Radio programmers, by their very nature, are control freaks. Because most radio stations are mostly 24/7/365 operations, there is always this powerful yearning to get your arms around your brand, your product, your sound.
But it's elusive because there are so many moving parts, and the perpetual motion of radio never stops. There is no “CLOSED” sign for the front door. You don't knock off the week between Christmas and New Year's. And there are no sabbaticals. You come to play, suited up, every day, ready to do battle.
Over time, you experience it all – the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the unbridled joy that comes from pulling up to a red light and seeing another driver jamming to your radio station or laughing along with your morning show. It doesn't get any better than that.
PDs love to pull and push levers around. That's how they exert control over their brands – and their audiences. And the smart ones who know their audience and their market, who have survived great and horrific rating books, a morning show that defects to a station across the street, and a station sold right from under them eventually gets that grizzled, weathered look and attitude that come from doing this job for more than a minute.
But many of those machinations and so-called “tricks of the trades” may not be working so well right now, thanks to the pandemic. Radio listening is so dependent on situational and locational listening – where you are and what you're doing. And while we may be emerging from this scourge as we roll into the summer and fall, we're still looking at conditions that can only be described as “life disrupted.”
I am just wrapping up a slew (that's a lot) of Zoom focus groups among audiences all over the country. And while everyone has their COVID stories – their jobs, their lives, their kids, their parents – one thing is universal:
Few people have found a way to live their lives a la 2019.
And yet, when you talk to PDs about their plans – this weekend, next month, later this year – many talk like it's business as usual.
Want to energize the station over the warm weather months?
Play more upbeat titles, and slow down those ballads.
Want to expose listeners to a new genre of music into your format?
Add a title or two at night, and see how that works.
TSL a bit puny?
Do a better job of setting occasions by promoting events and giveaways at certain times.
These all may be tried-and-true tactics that work nine times out of ten.
So, welcome to the tenth.
Pilots don't fly their planes the same way during times of great turbulence. They carefully check their radar, their instruments, and new data, while also using their instincts and experience. And they adapt and adjust to the new conditions around them.
We continue to wring our hands over suppressed PUMM levels in PPM markets, waiting for the day when traffic reports will once again be meaningful as commutes return to their old patterns.
We may have a long wait on our hands.
When you talk to real audience members about their lives – and don't just stare at columns of numbers and bar and pie charts, you come to realize the multitude of ways their worlds have been rocked.
I've talked to many people who are very much stressed out by the world around them. Their need to “escape” when they listen to the radio has never been greater.
Some respondents tell me they haven't slept well since the beginning of the pandemic. And many are turning on the radio for company overnight. What are they hearing during those hours, and is there an opportunity to promote what's coming up in the day ahead?
Others will openly admit (you just have to ask) they're suffering from depression or maybe a general malaise – “the blues.”
For many of the folks, a radio station and a personality's response of providing companionship means more than making sure those rotations are in-sync, aligned, and the A's are efficiently turning over every 75 minutes.
Others are bored. They've turned to podcasts, and other diversions to keep their heads in the game. Playing 10 great songs with less talk isn't likely to provide much in the way of stimulation.
And then of course, there's work from home, an issue that seems to have been elongated. For many, their new workplace – the spare bedroom, the kitchen table. And it's been that way going on 14 months.
Radio programmers are generally a crafty, smart group who thrive on being great problem solvers. And when they take off their PD hats and talk about themselves, they will willingly tell you how their rhythm and routines, as well as the lives of their staffs and families, have been upended by the tentacles of the pandemic.
They'll tell you their markets – restaurants, entertainment attractions, bars, clubs, and hotels are still struggling to regain their financial equilibrium.
But when you start talking turkey – the in's and out's of programming, it's business as usual.
Radio station perceptual studies continue to look like they did back during the Obama (or Bush) era. And we continue to track our data (remember to word those questions the exact same way we always have!), even though it is no longer possible to seamlessly chart our progress (or regress) with any degree of surety.
And that's why to bolster our confidence, we look backwards – at events and perceptions that have already occurred, hoping it provides insight and understanding of the road ahead.
Ah, the future. It's impossible to gauge, whether you're Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, Liz Cheney, or the thousands of radio programmers out there trying to get a handle on “what's next?”
Questioning listeners isn't the same thing as listening to them. Talking to small groups of them does not yield the same findings as serving up an online questionnaire to 500 of them.
Playing hundreds of song hooks for groups of respondents isn't research – it's an expensive oil change that ignores the fact that “road conditions” have changed.
If you take the time to talk to people, listen to their stories, and consider how their lives have been changed, every PD designing clocks, writing promos, and scheduling music will rethink “the givens,” and start thinking in new ways that may be far more representative of how and where people are using radio, as well as the other devices that deliver a streaming version of the same product.
The master marketer, Clayton Christensen, has long asked the question, “Why are people hiring your product?”
And “What is your radio station's job-to-do?”
In 2019, most of us knew the answers to those questions, because they seldom changed. Until March of 2020, that is.
People's live and routines, once predictable, have become complicated. Attitudes about work, relationships, families, retirement, savings, and leisure time aren't so easy to untangle.
How you entertain and inform folks whose habits, routines, and lives have been transformed by the pandemic is the challenge at hand.
Most PDs can tell you their cume, their TSL, their ranks, and the dates when “the book” starts and ends. But can they tell you how the foul lines and ground rules that once defined the game of programming have been redrawn and rewritten.
Audience research may be a science. But it's also an art.
We are not in control. And we won't be again until we have a better understanding of who we're talking to, where they are, and what they need.