By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — “Radio isn’t radio; radio is life.” Noted international talk radio consultant Valerie Geller stressed that point yesterday (6/2) during the kickoff of the two-day Hivio confab in Los Angeles. The “labor of love” event organized by San Diego-based media advisor-strategist/research analyst Mark Ramsey and Slacker Radio director/content initiatives Jaime Solis concludes today (6/3).
Ten people – including Geller – were interviewed in one-on-one “Q&A” sessions with Ramsey, or they made individual presentations. Emphasizing that on-air talents and podcasters are all in the story business, Geller states, “It is all about how to powerfully communicate your story. The real secret is how does it matter to you?” She reasons that, if the talent does not care, there is no reason to think the audience will either. “You are an actor playing the part,” she remarks. “Radio – audio – is magical – you are in someone’s head.”
Recounting Wednesday’s (6/1) tragic event at UCLA, Geller says it was “amazing” how social media and broadcast media “actually came together to reflect life on a breaking story.” It has been stated repeatedly that if there is relative content, “the audience will not care where it will get it – even if it’s in the fillings of their teeth. They just want to connect with a story.” Considerable time in Geller’s worldwide travels is spent dealing with on-air talent and podcasters. “Most are very good,” she evaluates. “The goal is to make them even more powerful storytellers. The rules are to tell the truth; make it matter; and never be boring. If it is boring, you have lost your audience.” She suggests holding a story up to the “so what?” mirror. “The ‘private’ is boring but the ‘personal’ is universal in using the word ‘you,’ instead of ‘we,’ ‘me,’ ‘I,’ ‘us,’ or ‘our.’ Instead of saying, “I have tickets to give away,’ or ‘coming up next, we will be talking with [name],’ it [should be], ‘you will have a chance to win tickets,’ or, ‘in a moment, you will meet [name].'” It is akin, Geller analogizes, to making a movie and putting listeners in that film. “If you are talking about a fire, your audience should taste the smoke in the back of their throat,” she declares. “It is important to use visual language. It is not enough to say, ‘It is a nice sunset’ – go with ‘tangerine sky.’ Make a picture. Look at song lyrics and great writers; read and write poetry. Learn to write visually and always speak as if you were talking to a blind man.” When you do that, she maintains, “Your work is going to get better. The minute you do that, it engages. Another secret in telling a story is ‘interested’ is ‘interesting.’ If you are invested in a story, you will find a way to make it sound interesting. Thousands of years ago, Confucius wrote ‘Tell me – I will forget; show me – I may remember; but involve me, and I will understand.” Listeners want to know how a story will affect his or her life and Geller comments, “‘Engagement’ means you are getting someone’s attention. I will never hire an on-air personality or work with a podcaster if I would not take a five-hour car journey with that person. By the way, this is not school. You have to inspire, inform, and entertain. If you give someone joy in any way, they will come back to you.” It is Geller’s contention that in storytelling, all “superfluous verbiage” be eliminated. “Make every word matter,” she advises.
These days, very few program directors are willing to take a chance to roll the dice. “For 10 years, ’60 Minutes’ didn’t work, but then it became #1 for the next 30 years. Only four episodes [of ‘Seinfeld’] were ordered” because NBC was unsure the Jerry Seinfeld sitcom was going to work. When Ramsey quizzed Geller about what the industry can learn from the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, she opines, “The same thing we can learn from P.T. Barnum – life is a show. He knows how to wow a room and make a lot of noise.”
In another “Q&A” session, Pandora senior vice president of ad product sales & strategy Lizzie Widhelm (pictured here at left, speaking with Ramsey at right) – who has been with Pandora since it launched a decade ago – tells Ramsey that on any given day, “We collect north of one billion data points among our 80 million listeners. What we have done all along is to try to understand how to retain audience and how to insure that we are optimizing for time spent [listening] on the platform, [since] that is what allows us to monetize.” Data Widhelm has been seeing in the recent quarter “led us to believe there is a huge opportunity in bringing the ticketing experience – as it relates to finding out when artists are in ‘your town’ because that is an extension of what you love about music. We will continue to do that with the service itself to understand what on-demand looks like on Pandora. We want to preserve that time spent [listening]. We don’t want to unlock a catalog that listeners don’t care about.”
Discovery; ease of use; and personalization, Widhelm states, “have to be in the DNA of everything we do. Pandora lovers want to stay on the platform: It is easy; it is in your pocket; and it is an app that is integrated in cars and homes. We want things to be frictionless.” New ad products are about to be rolled out and Widhelm suggests, “The experience will change as a whole.” For example, under “sponsored listening,” she explains, “For giving true attention to a marketer’s video ad, our listeners get an hour without any more interruptions – presented by that advertiser; it is native advertising [but] that is unique to us. We will continue to build on those types of experiences. Our advertising will not get in the way of what a listener likes but will unlock more of what we know [he or she likes]. Over time, you will see us trying to personalize that.” She concedes this is not a new idea but “What is unique is that we are making it specific to us. We are not unlocking random things. We know ahead of time what the payoffs are for our listeners. Internally, we say, ‘What is good for the listener is good for the advertiser’ and that has to matter.”
Pandora wants to know “how to make more money with [fewer] ads. These are the types of experiences we can build for advertisers where they do not have to be so wasteful. They are willing to invest a premium price because we are guaranteeing attention.”
In opening the day’s agenda, Ramsey gave a brief history of the Sunset Boulevard venue – the Andaz Hotel, which Ramsey points out was formerly known as the “Riot Hyatt.” He jokes that the annual audio event (Hivio) is something that “nobody can pronounce or spell” and grants that some speculate why it even exists. “It brings people who would normally not be together under one roof,” he proclaims.
He then revealed results of a “bona fide research study” – not a poll – where 1,000 random online interviewees (adults 18 – 54) were paid to give their opinions regarding audio advertising. The project done several weeks ago (May 5 – 10) was done in conjunction with Nuvoodoo. “Just because an ad is relevant does not mean it will be as impactful as if it were also funny,” Ramsey highlights. “I was surprised to see ‘funny’ so close to ‘relevant.’ By these measures, an ad should be short; endorsements are preferred over 60s but not over 30s, or shorter. Endorsements are commonly 60-seconds because that is what agencies want.” He rhetorically pondered where evidence can be found that, “The longer the commercial, the more effective it will be. Why sell length rather than impact?” When participants were asked, “What makes an audio ad or message work best for you?” The most popular responses are, “short,” “to the point,” “funny,” “relevant,” “clear,” “attention,” “catchy,” and “interesting.” A bit of an asterisk exists in terms of shorter always being better, as 5-second and 15-second commercials score higher than 2-second spots. Conversely, the most offensive components are “long,” “annoying,” “boring,” “loud,” “sad,” “monotone,” and “obnoxious.” Hivio attendees are encouraged to write down one thing they learned from the two-day confab; their post-it notes will be shared at the conclusion of the conference.
Mike Kinosian is managing editor of TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com