When I think about the pressures radio's programmers and on-air talent endure, it has always struck me as especially intense, compared to those in other fields.
For starters, the ratings are pretty much nonstop, all year round – especially in the largest markets. “You're only as good as your last book” is one of those sad but true axioms in radio. Just when you're about to celebrate those great ratings, you're already several weeks into the next book.
Then, there's the volatility of the ratings. In most industries, the numbers are the numbers: units sold, burgers flipped, butts in seats, votes cast – it's all very measurable. In radio, there are also numbers, but they are estimates, plain and simple. Radio people and agencies may not take them that way, but whether measured in diaries or meters, they are not hard and fast indicators of how a station or air personality has performed.
In our AQ studies comprised of commercial radio air talent in the U.S., we've been tracking stress levels. Not surprisingly through COVID, they're understandably high. But well before the pandemic, consolidation, and the Internet, radio programming has always been a high-pressure, take no prisoners game.
Then there's the world of sports, where athletes are under the microscope after every game, and even worse, after every season. It's one thing to come up short. It's another to have to explain a loss – an errant pass, an error on a routine fly ball, or a missed layup under the bright lights of a press conference.
While I have respect for sports reporters trying to get a good quote, an interesting angle, and a compelling story, especially from athletes who often speak in clichés, there are times they ask absurd and even offensive questions.
The clip below is a case in point, but it sure is revealing. It's a post-game interview with the great Giannis Antetokounmpo (just call him Giannis) superstar for the Milwaukee Bucks. With so many hoping for a national championship in Brew City, the favorite Bucks were upset in their first-round series to the 8-seeded Miami Heat by a 4-1 margin. It wasn't even close. They will now be forced to watch the rest of the NBA Playoffs from their barcaloungers and man caves – just like the rest of us.
And to make matters worse for Milwaukeeans, the Bucks had the best record during the regular season. Suffice it to say, hopes were high. And when the hometown heroes came up way short, they were cruelly dashed.
And so the opening question from the media to team leader Giannis was a bit jarring:
“Do you view this season as a failure?”
His response is a whirlwind of emotions – frustration, acceptance, pragmatic, rationalization – all at the same time. And as I watched this brilliant, well-compensated superstar explain his feelings and pour his heart out at the moment of a painful loss, I couldn't help but think of a programmer in a similar situation – trying to point out that even though his station just suffered a “bad book,” there were high points, lessons learned, and team building that took place during the past 12-week rating period.
Please take 2 minutes to watch it:
These moments may not show up in the rankers or in a reach-and-frequency run. But programmers and air talent are sensitive to those times when positives comes out of small moments and little victories. As Giannis notes, even in losing, a great organization and talented people use the experience as “steps to success.” Getting over that hump – that seemingly unbeatable team, the intense pressure of competition, overcoming bad breaks and unforeseen circumstances – can be difficult for both sports teams and radio stations.
The key quote from Giannis:
“There's no failure in sports…there are good days and bad days.”
Does that actually fly in radio? Let's try it on:
“There's no failure in radio…there are good books and bad books.”
But then there's your team. And while Giannis answered that pointed question in sweeping terms, the issue of who's down the bench, how smart and visionary are the coaches, and does the organization have the patience and the pockets to win are the ones that need addressing. Whether you're a program director in Des Moines or a power forward in Milwaukee, having the right people in the trenches with you is often the difference between champagne showers and “wait 'til next year.”
Your ability to take it all in stride – not get too high when you're winning and not sink into the depths of depression and sorrow when you're not is often the determinant of a long, successful, and reasonably happy career. As Giannis shows us in the video, he's learned something in the past year as that same question got asked by the same reporter 12 months earlier. His ability to cope, regroup, and get back on the court has improved from 2022. As it should be.
One of radio management's challenges – as it is in sports – is what to do with a strong performer who suddenly fails to deliver. Do you believe in him or her? Do they still have it? Do they just need more time?
I've heard more than a few outstanding programmers blurt out in frustration over a down book or two, “Hey, I didn't get stupid overnight.”
No, you didn't. But is the organization smart enough to see it?
I once had a PD tell me on the night before the big ratings book was to come out: “We did everything right this book – the music was tested, we had great marketing that everyone saw, our contest blew out the phone lines, and we had a couple killer audience events. I can't wait until I see the numbers.”
Big mistake. All those ducks can be aligned, but it's still no guarantee of a basketball playoffs or a ratings success. Never look forward to the release of a book. Never ever.
That's because, how often do these things happen?
- That “3” with no time on the clock rims in and out.
- We lost a meter in Westland.
- The puck clanks off the post and doesn't go in the net.
- That blizzard in February throws the market's listening patterns way off.
Way too often.
And so it goes, in radio and in sports.
The longer I do this, the more I realize that a great effort doesn't always produce the gold. Or even a bronze. Luck and other forces are often at work.
It's times like this, that the stains of “The Bug” by Dire Straits wafts through my mind, with these lyrics:
“Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.”
While I love Mark Knopfler's vocals on his own song, I think I actually gravitate to the Mary-Chapin Carpenter cover.
To Giannis and the Bucks, “Better luck next
Hope you're the windshield next year.
P.S. Best to Jim O'Brien who knows what it's like to be both the windshield and the bug.
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CLARK SMIDT says
Having just suffered last night’s Bruins loss – after the best anywhere, anytime season – I feel the Bucks’ pain. The books fall where they may. Smaller samples are statistically unreliable as we were taught in college Psych 110. It’s more than the thought that counts. It’s popular demand, cash in the register, and being recognized as The Best Sound Around (c). Keep striving to be the best and proving strong on air when they can’t take a joke. Once again, excellent Monday Morning Inspiration from Sir Fred.
Fred Jacobs says
Appreciate it, Clark, and sorry about those Bruins (very similar to the Bucks’ situation).
Dave Mason says
The whole ratings system -as we know – is flawed – as in the accuracy of “estimates” is in question. In Los Angeles -there may be 3,000 meters affecting radio. Nielsen supplies multiple meters to families, meaning a family of 5 leaving town can send your numbers to the tank. Radio gets better numbers when the infinitesimal commercial breaks cross the quarter hours at :15 and :45, so most EVERY station does that. It must be hurting the entire medium. Apparently it would hurt the numbers if we went back to song/spot/song/spot like it was in the pre-PPM days, or if that 15 minutes of commercials were spread out to 3 or 4 breaks per hour. It would seem that radio has to start doing things for the listener, not the ratings service so it can survive. The awesome talent on the front lines can only do so much. It’s up to the people driving the bus to really steer us into the future. Is it right that radio pays outrageous fees to Nielsen for “estimates” that could be sketchy? When I was in Los Angeles we were ecstatic when we had an average of 14 meters for an entire month. FOURTEEN. That’s basically an average of 14 listeners over a 24 hour period, representing a population of over 2 million in the metro listening to the #1 station. It’s considered to be an accurate representation. Are we sure? People’s lives are made and crushed by these estimates -and so programmers and sales managers alike will sweat the next book. There’s a lot to consider, but it’s really important for the con+tinued success (or lack of) radio isn’t it ?
Fred Jacobs says
These are important points, Dave, and I’m sure many readers are nodding along with you. Thanks for taking the time to say it.