Tag Archives: radio station

What Is the Purpose of Your Radio Station?

I admit it, I am reading one of those self-help books about finding meaning in life. I just started the chapter on “finding purpose in life.” You know, find your purpose and focus on that. Stop making excuses and get to it. Oh boy, this may be a little much for me. Are you here to be a great husband, father, and community builder, or are you here to watch Netflix?

Sure, sure, maybe I should do that personally. But it got me thinking about what our purpose is as the radio industry. Do we know our purpose? Our real purpose—what we mean to consumers—or what we could mean to them?

It seemed so easy years ago. Play better records, find a more entertaining morning show, think up some memorable promotions—and good things will happen. Radio is everywhere. Turn your Cume into fans and you’ll win.

Then it got a lot more complicated. Sorry, to win today you need to do more than sound somewhat better than the other radio stations in town. I know we all spend a good part of our day trying to make our stations sound better—and I think that’s important—but it may not save the day anymore.

We need to get back to our purpose. What would make someone do anything to listen to our radio station? Hide under the sheets at night so mom and dad wouldn’t know they were listening? How do we develop superfans like the ones Taylor Swift has found a way to generate by the millions? Over the years, our programming mentors taught us how to create compelling content and bigger-than-life promotions that electrified an audience.

What happened? Did we forget our purpose? Radio is here to entertain by whatever means. To connect with an audience. Give listeners a reason to make us a part of their lives. Earn that, never assume it.

Certainly, the world changed. But what happened to the kind of radio that was so amazing that you and I didn’t want to get out of the car because we didn’t want to miss something? Please don’t tell me that all of that is only on Spotify or a podcast. There is no monopoly on great entertainment.

Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel and Saturday Night Live rely upon the same “raw material” to entertain as radio does. They have access to most of the same musical guests. They work hard every day to make magic happen. It is up to us to transform those raw elements into something that lights up a radio audience.

One of my favorite clients once asked: Can’t you include a question in your study that just answers my hardest question—what would make you listen more? My response: If we can refine your music recipe and morning show and strengthen what your brand means, won’t that make them listen more? Maybe I was a little defensive, maybe a bit stuck in one view of the world.

I think it is time to get crazy. Try things that have never been done before. Did you know they wanted to fire Rush Limbaugh when he first got started because he was the rogue newscaster who had the gall to comment on the news? Instead, he started a new format. The history of Sports Radio isn’t much different. Sure there were a few hour-long sports talk shows dating back to the 1960s on WNBC, but there weren’t any dedicated all-sports stations until the late 80s and the arrival of WFAN in New York.

You have the ideas. Let’s get crazy and try some of them. Let’s find our purpose again.

The Radio Streaming Quarter-Hour Test

When I programmed radio stations, I would occasionally run a “quarter-hour test” of my stations and the competition. This practice allowed me to step outside my usual listening patterns, which were highly unusual compared to that of a typical listener. The quarter-hour test was a way to force myself to create random snapshots of listening, in the same ways a listener may pop in and out. When I ran a quarter-hour test, I wasn’t thinking about the hourglass PPM stopset strategy, where contests were running, or where a commercial-free sweep took place. A quarter-hour test is outside-in listening…starting a quarter-hour when I thought about it, rather than scheduling when my listening would take place.

Several years ago, I ran quarter-hour airchecks for the streams of local radio stations, and it was hard to get past the clunkiness that existed, with spots, jocks, or music getting cut off. Now in 2023, as the industry watches the incremental growth of radio listening via streaming rather than with an AM/FM radio, I ran an updated quarter-hour test of four radio stations across the United States to get a glimpse of how local radio is adapting to the changing habits of its listeners.

The good news? Listening is far less clunky and more seamless than the last time I ran the test. The four stations I monitored, with only one exception, had high-quality streams with smooth transitions.

My listening experience, however, unearthed bigger obstacles for local radio. Some won’t necessarily surprise you, but I’ll challenge you to view them from a different lens and perspective.

My streaming quarter-hour test included four radio stations each in a different format and broadcasting from a different region of the country. One is a Country station in the Midwest; another is a Hip Hop station in the West; the third is a News Talk station in the Northeast; and the last one is a Classic Hits station in the South. I made sure to listen to stations on different streaming platforms. I picked random times to listen, spanning mornings, middays, and afternoons.

I started a timer for 15 minutes from the time I started the stream to the time I logged off, and then started taking notes.


At 10:07a local time, the stream went right into a song, just as if I were listening on a radio. This was followed by a live and recorded contest solicit into a second song. At 10:14a, the jock did a backsell and some content, and teased upcoming artists.

The stopset lasted seven minutes and featured 12 spots. With no imaging or station identification out of the commercial break, the stream went into a third song, during which the quarter hour of listening concluded.


10:07-10:22          3 songs, 2 station mentions, 12 commercials.


At 9:43a local time, my streaming experience again started with a song. This went right into a live jock bit with no station identifier. Another song played into a contest promo and station positioner at 9:52a. And then…18 commercials in a row. I listened past the 15-minute mark just to see when the stopset would end, which it finally did with yet another contest promo at 10:02a (at the 19-minute listening mark).


9:43-10:02            2 songs, 1 station mention, 18 commercials

Teenage boy in disbelief that the 16th commercial isn’t the last one


This afternoon drive experience began at 3:05p and was the only one of the four tests to begin with a pre-roll video and two spots. One minute later, it rolled directly into the host in the middle of election talk. At 3:11p, the announcer threw it to a traffic report that ended with an awkward cutoff transition to spots, reminiscent of the clunky experiences from years ago. In this case, the station played two spots, a weather update with a station identifier, one more spot, a station identifier and positioner, and back to the talent with more election talk. I thought it was clever to break up the short commercial break with service elements, which kept my attention.


3:05-3:20              11 minutes of content (including traffic/weather), 3 station mentions, 3 commercials


There was some friction at the beginning of this listening experience at 12:29p, as I clicked on a big “play” button that didn’t immediately play the station as I would have expected. It took me some time to find yet another play button on the screen to actually get the stream to trigger and start playing.

And in this instance, the station was in the middle of a spot break, with seven commercials in a row before playing a specialty programming sweeper and quick live break at 12:33p. The next 11 minutes were music intensive, with three songs boasting a quick sweeper or live break in front.


12:29-12:44          3 songs, 3 station mentions, 7 commercials

As a listener, I was very pleased overall that each of the four listening experiences was generally seamless.

As a researcher, I’m going to bring up challenges that I perceive these listening experiences brought to light.

Here are three takeaways from this radio streaming quarter-hour test.

  1. Should every stream have “welcome branding”?

Sure, if I tune into a station on an AM/FM radio, I’ll get what I get at that time. But streaming enables the opportunity to make a brand statement immediately, which is particularly valuable as brand-building opportunities are at a premium.

  1. Should we ever run 18 spots in a row?

No, it wasn’t 18 minutes of commercials. Yes, I’m aware the station was likely playing the backloading game, throwing an absurd number of spots at the end of the 9am hour so the morning show could have less spots earlier in the show. But as I mentioned earlier, the quarter-hour test is designed to be outside-in listening. The listener doesn’t know or care about the backloading strategy, and as a listener 18 commercials in a row is awful. There is literally no way I would stay until the end if I was doing any sort of active listening.

  1. Are we effectively building our brands in each quarter hour?

This is the most important question. If a local radio station is to compete in the streaming space, it must do three things well. First, it must offer a streaming experience that isn’t inferior to other DSP experiences. Second, it must accurately reflect the listening experience one would expect on an AM/FM radio. Third, it must effectively find ways to grow its brand without friction caused by the streaming experience.

This last point is especially important because radio’s challenges are too often framed in simplistic “too many commercials”-type arguments.

Rather, let’s change that perspective to consider how self-imposed obstacles can impede brand awareness, the building of strong images, and the creation of bonds with our talent.

Regularly monitor the over-the-air feed and stream, utilizing the quarter-hour test to answer those as questions:

  • Did I build brand awareness (do listeners know who we are)?
  • Did I build strong images (do listeners clearly know what we’re known for)?
  • Did I build bonds with our talent (did they make an impression)?

Remember to focus on creating an outside-in listening experience and when possible, follow up with strategic research to track the effectiveness of your efforts.

What Makes a Personality Memorable?

I listened to a radio station recently with my 19-year-old son in the car. There were two air personalities co-hosting a “Free-for-all” feature during which they played songs that worked within the format but aren’t typically part of the rotation. Two moments that occurred during my quarter-hour of listening stuck out.

First, they played two 90s boy bands back-to-back. Because they added context and an anecdote, it was fun, and it worked.  Second, they played a song they didn’t intend to play (or at least genuinely made it seem that way). They stopped the song, talked about the mistake and laughed about it, and played the song they meant to. It was fun.

I enjoyed it.

My son, who always seems to have pearls of wisdom in moments like this, says, “Radio stations don’t sound like that anymore. Usually, they just sound pre-recorded. They don’t make any mistakes. It’s too perfect. It doesn’t sound any different than a podcast.”

Oh, man.

Now, this isn’t another blog on the benefits or perils of “AI Ashley” or Artificial Intelligence’s potential effects on the radio industry. It is, however, an important reminder of the crucial importance of listener perceptions of personalities.

Consider the Coleman Insights Image PyramidSM. After a radio station has established its Base Music or Talk position, personalities are the most important factor in building brand depth. The caveat is that the personalities that build brand depth are the memorable ones. The ones that listeners actively think about, relate to, and listen to the station for.

The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

This is why personality and show research is particularly critical for your brand. By measuring which personalities and shows are cutting through, brands can focus their energy on building the brand of the talent alongside the station. Meghan Campbell and I will dive into the topic of personality and show research in our next Ask Me Anything webinar on Wednesday, July 12th at 2P EDT/11A PDT and we hope to see you there. Registration is now open.

There are plenty of things that make a personality memorable. I’m not sure “perfect” is one of them.

Why Your Radio Station or Streaming Channel Must Evolve with Music Tastes

One of the most challenging tasks facing the program director of a radio station or streaming channel is determining when the tastes of the target audience are shifting. While there is no easy or singular solution, it helps to understand how tastes evolve.

When considering music tastes, let’s look at it from the standpoint of the target audience, not an individual listener. For brands that don’t change their target demographic, they must evolve within it. Each year, one set of listeners ages in, while another set ages out. If we were to stop there, evolution would be a rather linear and predictable process. But, for a variety of reasons, it’s not that simple.

First, your target audience evolves in other ways. You may gain a listener when someone moves to your market. You may lose a listener when someone stops commuting to work. You may pick up a listener who sees or hears your advertising. You may lose a listener who discovers a more appealing media option. Your audience is constantly changing, based on a variety of factors.

Additionally, we find that music varies in its staying power. Some songs and artists shine brightly in their heyday but then fade into obscurity. Others maintain a rather steady level of popularity, year after year, even in handoffs from one generation to another. And some, unexpectedly, come roaring back to life, often propelled by a cultural moment (e.g., the 2022 resurgence of the 1985 song “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush, after it was featured in Netflix’s Stranger Things). In music, as in investing, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance.

Evolution is also impacted by the popular styles of each era. As I explained a few years ago in “The 90s Music Research Conundrum,” the 90s may be a rich decade to mine if you’re in the business of targeting Hip Hop fans, Alternative fans, or Country fans, but it’s been a more challenging era for Pop-based formats to evolve into.

But wait, there’s even more to consider!

One of my favorite music research measures is Compatibility. You can think of Compatibility as cohesion, as the ties that bind collective tastes. Without Compatibility, you have a bunch of songs. With Compatibility, you have a cohesive music recipe that can attract and hold an audience.

When you have a critical mass of compatible songs, you have the hub of a music format. What’s really interesting, and oftentimes challenging, is the process of evolving the focus of a station’s recipe from one hub to another. It’s at these junctures that things can go very right…or very wrong. If the Compatibility between hubs is too weak, you may run off all your old listeners before you are able to attract new ones. Additionally, your transition may be stymied by a competitor that is already established in the space and/or by a failure to evolve how the audience perceives your brand.

It’s also easy to mistime the evolution from one musical hub to the next because it’s not always a smooth transition that is ready to occur when you’re ready for it to occur. Some of this has to do with factors discussed earlier, but some has to do with a process that I liken to interplanetary travel. Compatibility works on music format like gravity works on a planet. Just as gravity would affect your movement from one planet to another, the force of Compatibility will affect your movement from one musical hub to another.

Let’s use the Classic Hits format’s transition from the 70s to the 80s as an example. Initially, there was a time when many felt like the format was too slow to evolve, but the 70s appetite was holding strong, even as listeners aged into and out of the target demo. More and more 80s songs were testing well, but there was not yet enough to overcome the gravitational force of the 70s. But eventually, the format evolved out of the gravitational pull of the 70s and into the gravitational pull of the 80s, and—wham!—a slow transition suddenly became a quick transition into the new lane. When such a change happens, and how strongly it happens, is very difficult to predict but can be detrimental to your product and brand if missed or mismanaged.

The takeaway is to remember that the tastes of your target will never remain static, meaning your brand must evolve with it. Research can help ensure it’s evolving with the optimal blend of music, and moving at their pace, not yours.

Why Did My Radio Station’s Ratings Go Down?

“It was only one or two meters!!”

Whether you’ve experienced poring over data in Media Monitors or visiting Arbitron’s offices in Columbia, Maryland back in the day to hand-sift through diaries (or like me, both), the frustration of radio ratings data inconsistencies is a tale as old as the measurement itself.

Generally, ratings tend to tell the story well when viewed over longer periods of time. But when you rely on quarterly, monthly, or even weekly ratings to make decisions that affect your programming, hold on buckaroo. You’re often in for a wild ride.

For me, the irrational rationalizing was the worst part as a program director on ratings day. OK, maybe it was the 30 minutes leading up to the release of the numbers when my stomach turned in knots. But it was the moments afterwards on bad book days, with the General Manager, Sales Manager, and maybe some other members of the programming team in my office offering theories.

“Well, you know, the morning show took the week off and so-and-so was in there by herself.”

“We ran the heck out of that contest. I guess it didn’t work.”

“Why didn’t those commercial-free sweeps connect?”

“The competition started playing one more current an hour.”

Guess, guess, guess, guess.

If you’re only looking at a ratings number, you simply don’t know what caused the drop.

It’s no different when you rationalize why you went up. There are exceptions, of course. A truly major change like a format flip or morning show departure can cause short-term ratings flux, but minor things typically don’t.

At its core, perceptual research is so valuable because of the sample size. When you’re talking with hundreds of listeners in your market that listen to your station or your competitors, you can both rely on the data and feel comfortable making programming decisions based on it.

And because data is impartial, the answers you think you’ll get aren’t always the ones you do. This is especially true when it comes to the answer to the question in the title of this blog. “Why did my radio station’s ratings go down?”

Attempting to answer that question shouldn’t be the only time you conduct perceptual research, but it certainly is a reason to. Over the course of being involved in many studies where that question is asked, the answer is not always that something is terribly wrong.

Sometimes, radio stations going through ratings struggles look remarkably healthy from a perceptual perspective. It could be a ratings sampling issue. And although it may not be much consolation to the sales department in the short term, it is helpful to know that the ratings declines in those instances are usually temporary. It is not unusual to see them bounce back. And thankfully, studies in instances like these offer programmers confidence to not go fixing things that aren’t broken, an instinct that may be opposite to the feeling they get when looking at a bad book.

And yes, sometimes things are in fact broken. Or the competition owns all the images you’re trying to win. Or not enough potential listeners know your station exists. Or a myriad of other issues we can identify. They’re all solvable challenges, sometimes painful, sometimes not. But at least you know the why behind the what and you can take the appropriate action to make positive change.

Guessing may work well for this guy:


But it’s not so fun when you’re in charge of a radio station.

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.

Content Repeating Is Not Content Creation

Tuesdays With Coleman

I treasure all Coleman Insights clients, but a specific client of ours holds a special place in my heart. This client is a stand-alone FM music station in a small market that more than holds its own against multi-station clusters owned by some of the biggest groups in American radio. It would be nice to claim that their success is due to their commitment to research—despite their status as a stand-alone in a market outside of the Top 100, they do a Plan Developer strategic study or a FACT360 Strategic Music Test every year—but their consistent commitment to maintaining their station’s strong brand and delivering content designed to be as appealing as possible to their audience should be equally recognized. They also deserve credit for their long-term retention of one of the best programming consultants in the business.

This client’s passion for delivering great content resulted in an email exchange between the general manager, the consultant and me that highlighted a point that I don’t think can be reiterated too often: Radio programmers should not confuse content repeating with content creation. If they do, I fear their stations will become less relevant in the increasing competitive audio consumption landscape.

The exchange centered around how the station’s morning host handled contestant Blair Davis’s hilarious introduction of himself on a recent episode of Wheel of Fortune. Davis told host Pat Sajak about his “loveless marriage,” described “his old battle-axe” of a wife and claimed to have been “cursed” by having three stepchildren. It was a funny joke that Davis and his family were in on and the clip of his appearance went viral immediately.

Our client was thrilled that his morning host was on top of this viral sensation; I, unfortunately, had to play the role of wet blanket. The problem wasn’t the topic itself—it was timely and relevant. The issue was with how it was presented. Rather than generating fresh content based on the story, the host instead did little more than playing the audio from Wheel of Fortune, which many of the station’s listeners may have already heard or could easily find on their social media feeds. Sure, radio personalities should talk about things that are happening in pop culture, but if all they do is repeat content that was created elsewhere—or at least do not do something to add to that content—radio will be in trouble.

What could a radio personality do with content like the Wheel of Fortune introduction? Examples include having listeners call in and do their own version of a Blair Davis-style introduction. Or how about if a morning show did a bit with celebrity impressions where famous people did their own introductions using the Blair Davis approach? I am sure people who are more creatively inclined can come up with better ideas than mine, but the point that you should take away from this is that radio can’t be in the content repeating business and must be in the content creation business. The latter is a lot harder, but I believe it is essential for radio to continue to thrive.

In our research, we continue to see that music stations seen first for the music they play (the Base Music Position layer of their Image Pyramid) are the ones that tend to have the strongest ratings in the long run.

We also continue to see that stations that are perceived as more than “jukeboxes”—in that they have developed the upper layers on their Image Pyramids—engender greater loyalty from their listeners and therefore also enjoy greater ratings success. This development of additional imagery beyond their Base Music Positions is even more important today, as consumers have so many options for listening to their favorite music wherever they are. That’s why music stations have to create and not just repeat nonmusical content. The industry’s goal should be to get other media platforms to repeat the content radio stations create.

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.

*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?

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.


The Lost Art of Radio Station Stunting

Tuesdays With Coleman


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…

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.


Hey, Radio! Science Says Surprise Your Listeners.

Tuesdays With Coleman

How predictable is your radio station? Have listeners “heard it all”?

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

There’s a region of our brain called Broca’s Area, and it is known to have multiple roles involving speech production.  It turns out that another function involves surprise. When we’re surprised, it triggers this part of the brain.

But Broca anticipates the predictable. It’s the part of the brain that literally tunes out what it already knows and expects.

I once saw marketer Roy Williams, author of The Wizard of Ads, explaining the Broca lesson in terms of radio contesting. There was a time when winning 25 bucks was a big deal. Until listeners heard $100 given away, then $1,000, and so on.

Listeners had certain expectations for morning drive radio before Howard Stern. Howard shattered those expectations, thereby stimulating Broca’s Area and becoming a superstar.

I recently visited a friend in Las Vegas and experienced an example of Broca stimulation.

Go figure, it was a billboard for a hospital.

Hospitals used to only run basic billboard campaigns. Name, location, specialization maybe. Picture of a patient. “The cardiovascular hospital.”

Then, we saw billboards for emergency rooms with digital wait times.


Now it’s not quite as unusual to see those wait time billboards. Still neat and effective, but the element of surprise has passed.

The board for St. Rose Dominican Hospitals in Las Vegas does something I’d never seen before.

It welcomes new babies in real time.

The digital message I saw welcomed a baby by first name that was born 15 minutes prior.

The hospital is even using a mnemonic device in the labor and delivery unit itself—they play a lullaby throughout the entire hospital every time a baby is born.

They stimulate Broca with the billboard birth announcement and reinforce it in-house with the lullaby.

Have you been watching Jeopardy! lately? Lots more people have, because contestant James Holzhauer is currently torching records left and right.

He’s a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas. Can’t recall ever seeing one of those (at least mentioned) as a Jeopardy! contestant before.

He regularly goes all-in or heavily in on Daily Doubles, betting 10, 20, $30,000 or more.

Never seen that before.

He’s broken the record for single-day winnings, then broke his own records. $131,137 in one game?

Never seen that before.

Jeopardy James is one big ball of Broca stimulation, and there are two ways to look at it from the show’s standpoint.

#1, We’re over budget!

#2, This guy is a marketing machine. It’s been great for the show. There’s great buzz. Our ratings are soaring.

I think the Jeopardy! folks are probably pretty happy right now.

Now, think about Broca’s Area in the context of your radio station.

Before you do, be careful not to confuse Broca with message repetition. Your listeners lead busy lives, have short attention spans and are not paying attention to your station like you may think.

Therefore, repeating the same positioner over and over again is important. Running benchmarks at the same time has value. You may utilize a mnemonic device, like a jingle, sound effect or voice that listeners associate with your station. These help build images through repetition.

So, what can you do to stimulate Broca?

Stimulating Broca can be additive to images, like the ones we track in strategic perceptual research.

The hospital billboard and Jeopardy James create buzz.

Buzz builds top-of-mind awareness.

If you live in Las Vegas, maybe you’re more likely to think of that hospital first—just as you’re trying to get listeners to think of your radio station first.

You’re very likely to think of them as the baby hospital, which I’m sure is an image they’d love to own.

But they simply could have put a tag line up on the board, right? “First for babies?” “The baby hospital?”

Would that build the image as fast as a real-time birth clock??

Sure, you can throw a tag line or an artist on a billboard. But I’ll bet you can come up with something we haven’t seen before.

And sure, Jeopardy James is lightning in a bottle. Contestants like him and Ken Jennings are once-in-a-blue-moon events.

But it is a reminder to seek out memorable talent and to find ways of presenting your product that the listener hasn’t heard before.

And those repeating messages I mentioned? Just because they say the same thing doesn’t mean they need to be presented the same way each time. When they are, they become wallpaper.

So think about your core messaging and the images you want to build with your listeners.

Think about all the ways you’ve relayed and presented the messaging up until now.

Then, think about the opposite. Something completely different. Something even you haven’t heard before.

Broca (and your listeners) will thank you.