakers, but also out of screens.
6. Surprise, surprise – The best thing about Spotify, Pandora, and other pure-plays is that you can be the program director, assembling and arranging wonderful, personalized playlists. The worst thing is that you always know what's coming. And that's why the element of surprise may even play better among the younger demographics. We hear it in focus and LAB groups, and now you can see it in PPM. What the late WPLJ PD, Larry Berger, used to call “logged spontaneity,” programmers need to think beyond the boundary lines, walking that line between “oh wow” and “oh no.”
7. This isn't just a Classic Rock thing – Today's headline in Inside Radio indicates that Radio (capital R) is in dire need of a programming shakeup. At yesterday's CRS 360° webinar, Country programmers Chris Huff and Joey Tack concurred their format is in a rut. Huff pointed to “a lot of sameness” in radio programming, while Tack posited that “We are going to have to break some rules that have been sacred because the audience is breaking them.” They should talk to Bill Weston.
Of course, none of this means that changing call letters, breaking format, and programming out of the box is something that radio can successfully pull off every day, much less every week.
But it's also an affirmation the audience is looking for more from the radio they listen to. Joey Tack asked the question, “What can we deliver that they can't get anywhere?”
It's time to start programming again.
Postscript: Congrats to 26-year WMGK veteran, Debbi Calton, on her upcoming retirement later this year. Debbi will be the focal point of a well-deserved month-long celebration of her career in November.
Debbi hasn't just been the midday jock of WMGK – she is one of the best and connecting with her audience. I've seen tons of research for the station over the years, and no one has established a warmer relationship with her listeners and her community than Debbi Calton.