If you've been in radio for any length of time, it's a sadly familiar story. You sign on a new station (or format), it enjoys a meteoric ride, a fan base rapidly grows, there's a palpable buzz on the street and in social media…
…and then it somehow fizzles out. The station settles into a much lower ratings (and sales) range, and the label “one book wonder” is heard from many different quarters.
The next thing you know, your hot new station is an also-ran, back in the pack, or worse. Sometimes, you're back to the drawing board with format search studies, along with hand wringing and finger-pointing. Assuming, of course, you're still employed.
Why does this happen? Why do so many new stations land into the “Roman Candle” category – a fast rise accompanied by lots of oohs and ahhs, followed by an equally fast decay that is frustrating and costly?
For inspiration, let's turn to radio's sister industry – automotive. It's no accident that both cars and radio seem to exist in a parallel universe. Both reached critical mass in the early decades of the last century. And thanks to Ford and many of the early automotive pioneers, a radio rapidly became standard equipment in early dashboards – along with the trunk, the windshield wipers, and the glove box. Those two knobs and 6 presets were in every car rolling out of Detroit.
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Ironically, auto companies struggle with the same problem as radio broadcasting companies. There are many cases where a new car or truck debut wins awards, accolades, and great sales, only to experience a “sophomore slump.”
In the radio industry, it's often difficult to explain the high-profile busts. Oftentimes, the blame is laid on the limitation of the format itself (“it didn't have legs”) or the people who conceived it in the first place (“they're not that smart”). But how often do broadcasters end up modifying a new station in ways that are actually counterproductive to the concept's longevity and success?
Veteran automotive guru, Bob Lutz, cites many analogous examples to radio in the car business. Strong debuts by vehicles like the Chevy Sonic and the Cadillac Seville STS ran out of gas quickly when the next model was released.
Lutz should know. He's long been an outspoken, innovative auto exec, credited with bringing the electric Chevy Volt to market, GM's answer to the Toyota Prius. Along the way, he's been at the source of development of iconic vehicles, including the Dodge Viper.
And you don't get there by accepting the status quo. Earlier in his career he handed out stickers that read “Sez Who?” to his team in an effort to stimulate product quality, new thinking, and innovation.
So what does Lutz say the problem is with many second models of great new car debuts? Lutz believes carmakers have the habit of jettisoning the features that made the car attractive to begin with. In a recent Road & Track think piece, he says the culprit is often market research.
And his example goes all the way back to that hot two-seater from the 1950's – the Ford Thunderbird. Research among owners revealed much satisfaction with the sports car, but some said it would be nice to have a back seat.
The next thing you know, the T-Bird grew, widened, got heavier, even bloated, and yes, included a back seat. And in a few years, the car simply lost its flash, desirability, and uniqueness.
But after all, didn't consumers ask for these changes?
In radio, we've seen the same thing happen when a new format launches. That first music test – if it's not interpreted and applied correctly – can remove, tighten, and compromise the energy and uniqueness that enchanted a new audience in the first place.
Sometimes, it's that first perceptual study that shows momentum and great vital signs – and so management begins to budget like the new station will have a 10-share forever. Separating exuberance from reality is another key to understanding what the audience is really trying to say amidst all that euphoria.
It's one thing to sort and analyze a music test for a station that's been around years – the audience has a clear expectation of what's being tested. And the station's programming team knows what music tests ought to look like.
But when you're dealing with a fresh new product with no benchmarks but lots of buzz like a radio station, interpreting the data and focus group feedback becomes the art of the deal.
Many of you know I'm a hard-boiled research guy. That's how I got my start in radio, and Jacobs Media conducts a lot of research today, including our new Techsurvey 2018 which just went into the field. But I've been doing this long enough to know that sometimes the audience (or car buyers) are trying to communicate something that isn't always clear and easy to understand.
It's also essential to remember they aren't radio programmers (or car designers). They may consume the product, but let's not mistake them for industry professionals. That's the part that we're in charge of. And it's essential to understand what made the station (and car) exciting and break-through when it was launched.
Lutz sums it up this way: “Failure to grasp the importance of a car's original appeal – the reason for the initial passion – has produced a prodigious number of products that are improved greatly, but in areas of no concern to the buyer of that product.”
Replace the word “car” with “station” and it explains some of the fizzles, miscues, and debacles that have dotted the radio titles in market after market.
Being able to balance the science from the research with the emotion that every programmer (and car designer) needs to bring to the project is what makes the magic of designing great cars – and hot radio stations – the art form that it truly is.
Lutz is a firm believer in listening to the customer (or audience):
“I find the really successful companies have this burning passion to please the customer.”
But the art and craft of designing great cars – and programming great radio stations – is blending their feedback with critical thinking, creativity, and risk-taking – elements often gone missing in both automotive – and radio.
Respect the audience…but do your job.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.