Author: Sam Milkman

Christmas in the Time of Corona

Tuesdays With Coleman

A logical approach to programming strategy during just about any time other than the present would likely suggest that playing Christmas music in March would be a pretty dopey idea. But if one were to adopt an Outside Thinking philosophy–considering your brand from the viewpoint of your consumer–it may not be quite as nutty as it seems.

As we pointed out in a special Thursday edition of Tuesdays With Coleman last week, “unusual times call for unusual measures” and “listening patterns are likely in significant flux.”

What’s a more polar opposite to chaos and uncertainty than the comfort and joy of Christmas?

Christmas music in March

On March 15th, Milwaukee Brewers play-by-play broadcaster Lane Grindle tweeted,

It’s turned into a thing on houses around the United States, with many users adopting the hashtag #CoronaChristmas. Media outlets have picked it up. The Hallmark Channel ran a Christmas movie marathon this past weekend.

A few stations, including WNIC/Detroit and KEZK/St. Louis, have added Christmas music as part of their current offerings.

It’s not right for most brands, but for some that are already utilized for comfort and escape, maybe it’s not the craziest idea.

Inside Thinkers do things the way they’ve always been done, the way they know how.

Outside Thinkers think like their consumers, recognizing that whether they like it or not, Coronavirus is dominating their lives.

When you have a deep understanding of your brand and the need it fulfills, and you adapt that to the current lifestyle of the consumer, amazing things can happen. Even in the most uncertain of times. Maybe it’s time for your stations to spread some cheer!

 

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

The Seven Deadly Sins of (Non) Strategic Thinking

Tuesdays With ColemanWe consider ourselves fortunate to work with some of the most strategic minds in the audio entertainment space. But even the most seasoned strategists fall into the trap of what we call “Inside Thinking”—when you get too close to the product for your own good and are unable to see it through the lens of your customers.

In contrast, “Outside Thinkers” adopt a more strategic perspective. They understand that customers lead busy, distracted lives and their products are generally not nearly as important as Inside Thinkers may believe.  While this is an ongoing challenge for those working in every industry, not just radio, we see examples of Inside Thinking continue to manifest themselves in the radio industry. Many are simply force of habit.

Radio station

We have collected a list of things Inside Thinkers tell us. We call them deadly sins because if you really believe them they will lead you to damnation as a programmer. Radio people have said these things for decades and just continue to do so. But these examples are also dangerously unstrategic and create unnecessary friction and obstacles to growth.

So, without further adieu, here’s a countdown of the seven deadly sins of nonstrategic thinking (as Casey would say, we’re working our way to #1!):

  1. “As soon as we did that, our numbers went up.”

There are some pretty fantastic tools to analyze your ratings, and it’s just human nature to want to prove in short order that something worked. You added a new song category every hour. You ran a social media campaign. You debuted a contest. You put a new jock on the air.

There are instances of clear correlation and causation between on-air product and ratings. Major weather events often result in bumps for news stations. Local sports teams in playoffs and championships often result in a ratings kiss for sports stations.

But far too often, a correlation is made between more subtle moves and ratings success in which no causation exists.

  1. “But it tested great in our music test.”

If “Stairway to Heaven” tests great for an Urban station, should the station play it? Should an AC station play “Sweet Child of Mine” if it tests?

You should not just throw anything into your music test. Ideally, the songs you choose to test will be guided by a strategy determined in perceptual research. But even in the absence of perceptual research, the songs in the test should be guided by your vision or strategic design of the station. Just because it tested great does not mean listeners want to hear it on your station.

  1. “The morning show is gaining traction. I can feel it.”

Programmers generally should (and do) have an instinctual feel for whether or not the shows on their stations are hitting the mark or not. But when this phrase is uttered just weeks or months into a show’s development as it relates to ratings results, it is unstrategic. Shows take time to develop and the true measure of whether or not a show is gaining traction will take at least a year or two.

  1. “Ratings went down, so we made some music adjustments.”

First, you should generally not make any programming decisions, whether in regards to music or talent, based on one ratings period. Always keep your strategy in mind and make decisions based on that design. Ideally it will be informed by strategic research, but either way, ratings should be evaluated over a longer stretch of time that accounts for wobbles.

  1. “We just play the hits, that’s what I was taught!”

Similar the point in #6, it’s far more complicated than playing the hits. Not every hit will fit your station’s strategic design. Yes, you want to play the best songs. But you want to play the right best songs. “Hits for who?” one of my favorite bosses used to ask.

  1. “My wife/daughter/brother doesn’t like it.”

Think twice before saying this to someone in the programming department at a radio station as your rationale for wanting something changed, like a song, contest or piece of imaging. Sure, organic feedback is great. But using an example or two, especially if it is a relative, as a reason for a programming change, is a big no-no. Conducting “unfocused” groups at your dinner table will only ensure that the real target audience is overlooked.

  1. “Of course the audience knows that.”

A classic mistake of Inside Thinkers assumes your consumer is aware of something because you are. Your listeners spend far less time with your radio station than you and are less likely to know the names of your air talent, be familiar with your contests, recognize a benchmark, be aware of subtle branding changes, and so on. All the audience really knows, if you are lucky, is they turn on this station for Rock or that one for Country. Never assume they are sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to hear what you have to say next.

 

There you have ‘em, the Seven Deadly Sins of Nonstrategic Thinking. The sin of it is, we have all said something along these lines over the years.  Our hope is that we all go “outside” and eliminate these phrases, shall we? I promise nobody will miss them.

Add Long-Term Thinking to Your Strategic Plan

Tuesdays With Coleman

Do you make short-term or long-term decisions?

Short-term decisions regarding your business can be short-sighted, impulsive, and detrimental to the growth of your brand.

Long-term decisions are more thoughtful, focused, calculated and help grow brands—but often require a great deal of patience.

Wall Street is full of people who make emotional short-term decisions based on the daily, weekly or monthly performance of stocks. This is in direct contrast to what we know about stock market performance and behavior—that it is a long-term game.

That’s what makes the development of a new stock exchange called The Long-Term Stock Exchange so unusual. The basic idea: List companies that don’t report or react to earnings on a quarterly basis. Its mission is to bring together companies that are looking at the long-term picture.

Sanjay Bakshi, Managing Partner at ValueQuest Capital, subscribes to this philosophy. In fact, he stopped looking at Yahoo and Bloomberg because it was too much noise. Not only does he not look at stock prices every day, he doesn’t even look at quarterly financial statements. While Bakshi says you should look at earnings each year, the real value is looking at long-term performance.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holds losing companies too long according to many financial analysts and fails to cut their losses. But their goal is to build the Berkshire Hathaway image as a long term player. By not dumping a loser, it reinforces its brand as being a long-term holder of value and thus attracts businesses to sell or invest with them precisely because of that image or reputation.

Warren Buffett Berkshire Hathaway long-term stocks

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman/CEO Warren Buffett

Doesn’t reacting to short-term results with short-term thinking sound like another industry you may be familiar with?

Misinterpretation of Nielsen ratings is a perfect example of how radio companies fall into the trap of short-term thinking. When quarterlies become monthlies then become weeklies and now even dailies, it is incredibly tempting to make decisions based on “the latest book.”

What if radio station managers adopted the long-term view of Bakshi and Berkshire Hathaway?

Programming strategy is a long-term proposition. There is no way to “game” the system just to deliver ratings this month or quarter. That isn’t how it works. Ratings are built upon a long-term bond with your audience. Every day, every way, you build a relationship, a positive image in their minds, and they will come back to your station over and over and deliver long-term ratings as well. That’s why we spend time with our clients on building their Image Pyramid—fortifying their base position then building brand depth.

Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

Does every song you play today matter? Of course it does. Every song is a marketing decision, as we like to say. But it is the sum of many decisions over a long period of time involving layers of the Image Pyramid including music, personalities, marketing and specialty programming that add up to a brand, an image, that will serve your station for years to come.

From the long-term perspective, does it make sense to look at Nielsen ratings every week or month and make decisions based upon that small timeframe? We think not. Look at six months or a year of ratings to identify a real trend.

Think strategically, execute based on that strategy, then give that strategy time to take hold. Research and refine the strategy.

Over time, we think you’ll find long-term vision and planning is far better for your brand (and your mental state) than short-term decisions based on “today’s news.”

 

What If Your Radio Station Lived Like It Was Dying?

Tuesdays With Coleman

Like you, a lot of us listened to the last few days of WPLJ and Mix 107.3 and marveled at the emotional impact of those farewells. And as the Nielsen PPM data shows, listening levels for WPLJ/New York rose from a 2.5 share in April to a 3.1 in May (its final full monthly), its strongest overall performance in two and a half years. This doesn’t even include the final week on-air, which was chock full of tributes, reunions and memories.

WRQX (Mix 107.3)/Washington, D.C. experienced a similar bump, rising from 3.5 in April to 4.1 in June. WPLJ and WRQX were two of the stations that flipped formats on May 31st as a result of their sale to Educational Media Foundation.

The staffs of each of these stations handled their transitions in compelling, personal, engaging ways. There were special guests including my hero Scott Shannon*. There was exceptional listener engagement. And integration with social media, as listeners could experience live encapsulated moments of the final days and hours.

Scott Shannon Todd Pettingill WPLJ New York

Scott Shannon (L) hosted mornings on WPLJ for more than 20 years with Todd Pettingill (R)

*As an aside, I think Scott Shannon still has me confused with Sam Malone (KRBE)—after more than 30 years— for at least two reasons: 1) we’re both from Philadelphia, and 2) because Scott will never believe my real name is Sam Milkman. But that’s for another blog.

When we look back at the final days of each of these stations and the profound and clearly effective methods they used to generate interest, we can’t help but wonder:

What can radio do to generate profound emotional connections when they’re not flipping formats?

We understand that much of the final weeks of these stations can’t be duplicated. Both were established brands with many years of heritage that allowed listeners to create lasting memories with them. More people watched the final M*A*S*H, Cheers or Friends episodes than ever watched the shows on a regular basis. These are “moments” that people just don’t want to miss.

But the way each station went about saying goodbye is notable. Listeners heard the stations presented in ways they weren’t used to hearing. The jocks presented the stations in ways they weren’t used to presenting. The façade of “our regular format” came down. The rules went out the window. It reminded me of what I might do if I were told I had 30 days to live.

The result: a higher level of interest and authenticity. When air personalities are real and authentic, listeners can tell. So what if every radio station “Lived Like It Were Dying” once in a while?

Tim McGraw Live Like You Were Dying

Time for radio stations to take Tim McGraw’s advice?

Maybe the typical formulaic content would go out the window. We know that format changes like PLJ’s don’t happen every day (thankfully), but there will be moments in your market that will allow your station to get real and make a high level emotional connection.

  • There will be a gun-related scare or worse at a local school, unfortunately. Local officials are preparing and practicing for it. Maybe your station should too.

 

  • There will be UFO sightings (hundreds will be reported this year in your state).

 

  • Some of your core artists may get sick or die.

 

  • There will be heatwaves, droughts, fires, floods or another one of the ten plagues.

 

  • Somebody in your town will do something heroic.

 

You get the idea. The story will be there if you open your eyes to the possibility.

Listeners love a great story. Great stories build emotional connections. While we can’t recreate the natural lightning in a bottle that the format flip of a heritage radio station generates, we can look for ways to generate powerful personal connections and tell those stories.

The emotional lever is out there every day, and radio has always been and still is the perfect conduit for connection. We see time after time that memorable, personal emotional connections translate into positive perceptual images in our research.

So, how will you pull that lever today? And next week? And next month? And next year?

You don’t need to wait for a station flip to get started.

 

Howard Stern & the Great Brand Image Change

Tuesdays With Coleman

Changing an image isn’t easy.

Once the audience becomes familiar with and develops a perception of you or your radio station, it can stick there for a good, long time. As our John Boyne points out, images are like icebergs. Slow to develop, slow to erode.

If your station is known for playing 90s Country and you want to win the New Country image, just playing some current and recurrent Country titles will not get it done.

If your station was known as one brand name for 20 years and you change the name but keep the exact same format, you better believe the audience will still think of the old name.

If you have a jock with a reputation for being outrageous and you want him to adopt a less edgy image, it’s going to take more than a few breaks without boobs.

But, as the one and only Howard Stern has shown us, changing an image—even one as imprinted and indelible as his—is possible.

Howard Stern is so synonymous with the term “Shock Jock,” it would be difficult to think of anyone or anything besides him when hearing the words. Even today.

Howard Stern

But Howard, who has been out promoting his new book, “Howard Stern Comes Again,” has indeed worked at changing his very big image.

Howard’s previous brand was not afraid to say anything or embarrass anyone. The goal was to bring everyone in the establishment down. It was sometimes angry, viscous and vile.

Howard’s new brand is a more enlightened guy shaped by a full range of life experience—the highs of great success and a wonderful relationship and the extremely painful lows of divorce, absence and distance from children. He was and still is the most amazing interviewer ever born, but he’s no longer seeking to exploit and ruin his guests. He still asks the questions that most of us would be too reserved to ask and every interview reveals something you previously never knew about the guest. But it is no longer like listening to a waterboarding session.

Howard Stern’s authenticity is what allows his brand to evolve.  Because he was a real person in the beginning of his career—sometimes really angry, really obnoxious and really curious—he can be real with his audience now. That is his real brand, not the “Shock Jock” as he is often portrayed or as he sometimes portrayed himself.  Certainly many people started out life as edgy, somewhat obnoxious, angry know-it-alls. But time and the zigs and zags of life change us. We have kids, wives, we lose people, we find ourselves (if we are lucky) and we can no longer be “that guy” anymore. Most of us grew up, and Howard did too eventually.

Could Howard have been an “actor” and faked it through the rest of his career, remaining the same brand he was in the 80s and 90s?  I’m sure he could have. But because he is so authentic and willing to take risks he has the opportunity to evolve and add an entirely new arc to his storyline.

I remember the reaction to Howard’s announcement that he and Allison planned to divorce. Many thought that the divorce would change his brand for the worse. The backstop of a wife at home provided some limit to where he could go. He could look, but never touch (like most married guys). He toyed with his fantasies, but you knew he would never act on them. But without a wife, there’s no limit. He would no longer be constrained like the regular guy listening, and worse perhaps he would no longer feel his pain. Somehow, Howard found a way to continue to be the average guy–the tortured man–as he navigated the single period of his life.

The move to Sirius XM brought similar challenges. No FCC? Who was he going to hate for limiting him? Sure, he began to curse when it felt natural, but he did not become more extreme when he had this newfound freedom. If anything, he began the evolution to where his brand is today.

Brand research could tell us just how much Howard’s images have shifted, and it’s likely his image for “Shock Jock” is still plenty strong. In fact, many media outlets still lead Stern stories with that exact descriptor. But my instinct is that other brand attributes are gaining strength. “Authentic,” “Interviewer” and “Enlightened” are all likely bigger pieces of the Stern brand than ever before.

Howard Stern Shock Jock CNN Facebook

“Shock Jock” is still used by media outlets when referring to Howard Stern

The fact that Stern is still saddled with the “Shock Jock” image in 2019 further illustrates the point every brand must remember:

Changing content alone will not change your brand image.

Howard can be softer and less mean on-air, but unless he tells people he’s changed and how, the image will not change.

It’s a takeaway applicable to every brand, whether it’s Howard Stern or your radio station. No matter what image you’re trying to change, it takes commitment, discipline and a whole lot of patience.

Howard is certainly determined to show it can be done, and based upon his history, I’m betting he will get there.

 

The Lost Art of Radio Station Stunting

Tuesdays With Coleman

gb;sughalugpaewyhg;irhdl!hflg..gss..hhrtdtudjytjghc>-8*tfls<9jdgblsvakyefe124352.b?jifdg;sualbnjg;ihs=0u65484hliugresHFUGILB.

That’s what Burger King tweeted on November 28, 2018.

There were more cryptic tweets of gibberish throughout the day, raising eyebrows and intrigue.

The following day, BK published the following on Twitter revealing the gibberish was a stunt:

so about yesterday:

– we were sober
– we didn’t get hacked
– the intern didn’t go rogue
– a cat didn’t run on the keyboard

⚠ CINI MINIS are back⚠ you try typing with icing on your hands…

Burger King Cini Minis

Backstreet’s not the only thing back from the 90s. Enter Cini Minis with a 2019 twist. Er, swirl.

Clever way to (re) introduce a product.

Stunts can be a very effective method to get attention and enhance your brand by doing the unexpected. So why, by and large, has radio stopped doing them?

One of the first measurements we look at in our research is Unaided Awareness. It’s a way to determine which brands are top-of-mind without any prompting. Why is this so important? People aren’t going to listen to your radio station if they aren’t even thinking about it.

Marketing is an obvious way to grow Unaided Awareness, but few stations have the luxury of a big budget advertising campaign, and stunting is a creative way of raising awareness without a big budget.

I can remember countless examples of radio stations using stunts to get attention, some of which I was involved with. We recognize there’s a fine line between a stunt and a promotion. While every promotion is designed to boost station awareness and listening, a stunt does it in a way the consumer may not expect. A stunt often triggers an extreme emotional response, which can be very positive or very negative.

John Lander’s show, “The Nut Hut”, on Eagle 106 in Philadelphia displayed billboards that said “Show Us You’re Nuts”. The listener that did the nuttiest thing won money. Of course, on the air, it was quite the double entendre. Without the play on words, perhaps it would have been just another “most outrageous” promotion. The “flash” of the slogan and the billboards put this one over the top.

On another occasion, John Lander promised listeners he’d send them a dollar bill if they gave him their address – and he did. He sent them a bill for $1. And they sent money back to the radio station!

Legendary radio programmer Bobby Rich ran two specialty weekends years apart that would qualify as stunts. During the height of the disco craze and overplay of The Bee Gees, Rich ran a “No Bee Gees Weekend” on WXLO/New York. Asking listeners which Bee Gees songs they didn’t want played, the jock would say, “I’ll be sure not to get that on for you.” Years later, when you couldn’t turn on a contemporary station without hearing Michael Jackson, Rich ran a similar “No Michael Jackson Weekend” in Philadelphia.

Listeners knew the stations weren’t going to stop playing the Bee Gees or Michael permanently, but the stunts tapped into listeners’ emotions by delivering something unexpected of the station.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

I wonder if a News/Talk station would consider a “No Trump Weekend”? I’ll bet it would make some noise.

Today, there are simply fewer stunts in radio, and there are explanations for that. Maybe some got too mean. Certainly some were too dangerous and risky for the legal department to handle. Also, stations that used to be fierce competitors now share the same hallway, so perhaps there’s less motivation.

Stunts = Top of Mind Awareness + Brand Building

Maybe it’s time to bring back the stunts, with a few caveats.

Recognize that the goal of a stunt is to get attention, but also to build your brand. That means just as every song doesn’t fit on every station, every stunt doesn’t fit on every station.

Adult Contemporary stations, for example, don’t stunt. It’s not consistent with the comfortable brand they are trying to craft. Doesn’t mean they can’t, but the stunt would have to be consistent with the big idea.

A stunt is best deployed when you want to signal change to the market, and/or announce something big and different.

Elvis Duran ran a promotion earlier this year called “Win a Baby!” It’s a contest that provides infertility treatment to a couple that sends in a video of themselves explaining their infertility issues and why they want to have a baby, lending itself to incredible storytelling opportunities.

Elvis Duran Win A Baby

What springs this contest into the stunt zone is the name – like Lander’s “Show Us You’re Nuts,” “Win a Baby” highlights the station and show’s creativity, fits the brand and gets listeners talking and thinking about the brand.

While radio people are some of the best ever at coming up with creative ideas, the industry would be well served to look outside for stunting ideas as well. Because while radio has pulled back on stunting, other industries have done just the opposite.

This year, KFC released a gravy-scented candle, a Danish politician placed ads on Pornhub (and told the world “yeah, that’s me on Pornhub!”) and Coors Light installed taps in bars that light up and pour free pints every time it detects a Bud Light commercial on the TV in the bar.

I mean, that just sounds like a radio promotion.

At least, it used to.

 

What’s Radio’s Crossword Puzzle?

Tuesdays With Coleman

Benchmarks can be awesome, and late night television has known it for years.

There was Johnny Carson’s future-telling Carnac the Magnificent.

Carnac the Magificent

Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent, a recurring “Tonight Show” benchmark

Remember David Letterman’s Top 10 List?

How about James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke? It’s been made into a prime-time special and has spun off its own Carpool Karaoke: The Series.

Carpool Karaoke Paul McCartney

The Paul McCartney episode of “Carpool Karaoke” has been viewed 40 million times on YouTube

Jimmy Fallon reads viewer comments from Twitter hashtags on Thursday and writes snarky thank you notes on Friday.

But there’s only one benchmark we can think of that has lasted 77 years.

The New York Times Crossword Puzzle.

The Times wasn’t the first newspaper to run a crossword puzzle. In 1924, an opinion piece in the paper called crossword puzzles a “primitive sort of mental exercise” and a “sinful waste” of time.

In fact, The New York Times was the last major metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States to run one, starting in 1942. It was a way to give readers a distraction from news about the war.

When the Times did start running one, it ran once every week in the Sunday magazine, and was a more challenging puzzle than the norm, carefully edited.

Eight years later, The New York Times added a daily version of the crossword puzzle.

In 2019, The New York Times crossword puzzle remains one of the most successful, long-running benchmarks in American history. It is syndicated to more than 300 other newspapers and journals, has its own app, books and offshoots as well as a fiercely loyal following.

New York Times Crossword Puzzle

How did a newspaper develop such a deep following for a feature that it originally disparaged? And how does it remain so relevant within a medium struggling for survival?

For starters, the reason why readers use The New York Times crossword puzzle is likely no different than it was in 1942. It is a distraction from the chaos.

Digging in a little further, we can understand some of the other reasons why this antique benchmark maintains its relevance in a digital era.

  • The New York Times runs its crossword puzzle consistently. Every single day, since 1950. Readers know where to find it and can rely on it being there.
  • The New York Times spends a great deal of effort on their signature benchmark. While they could go the cheaper route and deliver an inferior product, readers understand The New York Times crossword puzzle is not like other crossword puzzles. It is fun, clever and challenging. It is one-of-a-kind in the puzzle world.
  • The New York Times adapted the benchmark for a digital world, offering an app version that features things like inside tips, puzzle syncing and additional games. At $6.95/month, it is an additional revenue generator for the newspaper.

This brings us to radio. What’s your crossword puzzle?

There are plenty of personalities that rely on powerful benchmarks on their radio shows.

As you consider which benchmarks you have on your own station and shows, perhaps there are some takeaways from The New York Times that can provide a road map to your own 77-year success story:

  • Be consistent. Just as the NYT runs its puzzle every day in the same place, are you running your most popular benchmark enough and do listeners know where to find it?
  • Make it a focus. You likely run more than one feature, as does the Times, but give your most popular benchmark the attention and preparation it deserves to maintain quality over time.
  • Many radio show benchmarks are variations of the same basic premise. What can you offer that is unique, exclusive and appointment listening?
  • The New York Times adapted its benchmark for the digital age. Are you doing the same for yours?

As radio thinks about its crossword puzzle, consider the essential appeal of a great benchmark.

Great benchmarks complement the brand. (The New York Times can use crossword clues to enhance the overall brand images it wants to build.)

A great benchmark is deeply engaging. (The crossword puzzle can intensely occupy the reader’s attention.)

A great benchmark is relevant (The crossword puzzle can adapt and be topical and timely as that day’s news.)

If I were to craft one benchmark for radio, it would be deeply connected to the music (for music formats) or the talk angle. It would contain audio, to complement the medium.  It would be smart in its construction and would make me feel alive and engaged.

Coleman Insights Crossword Puzzle

So, radio, what’s your crossword puzzle?

What Radio Stations Can Learn From Gas Stations

Tuesdays With Coleman

Back in June, in the blog Radio Needs Second-Order Thinking, Jon Coleman introduced us to the concept of second-order thinking and how beneficial it can be for radio.  First-order thinking is considering the immediate impact of the decisions we make. Second-order thinking is considering all the potential consequences of the decisions we make.

Second-Order Thinking

When a brand is stuck in first-order thinking, it oftentimes can’t see past its core competency. Leaders don’t leave their comfort zone. First-order thinking can stifle creativity, hamper progress and leave opportunities open for other brands.

What if Netflix saw itself in the movie rental business?

It would have never grown into the binge-centric juggernaut it is today (and would have almost certainly failed by now.)

Netflix wasn’t in the DVD-by-mail business. It was (and is) in the entertainment business. When streaming became feasible, Netflix quickly pivoted into the new form of distribution.

What if Amazon had seen itself in the bookstore business?

Yeah. Same.

Amazon online bookstore

Now, let’s say you own a gas station. Are you in the gas business? Or the fill-up business? Or something else?

From the moment gas stations started cropping up around 1909, gas tanks were filled by an attendant. Services performed by the attendant could include checking your oil, washing your windows, and processing your payment.

The first self-serve gas station in the United States opened in Los Angeles in 1947. While drivers could now pump themselves, it still required attendants to take money, make change and reset the pumps.

While advances in technology allowed for the progression to today’s self-serve pay-at-the-pump experience (except in New Jersey) the real game changer was John Roscoe’s addition to the fuel pumps in Denver in 1957.

The first convenience store.

First convenience store

Now, we live in an era in which almost every gas station is connected to at least a small shop. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, 69.2% of all sales is gas, but that only accounts for 39.5 percent of profit. Food-related items account for 20.2 percent of total sales, but 33.7 percent of profit.

But just think about where the industry was not that long ago. Depending on your age, you may still be familiar with the dreaded “gas station sandwich.”

If a gas station had a convenience store, it probably:

  • Was filthy;
  • Had hot dogs that looked like they’d been there since Elvis was alive spinning on a machine that creaked like frozen pipes in winter;
  • Had bathrooms that smelled like a sewage plant.

We all know there are still plenty of gas stations around America that haven’t exactly evolved.

On the other hand, there are stores like Sheetz and Wawa that have literally redefined the gas station experience.

Not just “decent” coffee that hasn’t been sitting there for hours – a barista crafting your pumpkin cappuccino.

Not just Bud Light and Milwaukee’s Best in the fridge – craft brews from your local brewery.

Clean bathrooms. Made-to-order subs. Touch-screens.

Again, just think about how far this perception had to come from 50 years of this:

Gas Station Sandwich

I’m so hungry, I could eat a gas station sandwich.

It took vision to see streaming beyond DVDs, commerce and cloud hosting beyond books and a shopping experience beyond gas.

Then it took research, discipline and years of consistent image building to effectively change perceptions.

Now the gasoline industry may be on the precipice of another pivot. According to the International Energy Agency, the number of electric vehicles on the road is expected to grow from about 3 million today to 125 million by 2030.

Gas stations got the sandwiches right, but they won’t be able to rely on gas sales for nearly 70 percent of their business forever.

Where are the electric chargers?

Although there may not be a big demand for it now, gas stations can start building the image of the place to “fill up” electric cars. If this doesn’t happen sooner than later, another business will step in and become the brand specialist for electric charging stations.

Electric Car Charging Station

Few in radio would argue that our industry finds itself at a crossroads.

While many in the industry still think of it as the “radio business,” I think most have taken the broader entertainment-centric approach of Netflix.

This expansion of thinking has allowed radio to evolve onto various platforms, streaming and now is finding its way in the podcasting space.

Gas stations used second-order thinking to see beyond the sandwich. Now, they should prepare for their next pivot.

By utilizing second-order thinking, radio can do the same!

What Show Is Everyone Talking About?

Tuesdays With Coleman

What are you watching?

What are you listening to?

If you ask your friends these questions, you will get a broad array of answers. Maybe that was always the case, but I feel like I am finding it harder and harder to find something to talk about with my friends that all of us watch or listen to regularly. I mean, like every episode or every day.

And as a result, there’s less to talk about other than “you should check out Evil Genius on Netflix, it is really good.” Or The Final Year on HBO—a documentary about the last year of the Obama administration.

Evil Genius Netflix

While “Evil Genius” on Netflix may garner buzz, it’s reaching a small fraction of the population.

Music or podcasts? The list of things we’re all listening to gets shorter and shorter while the list of offerings gets longer and longer. That may be my subjective feeling, but I don’t think I am alone. Yeah, most of my friends listened to Serial. Not much anymore.

To me, this makes it harder to connect with some people. We watch and listen to different things, and so we can share “lists”.  But we’re not having deeper conversations about what we thought or learned.

Again, maybe it was always the case. But I remember a time in New York when if you weren’t listening to the Morning Zoo on Z100 you really felt out of it.

Z100 morning zoo whtz new york

Sorry to get nostalgic, but I remember when “Must See TV” actually meant something.

The number one show on TV at the end of May was NCIS with a 7 rating. In 1998, the top of the list was filled with ER, Friends, and Frasier – each of which had a 15 rating or higher. There was simply a better (in fact, double) opportunity for water cooler commonality.

What a difference 20 years makes.

What can we do as broadcasters to “make the list” of stations or shows people talk about and recommend to their friends?

It has to start with an understanding of what the audience really wants. And the creative work to come up with something so unique and memorable that people want to talk about it.

The Sopranos took television to a higher level and arguably changed how we consume it. The Sopranos:

  • Gave us serial storytelling;
  • Delivered higher production values than we were used to seeing;
  • Singlehandedly changed the fortunes of a network and inspired the launch of other pay-TV networks and original programming.
The Sopranos HBO

“The Sopranos” was a paradigm-changing television program.

Making something everyone will talk about is easier said than done. There are a few things I believe transformative breakthroughs have in common:

  1. It sounds or looks like something you’ve never heard or seen before.

At first, it may even feel wrong or out of place. There are too many examples of Howard Stern’s innovations to list here, but Howard regularly challenged the audience with what they knew about personality radio. This ranges from authenticity and transparency to topic choices and interviewing technique.

  1. The people making it are psychotically passionate about it.

The authentic, intense and passionate dialogue between Mike and the Mad Dog co-hosts Mike Francesa and Chris Russo not only led to a long run in New York, it had a significant impact on the medium of radio.

Mike and the Mad Dog WFAN New York

When it launched in July 1987, WFAN billed itself as the first radio station completely dedicated to sports talk. Thanks in large part to the success of Mike and the Mad Dog, the number of sports formatted stations grew to 500 by 2005 and to 790 today (with many markets featuring multiple sports stations).

  1. It changes the paradigm.

The Breakfast Club, based at Power 105.1 in New York, has altered the way radio programming is consumed in the digital landscape.

The Breakfast Club Power 105.1 New York

Their YouTube channel has over 2.2 million subscribers. Their interview in which hip- hop artist Birdman furiously leaves the studio because he didn’t like the line of questioning by co-host Charlemagne Tha God, has over 14 million views and counting.

The show has garnered recognition and a following beyond the way people have traditionally recognized and interacted with radio personalities.

In our experience with radio research, we look for brands to show up as highly recognized and favorable. We want to see personalities are well-liked and memorable.

These things often lead to strong lasting ratings performance for the station.

So, we’re at a crossroads. We can give up and say the world is too fragmented.

Or, we can double down and create never heard before, “paradigm changing” experiences that everyone will be talking about.

We vote for the latter.