Typical Is Your Enemy

| October 12, 2015

By Holland Cooke
Radio Consultant

 

cookewriterBLOCK ISLAND, RI — In 1976 or 1986 or 1996, he would’ve cranked it up.  Here in the future, “Hotel California” comes on and the listener might hit scan.  Or, increasingly, skip.

Someone JUST-tuning-in at 14 past the hour on a cloudy morning hears the announcer assure that the next Traffic & Weather Together On-the-Threes update is just nine minutes away.  Or “WHAT A NIGHT AT WRIGLEY!” teases a sportscast into spots.  Are we naïve enough to think people aren’t toting smartphones?

Yes, you’re really hearing this from a consultant.  I do install success templates.  In the 21 years since I last had an employer, I’ve paid my mortgage by assuring clients that “nothing I recommend is an experiment.”  And the logic of if-it-works-do-it/if-it-doesn’t-don’t becomes even more obvious as radio has overdone what works until it doesn’t; and has cost-cut until innovation becomes cost-prohibitive.

Ratings reward recall.

Regardless of methodology, audience measurement is a memory test.

  • The diary is no less than a ballot. They’re voting for what they remember.  They remember what they used.  They used what they heard because it engaged them.
  • Most common misunderstanding about Portable People Meter: Call letters matter less than with diaries. Call letters (and dial position) may now be MORE important, because:
  1. There aren’t enough meters. You know it, I know it, they know it.  The technology is too expensive to put big panels in-tab.  At any given moment, a big station in a big market may have zero PPMs lit-up.
  2. PPM doesn’t always hear well. Evidence: Voltair.
  3. When they do hear, meters tell the brutal truth. They report unintentional listening, background audio the panelist was exposed to but didn’t choose and didn’t really “hear.”
  4. So every…single…moment of intentional listening PPM does hear matters, a lot. So tell ‘em who you are.  Awareness drives use.
  • Are you in an Eastlan market? Texting has surpassed email as what-passes-for conversation these days, so every phone call is now an interruption.  ‘Been surveyed lately, about anything?  (If you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, I’ll bet you have.)  Remember how quickly you answered each question, and how your answers got quicker as the survey got longer?

The more typical you sound, the less memorable you will be.

Avoid sounding like that muted trombone, when grown-ups talk, in “Charlie Brown Christmas.”

That’s how radio now sounds to many people.  George Carlin got laughs during the Johnson administration doing “the radio voice” people still hear.  Who really talks like that?  And droning is as bad as puking.  Or laughing at whatever you just said.

Here’s the litmus test for DJ or host delivery: Would you want THAT person in your carpool?  Or sitting next to you at work?  That’s the TSL we’re asking for.  Just talk, willya?

And talk to ME, the listener; not just to each other on multi-voice shows.  If these radio shows were TV shows, the viewer would see hosts’ profiles.  Turn and face the camera.  Make eye contact with the listener, an individual, and say “YOU” and “YOUR” a lot.

And talk to callers, even if you’re on a music station.  Especially on a music station.  Otherwise, it’s just “Hotel California,” which they have on their phone if they want it, and don’t if 428-title station playlists have burned it out.

You sound popular when callers line-up to join-in.  And, no matter how clever WE are, and no matter how well WE prep, there are more of them than there are of us.  Invite their stories and perspectives and quips and tears, and you’ll be foreground, not background.

Seen talk radio ratings in big markets?  Are you surprised?  Imagine this: A “real people” person punches-into a talk station, and the first word she hears is “LIBERALS.”  Would she expect that this button is delivering something she’ll be disadvantaged not hearing more of?

Sales: Do an advertiser a favor, and tell him, diplomatically, that – when his spot says “THERE’S NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BUY A NEW CAR!” – not only do they not believe it; they mentally tune it out.

And about those commercials for your station…

Are your promos The Caricature?

Does your imaging convey why listeners are better off listening?  Is it about THEM?  Most imaging I hear in my travels fails, by sounding painfully typical.

  • Copy is utterly station-centric; and often prone to boastful claims that are factually untrue. “OFFICIAL” is a red flag, usually a fib, and often sounds silly.  Was there a ceremony at the state house when the governor proclaimed your 428-song rotation “The Official Listen-at-Work Station?”  One news/talk station I hear claims to be “The Station of Record.”  Two problems:
  1. It’s not. No governmental authority designated it as such.
  2. Authority is out, wiki is in. Consumer Reports and movie critics are old school.  We read online reviews now.  We trust real-people strangers more than “name” experts.
  • I still hear morning show promos that begin “IF YOU MISSED TODD & RODD, YOU MISSED…” (insert aircheck clip).
  1. I have never, ever, heard a clip inserted that caused me remorse for not having listened.
  2. With ratings being a memory test, why would we apply radio’s powerful Reach + Frequency to reinforcing the message that the listener didn’t hear something? If anything, we want to fool those sampled by diary and phone into thinking they listened more than they did, not less.
  • Typical imaging announcers are barking or growling or puking, talking-AT listeners. Delivery sometimes sounds sinister, rather than friendly and inviting.  It’s typically a man.  I believe his name is Bill Balls.  No wonder actors are doing the voiceover on so many national spots.  Gene Hackman used to do United Airlines, now Matt Damon does; because they don’t sound like announcers.
  • Are your promos over-produced? Often when I hear announcer and sound bites intercut, they’re too tight. It all just runs together.  Too-loud background music obscures the message further.
  • And about the EQ that makes the station voice sound like he’s in a box? He’s already in a box, the radio.  And what could possibly say I’ve-heard-it-all-before like those very 1970s Star Wars sounding whizzers?

As for those 428 songs…

The Holland Cooke Drinking Game: Knock one back every time I say “play the hits” in a station conference room.  You’ll be hammered in no time.

And I’m a news/talk/sports guy!  When I programmed WTOP, our “hits” were traffic, weather, and headlines.  We did just enough sports so we didn’t send you elsewhere for the Redskins score; but we weren’t sports, we were instant-gratification survival information.

I’ll leave it to modern Selector jockeys to reckon the rotation, but playing only several hundred titles to an audience now toting as many as several thousand on smartphones suggests a disconnect.  I’m not saying go crazy-deep.  But I do notice that when I ask SiriusXM customers to name their favorite channel, I keep hearing “32, The Bridge.”  Maybe that deep?

Hearing the late, great Casey Kasem on AT40 re-runs in syndication and on satellite radio, it’s one “‘Wow’ moment” after another when he’s below #20.  30+ years later, many of those forgotten follow-up songs and one-(almost)-hit wonders seem like stiffs; but at the time they were something new, and kept stations fresh.  And when those songs dropped, other new titles made the station sound “more today than yesterday.”

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Holland Cooke (www.HollandCooke.com) is a media consultant working at the intersection of Talk Radio and the Internet, and he covers conventions for Talkers and RadioInfo.  Follow him on Twitter @HollandCooke

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Category: Advice