Author: Jon Coleman

Should Radio Go Back to Normal?

Tuesdays With Coleman

The inclination of many will be to write off 2020 as a horrible year for the world and for our business. The question is, will radio “get back to normal” in 2021 or 2022 or should it be focused on a new business model?

Significant challenges often force industries to reevaluate, and some good can come out of this one. It may not be what everyone in the industry wants to hear, but companies are being forced to focus on return on investment (ROI). By that I am not even talking about financial ROI, though that is a part of it, but consumer ROI. What things really generate audience and audience loyalty? Which stations and shows will get a consumer ROI? As an industry, making consumer ROI a priority will require care, balancing broad appeal with a likely slow but narrowing focus to generate more core passion. Plus, as I will address below, I think it is time to start investigating totally new opportunities for radio stations and companies.

But first, let me talk about the here and now. Radio’s workforce­­–including owners, General Managers, and Program Directors–have been tasked to do more with less. This requires a laser focus on things that really matter. This does not mean that every cost cutting move is a good one or that radio can be fully healthy by cutting left and right. Owners need to know what the wheat is and what the chaff is.

So, what is the wheat and what is the chaff? What matters? First, format dominant and revenue critical stations matter. They are the wheat that will get radio to the future. Also, strong personalities, strong music, and strong leaders on those stations matter.

But, all this is a status quo or defensive strategy. It is likely to extend the life of the best stations well into the future, but it is not the dramatic cure that will attract new non-users to the medium in large numbers and as passionate fans. Radio needs offensive strategies. Just as you can’t win a football game without an offense, radio cannot reinvigorate the medium with defense alone. It needs to play great defense right now, but it also needs an offensive strategy going forward.

I think the offensive strategy begins with the weak stations that may fill a format hole, but do little for the future. Radio needs to look to new ways to truly energize the medium. This comes from changing the paradigm about how we program our weakest stations. Right now our paradigm for these weak stations is music, news/talk, 12 commercials an hour, music sweeps, stop sets, morning shows, etc. It’s the world we live in and the world advertisers live in. And it’s been essentially unchanged for decades.

Many radio stations spin their wheels, doing the same things they’ve always done for decades.

Coleman Insights believes in the importance of these elements for the majority of the most successful stations.  Music is still an overwhelmingly important listener benefit, but we also recognize that competition for the music listener is getting harder every day and will get harder in the future.

However, looking down the road, there may not be enough music lanes to support three to five stations in a cluster. And the weakest music or talk stations trick us into thinking we don’t need to think about more important changes that might actually grow the audience and revenue opportunities on these signals. There are already weak sisters in every company and every cluster and there will be more down the road. Employing the strategies of the successful sisters may not be enough for the weaker sister stations.

This is where the current paradigm meets the new competitive world. In order to grow as a medium and stop playing just defense, we must examine other paradigms. We need to find values for consumers that go beyond just our music and personalities. Radio must find new ways by experimenting.  I don’t mean throwing ideas willy-nilly against the wall, but strategically considering all ideas, evaluating them carefully, and then throwing them against the wall.

We need to find new ways of attracting both non-consumers and current listeners and making them passionate about what we offer. We do this by creating uncontested market space for growth, rather than continuing to attempt to compete in a vicious sea of competition in a shrinking profit pool. This technique is called Blue Ocean Strategy. Radio is in the bloody, shark-infested “red” section of the ocean, fighting with itself and constantly emerging competitors. It should be creating new, innovative, never-before-heard concepts to draw new audience in the clear “blue” section of the ocean. Radio needs to Blue Ocean its world. We need to stop thinking about how we can get people to listen to our clusters’ weak stations a little more just so we can squeeze in six more minutes a day and marginally increase our time spent listening (which is generally pointless or at best a stalling tactic) but instead think about what role radio might play in the lives of consumers in the media world in which we increasingly live. Use this process to develop new types of programs within existing stations or totally new formats that don’t rely on music, stop sets, and the rules of the last 40 years. This does not mean throwing out good principled programming “rules” (throwing the baby out with the bathwater), but it does mean setting up a small tub next to the big one in which we can play with new ideas (smartly experiment).

To that end we need to ask: What groups of consumers are there that don’t listen to radio or do not listen a lot? What interests and excites them? What media do they consume and why?

We should also rethink how we segment the audience. What segments of the population are not currently served by the media landscape as it stands now? Perhaps we should set aside the traditional demographics we use to segment audience and start examining how our country is reorganizing along nontraditional lines. Rural/Urban, Secular/Religious, etc. Are there lifestyle segments that might be passionate if they were served? Are there new ways of segmenting political segments versus the traditional conservative, moderate, and liberal? Does the move to the left and right in many media create an opportunity in the middle?

What kinds of formats that radio does not or only minimally offers could create new interest in the medium? Could there be talk radio targeted at women? Does the popularity of Dave Ramsey suggest a full time personal finance station? Could radio play a bigger role in the emerging podcast market by having a format devoted to the leading podcasts (on FM)? Is it time to bring back progressive talk radio?  Could a well done national financial news-focused news/talk station find success on FM (versus being relegated to 1500am) in 2021? Could a Black news network on big FM signals draw a substantial audience? All of these are totally different from radio’s main offerings today or are a clearly narrowing of the appeal in search of a more passionate audience.

And, just as we need to think about our radio programming paradigm, we may need to think even harder about the economics of radio. Can new stations be built successfully on a basis other than selling commercials to local advertisers? Is local spot business the only way of doing it? Would the revenue proposition be different if the product on our stations was entirely different?

We can write off 2020 and go back to normal in 2021, or we can view 2020 as an opportunity to challenge ourselves in 2021 and bring new people to the medium. We can do this by creating new experiences and not mimicking the programming we offer right now. We can do this by creating programming that is so manifestly different that it creates a whole new expectation and is compelling enough to truly impact potential radio consumers and fans.

This blog was originally published by Deane Media Solutions and is reprinted with permission.

The Story of a Once Dominant Brand

Tuesdays With Coleman

This is the story of a once-dominant radio station that did everything right.

The owners deployed a perceptual research (Plan DeveloperSM) study on the brand every single year to ensure its market position was the most optimal one. It had an enviable Image PyramidSM: a strong Base Music Position, a dominant morning show that complemented the brand, and deep images that permeated the community.

The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

Because this station consistently fielded research, we saw things that were not obviously there. Ratings were great. Revenue was great. But there was trouble brewing, and we could identify it early.

For obvious reasons, we can’t share identifying information such as the market, station, and personalities, but we invite you to take a look back at the progression of studies done for this brand over a nearly fifteen year period to get a clearer glimpse of how the process works–and how valuable perceptual research can be.

At one time, our client station was in an outstanding position. Their perceptual research looked very strong. It was strongly associated with its desired music images and the morning show was the dominant leader in the market. In fact, in the early stages of research, our morning show was growing with Cume and P1 listeners and there were few signs of weakness.

Then a new competitor launched. It wasn’t the first time our station had fended off competitors. If ratings and revenue were the measure of success, the client station was still in an outstanding place. The new competitor was on a weak signal, which limited its potential. But early on, despite what ratings showed, the morning show on the new competitor displayed positive early indicators in our research. And, despite what the ratings said, we saw the first signs of image erosion with our show.

About a year later, it was clear the crosstown morning show showed impressive promise with the younger end of our target demographic. We recommended attempting to acquire the other morning show.

Eleven months later, our morning show still performed well in the ratings, but there was a clear disconnect with the younger end. At this point, our station had a far stronger Base Music Position and in fact the competitor’s base position was weakening. But their morning show was growing and was wildly popular among their P1s. Their show was not performing to its potential because that station’s Base Music Position was weak. Again, we recommended making a play for the other show.

A year later, the weakness of our competitor’s music position continued to hamper their morning show, which lacked familiarity in the market. But the show was outperforming our show perceptually on the younger end. We believed, particularly because of its weak music position, getting this show would be devastating to the other station. We once again recommended going after it.

Another year later: We insisted a morning show change needed to be made. The host of the other show had been given the time needed to develop into a superstar. Our show’s fan base was now significantly older than the target of our station. But by this point, making a pitch for their show was getting out of reach.

Two years later: Our station’s perceptual position had eroded. Cume Conversion (the percentage of listeners that convert into loyal P1s) plummeted. Momentum images were concerning, with a high number of listeners that felt our station was “not as good as it used to be.” By this point, our morning show was replaced, but it was too late–and the new morning show was not a good fit and had high negative images.

Three years later: The competitor was now the preferred station in our target demographic. The other show was in syndication.

The station has arguably never recovered, going through a variety of format shifts and talent lineups while the competitor continues to thrive.

Every good researcher will tell you that their job isn’t to tell you what you want to hear–it’s to tell you what you need to hear, as we did here. And fortunately, we often get to deliver good news–but hearing bad news can be immensely valuable. It would be easy to say, “Why didn’t they just make the change??”…but of course it’s more complicated than that, including money issues and people issues. It’s hard to pull the trigger on something when ratings and revenue show things are going well.

By deploying strategic research, you get to see things that aren’t immediately obvious. You get to make the decisions that can have remarkable impacts on your brand. It’s certainly better than relying on ratings and gut alone.

Intelligence, Imagination and Creativity

Tuesdays With Coleman

Do you consider yourself intelligent, imaginative or creative? Is creativity important in how you manage, develop or execute your audio product or offerings? The answer is obviously yes, but have you considered what creativity means and how to maximize yours and your organization’s creativity?

Here’s how Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization defined each trait when he appeared on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast.

“Intelligence is the ability to apprehend and perceive what is.”

“Imagination is the ability to perceive what could be.”

“Creativity is the combination of both intelligence and imagination.”

What does Kaufman mean by the ability to “apprehend and perceive the world as it is”?  In business he means that a person understands their product, the competition and their consumers.

Some people are good at apprehending and perceiving the world as it is. They understand how consumers perceive and use their product and how it fits in the consumer’s life.

In this context an intelligent person is one who:

  • Knows how consumers use their product or show.
  • Knows when they listen, how long they listen, where they listen.
  • Knows how their product is perceived by consumers.
  • Understands the value the consumers get from the product.
  • Grasps fully the emotions the product or show evokes.

Kaufman’s second trait is imagination. Imaginative people can envision what a product could be, not just what it is currently. Within this context the imaginative person is one who:

  • Dreams about things that will engage or entertain the audience.
  • Conjures new ways for consumers to use their product.
  • Comes up with novel ways of competing with similar products.
  • Invents product enhancements or improvements that make it more appealing and more competitive.

According to Kaufman, the most effective and unique solutions are creative ones, and creativity requires both “intelligence” and “imagination”.  This makes creativity really useful and actionable, not just pie-in-the-sky dreaming. The most actionably creative people understand the true nature of the world and don’t impose prior beliefs or biases and can imagine what could be. Imagination becomes creativity only when it is grounded in “what is”.

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explains that creativity is a combination of both intelligence and imagination.

Contrast actionably creative people with dreamers. Dreamers can come up with clever ideas, or fun games, or off the wall ideas, but often these things don’t impact the audience because they ignore basic facts about how consumers use or relate to their product. Great audio brands need talent with intelligence and imagination. When you have one without the other, you’re throwing darts blindfolded.

For example, let’s say you have an imaginative program host. But if he or she does not know how long people can or will listen to their show and/or the fact that listeners are not hanging on their every word, they often talk about things that are hard to follow or comprehend. Breaks may be just too long for the average listener. The dreamer may think it’s compelling, but if it fails by not knowing how people listen, its cleverness will rarely save it.

A talk show host can offend their audience when they don’t appreciate how their show is perceived. For example, a show perceived as serious and credible can’t suddenly start doing silly bits. A show known for fun, light interviews can’t just start grilling guests with provocative questions. This show may violate the unwritten brand pact they have with the audience.

Imaginative program directors sometimes have trouble realizing how little the audience knows about their station and how hard it is to sell any idea. This may result in them constantly “creating something new” or changing their positioning liners too often, assuming the audience is bored with them. They can design highly imaginative and seemingly compelling contests that require too much effort to play. All because they don’t understand how people use their station.

Advertising and marketing executives may come up with product promotion ideas that are hilarious but completely go over the head of their audience because their imaginative idea is not grounded in audience perceptions.

Thus, the things you do on your station or in your show that are based on intelligence with imagination poured in are more likely to have a positive impact. The most creative people have a firm grasp on their world and their problem. People who think they are creative are really only imaginative if they fail or refuse to understand “the world that is”.

So, for audio entertainment we need to call on both. Utilizing research is one part of the apprehending and perceiving what is. Other techniques include being observant, listening and paying attention. Removing your biases and preconceived notions.

When you look for creative people–and you should always look for creative people–ensure you’re prioritizing cognitive and emotional intelligence along with imagination. By doing this, you won’t just find imaginative ones–you’ll find strategic thinkers who understand how to actionably turn their creativity into results.


What Radio Can Learn From Political Strategy

Tuesdays With Coleman

Coleman Insights rarely comments on politics, but today we are going to dissect a current political strategy. The goal is to think about how it might fit into our thinking about programming and marketing initiatives executed by radio stations.

Recently Vice President Joe Biden outlined an economic proposal that will serve as a basis of his strategy for the upcoming election.

There are a couple of important strategic lessons from Biden’s move. First, in politics and radio, it is usually best to focus on the things consumers care about. Secondly, it is critical to understand how you rank with your constituency on the same issues consumers care about–the issues of importance.

Political research has been suggesting that Biden’s strengths right now are his image for “being able to deal with COVID-19” and the image for “how to deal with social justice issues,” among other political issues currently on the minds of voters. Where he has either lagged behind President Trump or been merely competitive with him has been on how voters perceive Biden in comparison to Trump on “dealing with the economy.”

One of President Trump’s perceptual strengths has been the economy. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

In marketing, there are concepts called “points of parity” and “points of difference.” The premise is that a candidate or radio station needs to win or be perceptually equal (at parity) to other stations on those issues consumers care about, the things that they value when making choices. Since the economy is always high on lists ranking issues important to voters, it is critical for a candidate to do well there. They need to have strong images for being the best candidate to deal with the economy. A candidate who loses that image will likely lose the election. If they cannot win the “good for the economy image” they must get as close to parity as possible. Without being on a level of parity, a candidate is at a big disadvantage.

Points of difference are those areas or images when one candidate or radio station has a stronger image than its competitor. However, having great image “points of difference” does not help you win elections or ratings battles if the points of difference where you win aren’t important to voters or listeners.

So, it appears Biden sees his weakness as the economy, while his “points of difference” are on other issues, like COVID-19. Biden seems to be trying to get to parity on the economy while maintaining his advantage in other areas.

Joe Biden outlines economic proposal

Vice President Biden is attempting to limit Trump’s advantage on the economy by achieving perceptual parity.

Why not focus on his strengths all the way until November 3? Perhaps Biden realizes that he cannot ride to victory just on COVID-19, especially if the economy bounces back.

There are clear analogies in radio. Radio’s most important offerings are music and talk/sports talk programming. Achieving victory or parity on images dealing with music or talk images is critical. A radio station’s points of difference are things like “entertaining morning shows,” “great contests,” “specialty programming,” etc. These programming and image strengths can be great ratings drivers.

So, in radio, when do you focus your imaging on achieving parity or victory on base Image PyramidSM images of music or talk and when do you focus on your points of difference?

Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid dictates that radio stations should work on wining their base music or talk position before focusing on other layers.

For example, let’s say you program a radio station that has a dominant morning show both in ratings and image but research indicates your station’s music images are only good and not great. What do you do if a new competitor comes into the market? Where do you focus your on- and off-air imaging?  Do you double down on your morning show, the show that drives your outsized ratings? Do you continue to stay focused on the very same thing that you have been marketing for the last few years, or do you move to marketing your music identity? It likely will depend on which is more important to listeners.

If Vice President Biden’s campaign managers were advising you, they would consider which components matter most to your target audience. They would likely focus your imaging and marketing on your music, even though you previously won big by focusing on your morning show. If music is more important to the target than morning entertainment, Biden’s advisors will conclude that they cannot permit the new competitor to become the leading music station in your format and move to win or maintain parity on that music image by marketing music.

Just as political campaigns aim to gain a deeper understanding of potential voters, you should aim to gain a deeper understanding of your radio station’s target audience. Determine what matters most. Where your station is strong in areas of importance, step on the gas pedal. If your radio station is weak in areas important to the listener, set a goal of achieving parity. The other components won’t matter until your perceptions are strong enough where it matters most.


How to Move the Ratings Needle

Tuesdays With Coleman

Michael O’Shea is the President and General Manager of Sonoma Media Group in Santa Rosa, California. Many years ago, he told me something about how radio stations attempt to impact ratings that has stuck with me to this day. I’ll paraphrase a bit.

There are two numbers in the ratings share of every stationthe number to the left of the decimal (as in the 4 in a 4.3 share) and the number to the right of the decimal (as in the 3 in a 4.3 share). The number to the right is impacted by the things radio stations spend the vast majority of their time on. Tweaking the music. Adding or removing a talk break. Giving away concert tickets. These are the tactical things that may take a station from a 4.3 to a 4.5 or maybe a 4.7.

What moves the number to the left of the decimal point–that is, what gets your station to make big improvements in its ratings? Strengthening your brand. Major marketing. A big format debut. A morning personality crossing a threshold of impactful connection with the audience. Large, momentum-shifting, buzzworthy things. That’s how stations go from a 4.3 to a 5.3.

Recent history draws our attention to two momentum-shifting examples in politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had well-produced campaign ads, high-profile endorsements, and, seemingly, a victory well in hand. But it was Donald Trump’s ability to shift perception through consistent repetition that changed the momentum and the outcome of the race. He did not and could not have won if he had dealt with typical things candidates do; e.g., policy papers and carefully crafted messages to appeal to the voters in the middle.

More recently, few expected Joe Biden to emerge as the 2020 Democratic candidate. Again, it wasn’t a snappy ad or one-liner at a debate that changed the game. Biden utilized a groundswell of support in South Carolina to shift perception of his electability.

Rather than just managing the minutia, I’d like to see the radio industry focus on impacting the public conversation.

Is this more challenging than ever? Yes. Does ratings compaction, particularly in PPM markets, make impacting the number to the left of the decimal point even more difficult? Absolutely.

If I owned or managed a radio station today, I would hire a marketing specialist specifically charged with getting media coverage. I’d make it a mission that my morning show would be such market authorities on pop culture and music that other media outlets would look to it for leadership. Last Friday morning, Charlamagne Tha God from The Breakfast Club, the morning show based at Power 105.1 in New York, interviewed Joe Biden. As usual, the show posted the interview on social media (The Breakfast Club has 4.4 million YouTube subscribers) and on its podcast. Towards the end of the interview, Biden says, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” This led to a controversy over his comments, regarding whether or not he is taking the African American vote for granted.

Sure, The Breakfast Club has massive reach now through its many channels, but the syndicated Urban juggernaut started as a local morning show ten years ago. It did not build a following and its influential sphere of influence by mirroring the template of other morning shows. The Breakfast Club made interviews a core part of the show design. Guests know that, as The New York Times writes, “No one who enters the studio or, now, joins a video call with any member of the hosting trio is safe from commentary and criticism.” The Breakfast Club calls itself “The World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show.” Safe companionship may be just fine for some morning shows. But The Breakfast Club knows even the chance something controversial and real could happen at any time is what creates lasting buzz and loyalty.

If your promotions staff spends too much time concerning itself with the prize closet or database emails, maybe it’s time to refocus. Maybe now, while there are no remotes, is as good a time as any.

The reason we track brand perception in our research is that perception is what matters. It’s what’s always mattered and always will.

Worry less about minutia. Make big, strategic brand decisions. Control the conversation. Change perceptions. The number to the left of the decimal point will follow.

How to Connect With Your Audience in a Crisis

Tuesdays With ColemanAs the world has turned upside down for the foreseeable future, the team at Coleman Insights has been engaged in conversations with our clients about how to navigate the new landscape. We recognize the ability of radio stations and other audio-based media to shine in moments of crisis, and there are already numerous examples of this occurring. On the other hand, we also recognize the lack of an “adversity road map.” There is no playbook that dictates how each brand should respond. Should you continue to deliver your format without any significant modifications? Is this a moment to break format completely and provide relevant crisis information instead? These are difficult strategic decisions. The specific choices are also hard.

Our consultant team has been having ongoing internal discussions about strategies for the audio entertainment industry. The result is the following special Thursday edition of Tuesdays With Coleman, a compilation of thoughts and ideas our team would like to share with you, with the understanding that there is no single solution for everyone.

  • Recognize unusual times call for unusual measures.

Everyone has something to contribute during a global emergency. Regardless of what your brand regularly delivers, your listeners are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and your response should reflect this. Your brand has a voice and a platform to be heard when listeners need it the most. Known, trusted personalities should play a major role and leverage the intimate connections they have with their listeners.

  • Consider the role of your brand in COVID-19 coverage.

Understand the need your brand fulfills.

News brands have a responsibility to provide comprehensive, relevant coverage. These brands might consider whether there are opportunities to go outside the typical format. For example, does more long-form programming or an increased number of updates make sense? These decisions should be determined by the role of the brand–in this case, being a provider of constant, reliable and trustworthy information during the crisis.

Listeners may be visiting your music station to get away from news coverage, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to stay connected. Does it make sense to employ a “We’re following the news so you don’t have to” approach? This allows talent to play a reassuring role; listeners can count on enjoying content on a music station without feeling like the world will pass by if they aren’t watching CNN or Fox News at that moment.

A full-service Adult Contemporary station may play a more personality-forward role of providing news and information. On the other hand, if your brand primarily provides comfort and escape, like a Soft Adult Contemporary radio station, constant news updates may be a harrowing intrusion and contrary to your brand. In fact, brands built on comfort and escape should lean in to that image, as it is particularly valuable when the real world is more chaotic.

  • Recognize that listening patterns are likely in significant flux.

If many people aren’t going to work or school, typical in-car commute listening levels no longer apply. What about everyone who is temporarily working from home? Or businesses that have been forced to close, like bars and restaurants? Will radio listening increase or decrease?

Reduced commuting will have a significant effect on listening patterns

With that in mind, consider the impact on how people may be consuming your station, podcast or streaming service and the programming options you may have.

With entire families now at home throughout the day, what about specialty programming geared to them during traditional at work hours? Should you do this on your main platform or would offering this through podcasts, separate streaming channels, etc. make more sense?

Aggressively promote all your listening platforms, keeping in mind that smart speaker listening is heavier at home than in the workplace and a surge of at home listening may be taking place.

  • Provide increased authentic and actionable listener engagement.

Listeners will find comfort in others going through the same issues. You may find yourself broadcasting from your home, which may be out of your comfort zone. Rather than trying to project a sense of business as usual, embrace the change! If the dog barks, the child screams or the husband sighs in the background, that’s real life. It’s exactly what your listener is going through. Let sharing be the mantra–you could, for example, have listeners upload pictures of their home offices to your social pages and share yours.

Find experts to feature on your shows. You don’t have to have all the COVID-19 answers yourself, and some of the best content is being generated by personalities across multiple formats interviewing those on the front lines of the crisis.

Anthony Fauci is the director of the NIAID

NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Director Anthony Fauci has been extremely media-friendly in providing crisis guidance

Consider taking more listener phone calls. Allow them to share feelings and information that may be valuable to other listeners.

Think about brand-appropriate actionable advice you can offer listeners that is applicable to the current environment (i.e., how to work at home while the kids are in online school, the best binge-able series on Netflix or which delivery services have waived their fees).

Modify your tone. Be empathetic to the new needs of an uncertain audience.

  • Rally your community.

In times of crisis, “Community” surges to a higher level of importance on the Image PyramidSM. As they would with aggressively promoting a Base Music or Talk position, brands should be going over the top with their community efforts. Build real community bulletins (here’s what is open, new hours for grocery stores, new restrictions, etc.). Be the voice of the community, invite listeners to participate and share as appropriate. Listeners will tell people where they can buy toilet paper (well, maybe they’ll share that information), who delivers groceries and how to find free learning resources for kids. Post the information on your website.

Don’t just think of your community as your market. Your community is your audience. A Hip Hop station and Classic Rock station will not rally the same communities, but each has the power to inspire, engage and activate their respective followers.

If you make a concerted effort now to think about what you can really do for your community and your audience, your efforts will create a halo over your brand when things settle down.

Consider reading two Tuesdays With Coleman posts in which we covered the important role of radio in a crisis:

Here’s to Local Radio and Waffle House

The Power of Radio in Tough Times

All of us at Coleman Insights welcome your input and would love to hear your thoughts on how audio brands can best serve our communities during this challenging time.

We’re all in this together.

Warren, Jon, Jessica, Sam, John, Meghan & Jay

What’s Your Word?

Tuesdays With Coleman

My favorite marketing book of all-time is “Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It” by strategist Al Ries, and one of the most important lessons in the book involves one simple question.

Focus Al Ries

What’s your word?

Consumers make product decisions on words, not visuals.

When you look at or think about products, you don’t spend as much time evaluating them as you might think. You gravitate to the products that fit what you think you need and select the one that is most strongly associated with the need. This is where owning a word can drive a decision.

Words can determine how you’re perceived within your category or if you are perceived at all. In automotive, for example, Lexus is luxury. Volvo is safety. Despite the fact that many cars are just as safe as Volvo and some have done better in safety tests, Volvo still owns the word. My son just bought one, without even looking at other brands.

Volvo owns the image for safety

Although other automotive brands have improved their safety ratings, Volvo’s brand image for the word is strong enough to withstand it

Sometimes a big brand owns the most important word for a category, like Starbucks for coffee. In that case, you need an idea that differentiates you and the best way to do that is with a single word, not a long drawn out concept.

Domino’s was second in pizza to Pizza Hut until it took the word “fast”. That was great until it got scared off by issues of driver safety. Jimmy John’s now owns the word “fast” for delivery because Domino’s gave it up.

Word association works for radio stations, too. For music stations, your word needs to be the first to come to mind.

There’s a reason why so many stations in the Adult Contemporary universe use the name “Mix”. The name itself can aid the perception of variety.

Whether in name or positioning, the word listeners use to define your station must be simple and clear. “That’s the variety station.” “That’s the oldies station.” “That’s the rock station.”

When your brand is strong and you own a word, it becomes synonymous with the category.

If your radio station is solidly known as the variety station, it will be extremely difficult for another station to take the position away.

If you don’t have a word, think about words that might still be available that radio stations have never pursued or walked away from. Words that were once considered “too narrow” may be perfect for our modern over-communicated world.

If the format leader owns the category word, there are other options. Your station can have a word to own for part of the category.

For example, two Adult Contemporary stations can’t own the Mix/variety image. So perhaps it’s a word like “soft” or “easy” or “lite” or “upbeat” (e.g., “makes you feel good.”)

It may be challenging to own the word “Rock” but perhaps you can own “Classic Rock,” or “Hard Rock” or 80s and 90s Rock.

Your morning show might well be served to own a word too, and it starts by determining what image you want it to own.

Do you want it to be thought of as the funniest? Most outrageous? The most authentic?

To do this, you have to use the same Outside Thinking principles that guide station images. For example, if your station has an image for playing 80s music and you’re trying to capture 90s images, adding an extra 90s song or two won’t do it. You must use specific language that tells the audience the station now plays 90s music.

In the same way, it is not enough for a morning show to be funny. The word needs to dominate sweepers, promos, the show open and close, and so on. It might be “the funniest morning show in Phoenix.” Or, “now, more from Denver’s laugh-out-loud morning show.” Or, “The (name) Morning Show. The one that makes you LOL.”

If the show is meant to be a friendly companion, say that. Controversial? Say that.

And, say it with enough regularity to matter. There is not enough time in your listeners’ busy lives to think they will pick up subtlety.

Once your show owns a word, a show that tries to compete for the same image will be seen as an inferior copycat.

The importance of owning a word is more important than ever.

As digital media consumption increases, you may find your word begin to show up in places other than AM/FM radio.

If you don’t defend your word…or worse, if you don’t have one at all, it’s time to head for the hills.

Programming Radio to the Masses in a Personalized World

Tuesdays With Coleman

As you listen to songs on Spotify, it learns your behavior and makes recommendations.

Up to six Daily Mixes include your regular listens and Spotify’s suggestions.

“Discover Weekly” and “Release Radar” list songs and new releases based on your listening habits.

Radio stations, meanwhile, program to the masses—a curated blend of songs chosen for…a lot of people.

Years ago, we developed a tool at Coleman Insights called Format Coalition Builder® that we utilize in our Plan Developer studies to create strategic road maps for radio stations.

We used to simply measure the appeal of music styles by having listeners rank each song montage individually. Programmers started asking us to think in terms of broadening the music as much as possible. While they wanted to play many different styles of music, the goal was to ensure that the coalition of music styles and eras they designed didn’t become too broad, ending up neither appealing to the narrow core or the occasional listener.

But we realized we had no ammunition about how to precisely answer this question; we had no clear way to measure which music styles were most important relative to each other. We wondered if we could look at the montages overlapping if we could discover how to reach the most available audience while at the same time alienating the fewest.

Rather than trying to play as many genres as you possibly can, there is an ideal combination that will reach the most people with the least polarization.

We designed Format Coalition Builder to focus on the extremes: Those listeners who are narrow core and the fringe who are not core but might Cume the station—the people most likely to love a music style and those most likely to hate it—and build coalitions based on it. In order to do this, Format Coalition Builder looks at the tastes of these listeners and creates an optimal coalition based on a determination of how much overall appeal each music style can generate, building on the appeal of the other music styles in the coalition. From this exercise of coalition building, we learn what the key styles are that we should be playing, and where to draw the line. Are there any that fall of a cliff? Which ones should we keep but play less?

Come to think of it, Format Coalition Builder and Spotify’s recommendations have a lot in common. To make a truly appealing and effective Daily Mix, Spotify needs more listening data than just one song or one artist. The more data it has to work with, the better the mixes get and the more daily mixes you have available. It learns what your coalitions are to make the best strategic recommendations possible.

In this increasingly personalized landscape, having the benefit of coalitions is perhaps more important than ever for radio. Coalition building prevents you from reaching too far or too narrow. You may be reaching too far, for example, if you play 10 styles. But you may be too narrow if you play two, and you won’t reach your maximum audience potential.

Of course, it’s not just Spotify that focuses on personalization—we see it in our lives everywhere. Spotify and other services use algorithms to figure out what its consumers want.

Pandora builds recommendations utilizing its massively comprehensive Music Genome Project.

Netflix suggests movies and TV shows based on your viewing habits. Sometimes Netflix gets it right.

Netflix recommendations based on viewing habits

If you bought a blender on Amazon, I’ll bet they have just the right protein shake recommendation… even if you have never made a protein shake in your life.

Format Coalition Builder, however, isn’t an algorithm; it requires research specific to your station and strategy based on the expertise of the Coleman Insights team that is working on your project.

As 2020 gets underway, it is a good time for an evaluation. Are you A) programming your radio station to the masses? Or are you B) strategically curating the optimal listening experience for your audience based on actionable data?

I believe those who answer B will be in a much stronger competitive position.



How to Win by Thinking Slower

Tuesdays With Coleman

It is fundamental human nature that when we see a correlation, we assume causation – in other words, because A happened, it must have been caused by B. In fact, we often invent causation when no concrete evidence exists. And this is a very dangerous exercise.

A perfect example of this in the radio industry is the interpretation of ratings data.

Let’s say the 3 PM – 7 PM numbers of the station you program took a precipitous dive last month. It’s like it came out of nowhere. You’ve got knots in your stomach. Your general manager is coming down the hall, and you know she’s seen the numbers. There is a logical side of your thinking which tells you that this is an anomaly. It is this part of your brain that knows there are myriad reasons why the numbers dipped. Could have been a change in the panel. A panelist’s family member may have fallen ill, taking him away from all that time in the car. Perhaps someone on the panel found a new podcast she liked. Or someone just got a connected car and has created some new Spotify playlists.

The possibilities, of course, are endless.

But in that emotional state in which you’ve just learned that the numbers took a nose dive, the logic is overwhelmed by emotion and you create a false causation.

“The music flow was wrong.” “The jocks talked too much.” “The competitor did direct mail.”

What you’ve done in this instance is so common, there’s a term for the two ways your brain processes information—System 1 and System 2.

Explained in great detail in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains how System 1 is our in-the-moment thinking. It’s the thought that comes to us “automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.”

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

System 2 is more complex and takes more effort, concentration and time.

When you think of the implications, you begin to realize the pitfalls and dangers of System 1. Because it strikes first, if we’re not consciously aware, our brains don’t even get the chance to process System 2.

In Chapter 10, “The Law of Small Numbers”, Kahneman offers a scenario. He gives an example of a study of new diagnoses of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States that reveals a remarkable pattern. He says, “The counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is lowest are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South and the West.” He then asks, “What do you make of this?”

System 1 makes quick and easy conclusions.

You may infer, for example, that the low cancer rates in the rural population are due to clean living. No air pollution. No water pollution. Access to fresh food.

Now what if the scenario were reversed? What if you were told the highest incidence of kidney cancer are in counties that are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South and the West?

System 1 has a rationalization for that too.

You might say the higher cancer rates are due to the poverty of the rural lifestyle, less access to medical care, too much alcohol and too much tobacco.

System 1 sees a correlation and creates the causation. The problem is, that should be System 2’s job.

System 1 and System 2 thinking

In this example, when your brain likely went to “rural” or “Republican” to find the rationale, you may have missed the most important part—“sparsely populated”.

As Kahneman points out, large samples are more precise than small samples.

Small samples yield extreme, wobbly, unreliable results more often than large samples do.

You already know this. Yet you likely still looked to find causation, a reason, an explanation, in the kidney cancer correlation example.


System 1.

Sometimes the power and influence of System 1 becomes so believable, it creates a widely accepted false narrative. This happened with misperceptions of the “hot hand” in basketball. You’ve seen players get “hot” during a game. Fans, coaches and players all buy in to the “hot hand” as fact. If a player sinks a few baskets in a row, they’ve now got a “hot hand”. When a player gets hot in the old NBA Jam video game, the basket catches on fire. Turns out there’s research on this. An analysis of thousands of sequences of shots concluded there is no such thing as a “hot hand”. While some players are more accurate, “the sequence of successes and missed shots satisfies all tests of randomness.”

The hot hand in basetball is a myth

Despite conclusive research that debunks the “Hot Hand” myth, System 1 thinking continues to accept it as fact.

This sample size of this research study was substantial, significantly large enough for reliability, yet we still believe in the hot hand.

System 1.

You can see how System 1 can lead to false assumptions and causation on ratings days. There are small sample issues. There are countless variables. Yet we still say, “This must have been why it happened.”

Thinking, Fast and Slow—or System 1 and System 2—may be the best argument for perceptual research for radio stations.

Ratings can tell you whether or not your radio station is sick or healthy. Even so, with the exception of rare, unique events (like the way hurricane coverage affects news station ratings or the local team in the Super Bowl affects sports station ratings), it’s generally best practice to look at a long enough trend that incorporates a large enough sample size and accounts for variables.

Ratings cannot tell you why your station is sick or healthy. And they cannot tell you the prescription for getting better or staying on top.

Consider a perceptual study as part of your strategic plan, which provides substantial sample size, a high level of accuracy and a reliable glimpse of market tastes and perceptions.

In a world often dominated by System 1 thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have some System 2 strategy?


The Misguided Allure of Deep Tracks

Tuesdays With Coleman

Don’t get radio talent coach Steve Reynolds started on deep tracks. Wait, it’s too late. It all started June 2nd at 11:53am on his Facebook page, when he posted this:

“Dear Yacht Rock Radio on SiriusXM: welcome back, happy summer, missed you, but…you’re playing lots of unfamiliar music and songs that are stiffs. Please get back to the cheesy, known songs only.”

That initial post regarding the seasonal soft rock channel inspired 41 comments, including chime-ins from some pretty big name radio people.

But Steve was just getting started. An hour later he posted this:

Sirius XM Yacht Rock Radio

A few days later, he asked his followers to “report all non-yacht songs heard on Yacht Rock Radio,” a post that resulted in 80 comments.

To date, the topic has generated hundreds of comments. We were intrigued enough to cover the topic in this week’s blog.

Steve takes issue with two separate points in his posts. One is the playing of “stiffs”, or unfamiliar songs, and the other is songs that he feels don’t make sense on the station.

The Fit measurement we use in our FACT360 Strategic Music Tests can tell you when a song may not be in sync with your brand. I covered this topic in the blog, “Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station”.

When it comes to the former issue, whether or not to play deep tracks, here is an absolute truth—every radio program director or music director, at some point or another, has felt the allure of playing lesser-known songs or songs that weren’t hits on their station. It may be a caller on the request line, a salesperson or the programmer questioning himself. And when a PD has to make the decision on whether a deeper track makes sense, the first questions to ask are:

  • Who is your audience?
  • Why are they listening to you and what are their expectations?

SiriusXM, for example, has a deep tracks channel, where the perception Steve noted on the Yacht Rock channel would be reversed. If you hear a hit on the deep tracks channel, that would not be delivering to expectation.

This aligns with the very reason why Steve explains he was inspired to write the post in the first place.

“Yacht Rock brings me back to a happy, carefree time,” he says. “The role of the Yacht Rock channel for me is nostalgia. When a comfortable, familiar song like ‘Deacon Blues’ by Steely Dan comes on, for example, it makes me smile. I don’t want to have to use brainpower when I’m in this state. When a song comes on I’ve never heard of in this context, now I’m using parts of my brain to think about whether I know it and what I think of it. That’s not why I’m there.”

Sirius XM Yacht Rock Radio

Rupert Holmes has one hit with staying power. This isn’t it.

Context plays a crucial role. AAA stations often have perception of more depth that may allow them to go deeper than a Hot AC station, for example.

If listeners expect their favorite songs on your radio station, the only way to satisfy them is by playing something familiar. But with deep tracks you can’t do that because the very premise of a “deep track” is that you can’t find one that appeals to everyone.

Here’s another example:

Years ago, I drove across the country listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival. I love CCR. My deep is CCR, so I can listen to songs that are unfamiliar to most. For a Classic Rock fan, someone else’s deep may be The Eagles and another’s may be Aerosmith. For a hit music station, the expectation, of course, is hit music.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

We are in the business of satisfying customers (listeners) that come to our stores (stations).

We know through research that you can’t find any song—even the biggest, most popular hit song—that appeals to all your listeners.

And you certainly can’t find a deep track that appeals to all of them. Why would you minimize the percentage of customers that are likely to be satisfied?

Steve Reynolds makes a living coaching radio personalities, and he sees a parallel between program directors deciding which music to play and air talent deciding which content to feature.

“As you’ve said many times, Jon, every song is a marketing decision. Is that the song you want representing your radio station? Not just some songs. Every song. I tell air talent, every second of time you have on the station is like beachfront property. You’re the developer. What will you erect on the property? Is it the 4-story home with panoramic views of the ocean and a pool or is it an apartment with no views? Are we selecting our very best, most appealing content every time? It’s the same thing with songs. Are we playing our best, most appealing songs every time? If not, why?”

This doesn’t mean that you never take chances and color outside the lines. As referenced in “Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station,” you can be entrepreneurial in your own lane. You can’t be entrepreneurial in your fringe lanes.

As Don Benson, the former CEO of Lincoln Financial Media puts it, your format lane gives you license to introduce your audience to songs and even sounds they haven’t heard. When you play outside your lane, you risk losing listeners and may encourage brand erosion.

So when it comes to deep tracks, determine:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Why are they listening to you?
  • What are their expectations?

If, in this framework, playing deep tracks makes sense, great.

If not (and it most cases it will be “not”), remember you’re in the customer service business. Providing the most appealing product is the key to success.