April 13, 2010

Radio Killed The Radio Star


By Richard Fusco

Years ago when I was a PD (programming director) at a leading Woodstock radio station, I remember that the sales manager chastised me for allowing DJ's to select the music they played - with no interference - versus following a strict pre-programmed top 40 format.

He said "Nobody else is doing that on radio." My response to him was, "Exactly!"

I loved radio, but now I look more to the Net for that "Companion Unobtrusive." My first real working media experience was with radio. I founded a radio station from scratch, ran it and did an on-air shift for 12 years. It was one of the best times of my life. All the on-air staff talked one-to-one to our listeners, played the songs we liked and shared our life experiences openly on-the-air.

It was such a personal medium that listeners shared my excitement over my wife's pregnancy with our first child. They followed the pregnancy right up to the birth. When she was born, we shared a collective joy that still sends chills up and down my spine.


The station made money. The programming was unique, innovative and always exciting for the listener including music they never heard before, deep cuts from classic albums and live performances by musicians who would just drop into the studio. Sales were a primary objective but the foundation of the station's success was the programming and one-to-one presentation of the on-air staff. As we said in our media kit, "we respect our listeners' intelligence" but we also had a hell of a lot of fun. Listeners could hear it and felt a part of it.

Our philosophy was to create interesting programming and provide the product/service information of our advertisers to our listeners in a way that did not detract from the enjoyment of the overall listening experience but add to it. We kept our hourly ad load down and never aired more than 2 minutes of ads at a time. There was a balance. Sales did not rule and programming understood the need to be an effective medium for advertisers. Our on-air people related their personal experiences with our advertisers' businesses not because they were paid to but because their experiences were positive. Ads on the station were very effective and provided an excellent ROI for our advertisers. It was a different time.


Loosening of FCC regulations then allowed single companies to own more radio stations. That helped cut expenses, boost sales and increase profit margin but it also jacked up debt because of station acquisitions. Small station groups and single independent stations were eaten up. Programming considerations became secondary, or worse, structured like a fast food menu. "Have it our way."


Corporate policy dictated that stations stick with mass appeal, lowest common denominator content to increase their cume and average quarter hour numbers in the short term to sell more spots. Stations were directed to squeeze in more and more ads every hour to make more money. On-air promos even blatantly mocked advertising by proclaiming "50 minute commercial-free music blocks".

After the block, stations slipped in 10+ straight minutes of ads. Ironically, Commercial-free music blocks is ironically what destroyed radio as a viable advertising medium. It says to the listener, "We know you don't like ads so we're going to bunch them all together and hope you don*t notice." How would you like to be the last ad in a 10 minute set? A full :30 into the 10-15 minute content-free block (all advertising, all the time) The listener checked out and bounced around in hopes of notlanding on another stations' 10+ minutes of 100% advertising.


Then, it got worse. Ad clutter as high as 20+ minutes per hour on some stations drove listeners away. Radio ad effectiveness dropped. Advertisers caught on and saw beyond the smoke and mirrors. It didn't take a genius to determine that high ARB ratings were due the candle being burned on both sides. Keep the listener in for 45 minutes or so on the hours with no advertising and then structure the remaining 15 minutes into an ad pod. Do this enough times so listeners will figure it out much like Pavlov*s dogs and hope and pray that the listeners will forgive you enough to keep those radio survey channel diaries healthy enough to proclaim large and loyal listeners.


The only problem to this strategy is that the advertiser was also listening. Paraphrasing David Ogilvy's quote years ago, "The listener is not a moron. The listener is your... "significant other" :--)

What happened? How did radio, once considered the most personal and intimate of media, stray so far from its place in our ears and our hearts? Sentimentally, watching a few '70's based flicks recently, both "All The President*s Men" and "Annie Hall," make references to FM radio that today would overjoy any program director. We're not going to go into detail except to suggest that you watch both films. In both cases, FM radio is discussed as a truly better, more personal, more understanding and more generation-identifying medium. Steely Dan's line "FM, no static at all" from the song, "FM" makes the same point. It's "our" medium. It spoke to us more than anything else, especially TV.

But Clear Channel has a "brilliant" plan, here's what they've devised: a new "Less is More" initiative to win back listeners and advertisers. The PR spin projects the idea that Clear Channel is willing to sacrifice revenue-generating ad time for the sake of the listener by reducing ad clutter. The method is to replace :60 second ads with :30 second ones with the number of units per hour staying the same. But what*s really happening is that Clear Channel wants advertisers to basically pay the same rate for :30's as :60's.

What Clear Channel prefers to ignore is that :30's are simply are not as effective as :60's. Clear Channel wants the advertisers to pay to rectify their mistake of increasing commercial ad loads beyond human tolerance. "Less is More" has since become known as, "Giving you less, charging you more" on Madison Avenue.


Speaking at the Merrill Lynch Media & Entertainment Conference Clear Channel CFO Randall Mays recently commented on the "Less Is More" initiative to sell shorter ads. Mays said that while ad agencies like traditional 60-second spots as well as the 15-second ones, Clear Channel is having trouble selling 30-second spots. Mays wants us to believe it*s because, as he puts it, "We need to do a better job of selling the efficacy of 30s". Obviously a CFO's perspective.

The problem is that Mr. Mays and other profit-only driven media executives no longer even consider programming part of building revenue. They expect their advertising clients to blindly accept their "Less is More" type smoke screen "solutions". Well Mr. Mays, your audience is jumping to satellite, podcasting even their cell phones to get away from your stale, predictable, ad-cluttered programming. Advertisers are, too.


Today, who really relates to their particular morning drive DJ's? Other than Howard Stern, they all sound exactly the same, the same nauseating combo of worn-out characters…two guys using bathroom humor with a bimbo-type female who sprinkles every news story with sexual innuendoes.

Thankfully, while Clear Channel's formula is a train-wreck in its own making, there have been a few radio stations that have not gotten sucked up by the CFO formula of (ontinue to Forget Originality). For example, the Morey Organization, owner of WLIR, WDRE and WBON Long Island, New York, has unveiled a new format called "FM Channel Casting," which features non-stop music, no announcers and a grand total of 80 seconds of advertising every hour. While it's billed as commercial-free, the format actually sells hourly sponsorships which includes a 30-second message at the top the hour, followed by a 15-second spot at the quarter hour, 20 seconds at the half-hour and a 15-second message at 45 minutes past. "E-for-effort" but radio needs innovation not imitation.


Beasley Broadcasting's WXTU, has announced the availability of a new sister country music station, XTU-Channel 2, now broadcasting on WXTU-FM*s expanded HD Radio spectrum. It*s a commercial-free music channel programmed internally by 92.5 XTU staff. Another nice try but there are very few HD Radio receivers out there and HD radio isn't taking off with broadcasters or listeners.

Satellite radio, cable audio, streaming audio and podcasting are just starting to nibble at broadcast radio. The bites will get bigger and bigger. But to me the major threat to radio is the varied alternative distribution options that are made possible by the Internet and wireless technology. Ubiquitous distribution without FCC content regulations allows a new influx of creative programming that makes current broadcast radio look like cheap pulp fiction. Hobbyists working at home, and lean and mean production companies are creating exciting, stimulating new audio programming that is leaving traditional radio in the dust.

Unfortunately radio's response is a day late and a dollar short. Technology has forced radio to give up its most valuable asset…the ability to broadcast audio from coast to coast. Oh, radio isn't going to just disappear but everyday new distribution threats appear.


1. AOL has launched a major podcasting initiative.
2. Sprint, along with RealNetworks, have just announced the launch of Rhapsody Radio on the Sprint PCS Vision Multimedia Service.
3. Available nationwide, Rhapsody Radio provides Sprint customers streaming radio stations from Real's Rhapsody online music service, streaming podcasts, "Beats N Breaks" (a new freestyle rap service), and music news and videos.
4. Wireless technology will soon allow audio content to be received not only over the computer, MP3 player and cell phone but also on the clock radio and in the car

We need to get back to basics. We need to bring the listeners and programming back into the mix. We need to think about creating an exciting listening experience. We need to get back to "The Spirit Of Radio."


Richard Fusco (845 679-4473, rfwoodstock@ulster.net) is a new media consultant based in Woodstock, New York. His background includes radio programming, the music industry, the Internet, streaming media, iTV, targeted streaming ad insertion, content production/distribution and marketing/advertising strategies and creative for the emerging podcasting environment.


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