Broadcasters Try To Tackle The Webstream’s Stopset Problems

Three years ago, it was painful, even for radio boosters, to listen to most stations’ stopsets. Then broadcasters made a concerted effort to fix their clutter issues and stopsets got a lot better–unless, that is, you were listening to your favorite station on-line.
Anybody who spends any amount of time listening to terrestrial stations on-line will tell you that their solution to being effectively unable to run spots with AFTRA talent has been to load up the breaks with instrumental fill songs, morning show promos, and hard-sell PSAs–some of them as lurid as any teaser for the 11 p.m. news. After all, until recently, it was all many broadcasters could do just to get their Web streams relaunched.
In recent months, however, there’s been a lot more discussion of the need to fix on-line stopsets. For one thing, an increasing number of any station’s P1s are now telling us that they listen via a Web stream at work–25 to 30% in some cases. With numbers like that, making a Web stream a good listening experience isn’t only for the benefit of listeners in Sweden, it’s for diary keepers and advertisers, too. While the ideal solution, particularly in a world where Arbitron is rating non-simulcast Webstreams separately, would be to resolve the AFTRA issue once and for all, I’ve heard some stations filling a few more of those PSA slots with local retail recently, a positive step.
To get a handle on just how much things are improving, I spent Tuesday (Feb. 13) listening to five different Atlanta radio stations, each owned by a different major group. Atlanta was chosen because of the variety of owners, and because it was one of Webcasting’s earliest strongholds, thanks to Modern Rock WNNX (99X). I always listened through the embedded Web player on the station site, even when I had the opportunity to open the Web stream from my own player–because I wanted to replicate the listener experience.
Atlanta remains relatively sophisticated among markets for streaming. Every station I listened to had a player that gave song titles. (One station, which will remain nameless, had an interface that showed you not just title and artist but the log notes for sweepers and promos, a problem that many broadcasters still haven’t worked out in the several years since title/artist displays became common.) And there were several sponsors, including some heard on more than one cluster, who clearly understood the power of streaming radio. I also heard a few agency quality spots that were still somehow cleared for stream insertion.
That said, this was also a market of relatively long stopsets–many of which sounded longer on the Web. If no station represented the worst of streaming insertion–all looped announcements and new age music–there was still no single station with quite enough content or completely seamless transitions between the regular signal and their Web-sets.
Here was my day of listening in chronological order:
WVEE (V103) Atlanta (CBS) 10-11 a.m.
The market-leading R&B outlet was easy to punch up, thanks to the Stream The World player that most CBS stations have adopted. V103’s Web-set strategy was initially impressive. The first three units at 10:19 were local spots, two of them voiced by local personalities, including market veteran Ryan Cameron for BellSouth. That was followed, however, by four PSAs, then by about 15 seconds of dead air before rejoining the main feed. Total stopset length, not including a Black History vignette was seven minutes.
The second Web-set at 10:52, also seven units, was slightly awkward in both its beginning and ending transition–cutting off the calls at the end of a promo for a station concert. Again, the stopset was the same three spots, followed by four PSAs, including two consecutive ones for the same charity. But the overall Webcast experience was decent. And there were few buffering problems, which wouldn’t be the case all day.
Best little programming touch heard in the course of an hour’s listening: two different promos congratulating hometown hero Ludacris on his Grammy Award wins.
WKLS (Project 9-6-1) (Clear Channel) 11 a.m-Noon
Here’s the good news: the three stopsets on this Active Rocker were covered primarily by four fill songs that a programmer would have recognized as not part of the format, but a listener would likely not have, (particularly since most of those songs flashed artist and title on the station’s media player as well). No PSAs. Only one extra stager used for fill. Only three commercials–one of them a 10-second spot.
Here’s the problem: two of those commercials ran, bafflingly, not in place of a stopset but while the station was running a song, which was then joined in progress. Earlier that hour, I’d already heard the station let the second of two Web fill songs finish playing, even though it meant joining the song from the main feed in progress. The Web-only song was “Big Me” by the Foo Fighters. The truncated song was “Rock & Roll” by Led Zeppelin. There were also a few smaller clunky moments–e.g., regular feed spots starting before the fill song cut them off.
Overall experience: There was some clear forethought put into this, but it was still disjointed. And there was far more buffering than I encountered on any other station.
Best programming touch: A stager that identified people as “part of the project” (usually core artists) or “part of the problem” (e.g., Nicole Richie).
WSB-FM (B98.5) (Cox) 1-2 p.m.
A longtime Stream Audio client, Cox’s stations were a lot more present on the Web than most during that first bleak year after the AFTRA problems arose. Transitions from main feed to Web set were accordingly smooth. (I heard one slightly clipped stager, but only that.) I also heard at least two actual spots during the Mainstream AC’s two five-minute spot breaks. Cox’s typical “50 minute music hours” aren’t as much of a novelty these days, but they still stood out in this market–B98.5 had the most music of the five stations I listened to.
Custom Web content? One of those two spots featured one of the station’s jocks and was actually tied to the remote cut-in that we’d just heard. There were also several “here’s what’s happening” omnibus PSAs that had seemingly been designed for the Web feed. But the work of the Ad Council was pretty prominent here–there were a couple of hardsell PSAs, including one that I labelled “toxins in your child’s room.” (To be fair, none of the PSAs repeated over the course of an hour.)
At 13 units an hour, this mix of PSAs and a few spots might have felt clunkier. At 10 units, and with relatively smooth transitions, it was just fine.
Best programming touch: Remember how every ’80s CHR in America used to play a “jock name shout” jingle at :08, at which point the jock then came in over the intro of the record? B98.5 is the first station I’ve heard do it in years, and while you have to be a fan of programming minutiae to know what I’m talking about–much less muster any sort of excitement–it was novel to hear this again.
WWWQ (Q100) (Cumulus) 3-4 p.m.
Former owner Susquehanna was a pioneer in Webcasting. Modern Rock sister WNNX (99X) has streamed for more than a decade and Q100 has been available since it launched in the early ’00s. Of the five stations I heard, Q100 had the highest sheer number of actual spots, including some BellSouth spots that sounded like agency production. Over the course of two stopsets–seven and six minutes respectively–I heard 11 ads, only a few promos and no PSAs, unless you count the station spot promoting an upcoming local marathon.
That said, I heard several sponsors twice within the same Web-set, albeit with different spots. And almost every Web spot could be heard cutting off the first second (or more) of a terrestrial spot. And if that sounds like nitpicking, it became a noticeable distraction from the listening experience after the first few times.
Best programming touch: PD/p.m. driver Dylan gave away tickets for a Hinder meet-and-greet by challenging his contest winner to actually name a member of the band. “I can’t Google that fast,” she replied. “That’s why we’re giving away these tickets,” he said (or something to that effect).
WKHX (Kicks 101.5) (ABC) 5-6 p.m.
From a programming standpoint, I hadn’t listened to this heritage Country station in a few years and was pleasantly surprised by its tempo and energy. Hearing WKHX didn’t just make me wish I had a Country station in New York; it made me wish I had this station.
But Kicks 101.5’s Web breaks were the hardest to sit through of any station I heard–no custom content, just a mix of PSAs, including several hard-sells, and instrumental fill music of the sort that usually announces that the host of a conference call is not yet signed-in. There was a lot of clunkiness in the transitions from main feed to Web-set and between the elements themselves. And WKHX’s Web feed seemed to be running about four minutes behind its actual on-air signal.
WKHX also runs 10-songs-in-a-row and then loaded the last 20 minutes of the hour with a five-minute break and an eight-minute break, thus making it particularly noticeable when two different PSAs for the same cause ran in succession, then ran again in succession several minutes later. Or when a PSA gave way to fill music–which ran for about 20 seconds, then gave way to another PSA.
The WKHX experience made me wonder if what’s best for the listeners to a terrestrial feed is still best when you take Web listening into consideration. Playing 10-in-a-row, then two long stopsets with only one song in between may be the right thing to do when you’re in a battle with a new Country contender, which Kicks is. But I certainly emerged from my day of listening as a proponent of more-and-shorter stopsets (e.g., 3 breaks of four units) as opposed to two longer ones. You really notice those longer sets on the Web when the content isn’t there.
Okay, so here’s the good news overall. The experience I had with WKHX’s stopsets is the experience that, as recently as 4-6 months ago, I would have had with almost any station on the Web. ABC is no likely less cognizant of the need to deal with Web-sets than any other broadcaster; it’s just that everybody is still playing catch-up to some degree. It’s hard for anybody these days to provide 60 minutes of compelling radio per hour, much less 75 minutes across two platforms. But as radio usage continues to evolve, Web-sets are a challenge everybody is going to have to deal with, particularly when other media are offering more chances to forego interruptions altogether.

6 replies
  1. Frank Bell
    Frank Bell says:

    When FROGGY/Pittsburgh began streaming in mid-2006, we attempted to fill the breaks with Hometown Country songs – the best-produced efforts of local country singers and songwriters. Audience response was uniformly positive, though it ultimately became a huge pain in the butt, scheduling-wise, so we stopped it after about six months. We’re working with a new vendor now and hope to bring the local material back online in a couple months.

    Reply
  2. Chris Williams
    Chris Williams says:

    Thanks for including us in your streaming experiment! It is something we are actively working to improve. The addition of music that is in format but not in the current library as well as some fun, novelty, cover songs from the universe of Project 9-6-1 artists is certainly a step toward creating a more enjoyable and unique streaming experience. It also gives the opportunity to generate greater depth for the P1 audience streaming the station and it adds in more occasions for the “oh, wow!” moments we want to provide to our most loyal audience.
    With streaming, the biggest hurdle seems to be learning the best ways to bend the technology to suit our needs. Right now, we are still not as seamless or fluid as we would ideally like to be, but the experience is improving every month as we get a handle on how to get the software to work for us. I hope you get the opportunity to revisit this idea and experiment again in 6 months and see if it the online experience has improved.
    Again, thanks for including us, it was a great to see an objective review of the good and the bad of our current streaming. Thanks for the nod to our “Part of the Project” imaging as well!
    Chris Williams
    Program Director
    Project 9-6-1 (WKLS)
    Atlanta

    Reply
  3. Just a Listener
    Just a Listener says:

    I think KWOD in Sacramento does a great job. They have plenty of stand up comedy bits, local music tracks, worthless facts from the DJs, and other novelty stuff. Sister station KRBZ actually has DJ spots during the stop sets talking about why you’re not hearing commercials and how they think it’s stupid.

    Reply
  4. Mike Eiland
    Mike Eiland says:

    Although part of my responsibilities is PSAs, I would love to be able hear some inventive programming techniques on the Web, and still preserve a generous number of PSAs to serve the public interest for our Web listeners. I don’t yet know how to do it, and I will approach my PDs and engineers about it, but it would be great to do a terrestrial break like this: “George Strait and Rascall Flatts on the way, and if you’re listening on-line at wcol.com, we have the brand new one from Little Texas called ‘Missing Years’ for you next!” Of course, that wouldn’t help in-car listeners at that moment, but will plant a seed that something special is happening online that is not on the air, and will bring a hipness to the terrestrial signal content, that “WE” have something brand new for you (that you might not hear on the air). It might be a matter of the song’s time in accordance with a break. It would take some work but it sounds doable if you have someone on staff dedicated to the streaming approach. In any case, it would be a nice way to showcase music you wouldn’t yet play on the air but still “sound” like you did (could help inflate the terrestrial Arb numbers). You can give lip-service to new music early and still protect your on-air signal playing the bonafide hits. Also good if you have a story on a country artist you don’t play (yet) or a song of theirs and get out of the awkwardness of not playing it by saying “hear it online later this hour…” Just some thoughts after reading all the great stuff here.

    Reply

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