So frequently we read on this site how radio plays the same old lame songs and supposedly does not have a clue what listeners want. This is typically followed by 'nobody listens to radio anymore' but you're mad as hell about radio not doing what you want. My first thought is do you listen or not? If we got it all wrong, you don't listen so why does it bother you so much. Certainly it wouldn't bother you if you don't listen. Instead of going that route, let me share a bit of what I have learned being in the business.
To be a real radio person you have to remove yourself from radio. The only part of radio where you are connected is as caretaker. You might not like the product you create as far as listening to the station goes. The bottom line is do people listen and do advertisers get results and renew. Nothing else really matters. The station is a business and has to break even and ideally turn a profit. Your job is to present a product on the air that does this.
Most on air folks and programmers love music. We're serious music fans, love discovering new material, etc. We have to go against ourselves in programming a radio station because most all radio listeners tune in to hear songs that they are familiar with and comfortable with. Every new song you add is a risk at losing listeners, sometimes a bunch of them. We program by consensus. If 10 out of 10 people in your target audience like a song, you play it a bunch. If 7 in 10 like a song, you might never touch the song depending on the competitive situation because 3 in 10 tune to your competitors if you play that song. Play too many 7 in 10 songs and listeners start concluding you are not the station for them and they never come back. This is simple human behavior. You might be attending your 20th class reunion but that kid that was a bully back in high school is still a bully today in your mind.
A good programmer lives by this rule: it's not so much what you play as what you don't play
Radio listening is much like watching TV. You might love a certain show and watch it religiously but there is much more to your life than that one show. If radio was a TV channel, we might repeat the show 24/7. Why? People get what they love when they want it, as much as they want it and move on with the other aspects of their lives.
Radio is not about sounding different from everything on the dial. This is to say, if you go to get a hamburger, you expect a hamburger and if the sign outside the place said hamburgers, if they don't sell hamburgers you are going to be disappointed. Here's what I really mean: radio does not create trends and such but reflect existing trends. Like TV, radio follows trends instead of creates them.
What we do on the air is designed to be comfortable, familiar and connect with the greatest number of people in the target audience.
It is typically what is between the music that matters most. Sounds crazy but it's that image, those commercials and tidbits of local information that makes a station go. The ads need to work. The audience needs to relate to the station.
That brings us to music. Why do we only play that one song by that group that has so many 'better' songs in your opinion? Chances are we might agree with you but our audience does not. For us in radio the song has to pass the test: how many like the song. If almost everyone does we'll play it. If not, it will never see the light of day on the radio.
This gets down to the important aspect of TSL or Time Spent Listening. People listen to the radio about 806 minutes a week. The greater number of those minutes I can keep you tuned to my station the better. More minutes means I'm one up on my competition and it means every time that commercial that pays my paycheck plays it is heard by more people. More people means more sales for the advertiser. More sales means the higher rate per commercial my station can command. If this was football, I'm trying to be the guy that makes that first down or runs it in to the end zone. The more comfortable and familiar I am to my listeners and the more songs I play everyone (10 out of 10) in my target audience likes, the better my chances.
We tend to catch a lot of criticism about this. We're just doing out job. Our job is to deliver as many listeners as we can at any given moment. That keeps us in a paycheck. Certainly if your boss told you to do something that would produce a certain result, you'd study things and look at who was successful doing what they do to determine how to perform your job well so your boss won't fire you. You'd never risk your job by ignoring prevailing wisdom and proven methods, risking getting fired in the process. No, whether the process was one you liked personally or not, you'd follow the tried and true method of achieving what your boss told you to do. That's why we call it a job or work. We aren't required to like it but just required to do it. We're not out to change the industry and hope it works because we need our paychecks too. We might innovate very cautiously in an almost indistinguishable way bit by bit over time, but we'd never toss the baby out with the bath water.
So, when you tackle radio people about what we do, now you have a clue of where we are in our minds and especially our jobs. We don't dictate to listeners. We let listeners dictate to us by consensus. We might not like the finished product but you can bet we immerse ourselves deeply in what we do and strive to be the very best we can be because our reputation rides throughout the industry on what we do. Are we proud of the finished product, yes, but not as proud as we are of the staff that executes the format. We get the station is not about us. We're just the caretaker hired to perform that job. What we like has no bearing on the final product.
That does not address the 'nobody listens' comment but that comment itself is a bold faced lie. Yep, I'm calling it out. Radio is owned in part by big companies. Their whole reason to exist is to make money like any other business. If there was a better or more surefire way to make more money, a better profit, etc., it would have already happened. You can bet the sharpest minds are looking for ways to do that 8 hours a day inside their offices. So if you think radio sucks and is unsuccessful, I know way too many people who actually own radio companies and run radio stations that after a hearty laugh can provide the living proof. Yes there are other options for listeners but the industry is far from dead. In fact, considering, radio is putting up a really good fight. Critics like to compare how radio did, say in the 1970s to 2016. Let's also compare how CBS, NBC and ABC are doing against other networks and all the other TV offerings. Radio has, by my count, 2/3rds of the time spent listening as it had in the 1970s when there was no all news TV (radio was the #1 news source), no cable TV, about 1/4 the radio stations we have today, no computers in homes and no cell phones or tablets. To see how badly radio is doing, check what people are willing to put up just to earn a construction permit to build a station. I've seen upwards of $150,000 to earn the right to buy land and construct a radio station in a county of 2,000 people. Because you think there's too much of this or that or too little of this or that, let me tell you there are too many dollars at risk for that amount not to be just right. If it wasn't those stations would simply not exist. You can't stick around by not doing what listeners want and that is a fact. Granted not every decision is a wise one but most are and very well researched and thought out because the money behind it demands no less.
Is radio dying? I can't say it is. Time spend listening will likely lower in coming years but where we lose the device ewe simply call a radio for listening we pick up the listener via the stream or some other product we control and operate (as in own). Probably the most exciting thing will be a business model that can make the online side profitable. You won't like this is you're not a fan of radio, but likely the marketing plan to make that online stream popular will likely be radio and TV advertising. Why? The best way to get visitors online is to advertise on radio and TV to build awareness. Pay attention to how many ads are about getting people to go to a website.
You can keep your opinion. We all have one. The question is where your opinion is based in reality and tempered by people in the industry that live by those figures every day.