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Monday Memo: Format Solution?

| January 27, 2020

By Holland Cooke


BLOCK ISLAND, RI — Ever get a song stuck in your head?  You’re about to.  It’s a song that’s been stuck in mine for 40 years.  And as Americans are about to hear a modern version for the next several months, this older take has me wondering if – and admittedly hoping that – I have spotted an opportunity for radio.

Friends ask if there’s been a mix-up at my pharmacy.

Hey, many pills look alike.  Those who know me, and digest direction I have offered lately, find it out-of-character.  As though my own political viewpoint is relevant, which it is not.

My work is to help grow revenue and ratings.

  • So strategy and tactics I have recommended here aim to exploit the undaunted support of the 40% not-appalled by President Trump. Fact-checks and faux pas notwithstanding, Trump’s tribe guzzles the Kool-Aid through a fire hose.  So the stations and hosts I work with work hard to be the Kool-Aid stand.
  • To garden-variety AMs that program Fox News and/or Rush Limbaugh and/or Sean Hannity and/or haven’t fired all the local talent that sing the same songbook, my unambiguous guidance has been “pander.”
  • ICYMI, this Talkers column got the ball rolling:
  • With Trump now impeached his followers are even more dug-in. He still packs arenas; and if you dismiss those people as dimwits you’re leaving money on the table.

Listeners likely to contribute atypically-high tune-in to AM talk stations choose to believe what they choose to believe.

Assure them they’re right and they’ll keep coming back.  And, mathematically, that’s the key.

  • For every format, instant gratification is imperative, as we now share listeners’ ears with so many audio competitors. But…
  • Seeming like safe space for the like-minded is tricky, because the narrative is so compressed. Trump-style catch-phrases are bumpersticker-length stuff they take comfort in hearing repeated.  Once so-assured, they can wander back to music.  And no matter how compelling any radio programming is, there’s little that will keep someone sitting in a parked car with the key on accessories.
  • Accordingly, building AQH by aggregating OCCASIONS of listening is more opportune than wishing for longer DURATION-per.
  • So if you’re the Fox Radio affiliate, assure that “You can get fake news anywhere. You get Fox News here, twice an hour.”

And to avoid kicking yourself later because you were too subtle as this story-of-a-lifetime unfolded, go a step further…

Image for advocacy, not just availability.

Yes, stoke the resentment that fueled Trump’s improbable ascent to the White House.  Take sides by culling phrases from social media posts and blogs.  Work stuff like this into station liners:




If you, personally, feel awkward about doing so, think of it this way: You’re running a gas station.  If you’re only selling gas, you’ll go broke.  You make money selling cigarettes.  You, yourself, don’t need to smoke, but ya gotta eat.

A more radio-relatable analogy?  To the grandfatherly gentlemen who owned AM top 40 stations during the British Invasion, The Beatles were noise.  But they knew the kids loved ‘em.

Ready for that song?

1980 was no picnic.  Fifty-two Americans were held hostage in Iran.  After having waited in gas lines, we were coping with inflation.  The USA boycotted the Summer Olympics, the Unabomber was on the loose, Mount St. Helens erupted and John Lennon was shot to death.  Yet, if it seemed like we’d hit a rough patch, we were optimistic about the future.  Breakthroughs like the VCR seem antique now, but we were less blasé about how technology was changing life.  We were looking forward, psyched about making America even greater, not great-again.

And as Uncle Sam’s every-10-years national nose count was underway, this was all over TV:

And doesn’t THAT look 40-years-before the divided America I urge talk radio to exploit?  When you see those smiling faces sing “together we will see-each-other-through,” you’re hearing the opposite of “build a wall.”

Which got me to thinking about the other 60% of America we’re hoping to keep listening to broadcast radio.  Why cede the non-sorehead middle class cume to Christian and public radio?

Format Solution: The Solutions Format?

I’m not saying CALL the station “Solutions.”  Call it any catchy nickname that sounds friendly and sincere, not boastful and growling.  I’m saying that instead of repetitious daily anger about what’s broken; cheerfully offer useful variety, emphasizing fixes.

The phrase “talk radio” connotes an unfortunate caricature; and (OK I’ll say it) the AM band is a time bomb.  Re-imagine what we used to call “full-service AM” on FM.

  • Humans, not robots. Friendly, thoughtful hosts sharing…solutions.  Like what Doug Stephan does in the morning and John Tesh does at night and Clark Howard does in-between, and good how-to shows do on the weekend.
  • Politics and public policy are allowed, but not an albatross. Rather than dogmatic and preachy and overstated, the station seems curious and inviting.  Topics and guests are chosen for “take-home pay” content listeners are likely to quote.  And unlike too much of talk radio, it’s dialogue, not monologue.
  • “YOU” and “YOUR” all over the place.
  • There’s music! Maybe 3 songs an hour, not constricted by genre.  CSN’s “Teach Your Children,” “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck, this year’s Grammy winners…whatever’s cool, possibly on-topic.  Understand that 25-54 is a myth, and 55+ is the most-monied demographic and broadcast radio’s most-habitual users.  Applebees is spending big on TV spots featuring a Four Tops mega-hit FM has abandoned.
  • Jingles! Have ‘em humming YOUR tune.

Who would DARE?

It’s easy to think that remaining “Mom & Pop” owners might take this on.  Many are nibbling-around-the-edges, instinctively.  But Big Corporate Radio could scale this nicely.  Add it to the salad bar of from-the-mothership music formats for owned stations.  But don’t dawdle.  Some thousand just-fired have the skill set to D.I.Y.

Holland Cooke ( is a media consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet; and he hosts “The Big Picture” TV show on RT America.  Follow @HollandCooke on Twitter.

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Category: Advice