Hell Is In the Details: Fixing What Goes In-Between The Records

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

For the last decade, programmers have had it drilled into them that what matters is no longer the records but what’s between them. But today’s programmers aren’t given a lot of time or encouragement to give “what goes between the records” enough care and feeding. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of pet peeves about the way stations are produced and executed. Some of them will undoubtedly strike you as a little too inside—particularly if you’ve got real fires to put out today. But at least one or two will likely resonate. And you’ll undoubtedly have some of your own to share.

If we’re trying to get that six minute stopset over with as soon as possible, why are we still hearing a 30-second liner card, read verbatim, for a station event, followed by a promo for the same event or promotion?

A lot of my production issues relate to the ways programmers unwittingly clutter up their own stations. In a world of six-minute stopsets that many programmers are compelled to live with, there are other places where PDs could tighten if they were vigilant, such as:

  • Recorded promos for things that your jocks have just talked about. If we’re trying to get that six minute stopset over with as soon as possible, why are we still hearing a 30-second liner card, read verbatim, for a station event, followed by a promo for the same event or promotion? The answer is often that the continuity department schedules one and the APD another. And it’s easier to give a sponsor their mention as a written-out liner in a fixed location, as opposed to relying on a jock to sell it in their own words somewhere else in the course of an hour. But giving a sponsor, say, 30 live promos and 30 recorded promos, then having them cancel each other out this way isn’t doing the client any favors either.

  • Recorded promos for station features that don’t need recorded promos. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, we fell in love with having the imaging voice do the things that we no longer trusted the air talent to do. Suddenly there was a recorded promo giving the request line number. Programmers have gotten better on that score, but I’m still hearing generic 30-second recorded promos for the “Top 7 at 7” at 6 p.m. that don’t mention any songs in the Top 7 at 7 and don’t say anything the jock can’t say over an intro (e.g., “call now.”). Again, with all we’re asking listeners to sit through already, promo inventory ought to be for something major. And using the imaging voice on features lessens its effectiveness on major promotions.

  • Music image promos into stopsets. I’m from the generation that still liked promos at the end of a stopset—nothing had quite as much impact as a great promo into a great song that made a statement about the radio station. PDs have long stopped expecting that listeners will be around at the end of a stopset. (The last station I heard trying to put a promo there was WHYI [Y100] Miami in the late ‘90s.) But even if you never subscribed to the ‘70s axiom that listeners who hear your call letters right before spots will associate your station with commercials, having a music image or music quantity promo before six minutes of spots still seems like a cruel tease. And a gratuitous use of a promo.

Not all my production pet peeves relate to flow issues:

  • Using “Money” by Pink Floyd or “For The Love Of Money” by the O’Jays in cash contest promos. My objection isn’t just the clichés they’ve become after more than 30 years. It’s that they’re so overused that I’m not sure where I’ve heard them last. So how effective can any promo using them be?
    Using recognizable songs as promo or jock beds. It took years, but program directors finally taught their production directors to “respect the music” and not destroy the value of current hit songs by using them for tossed-off local retail spots. Now, I’m starting to hear a lot of jock bits and phone calls over recognizable intros, or, just as often, huge songs from adjacent formats that a station doesn’t want to play (yet). Does it trick a listener into thinking you’re going to play another song before those six minutes of spots? Once or twice, perhaps. Are there listeners out there going, “Hey, it really sounds great to hear the first 10 seconds of my favorite current hip-hop hit looped. In fact, I don’t mind that this station isn’t really playing it”? Hard to imagine.

And a few jock-related housekeeping issues:

  • Jocks who frontsell a song by a brand new artist with “here’s the latest from…”
    Jocks who somehow manage to frontsell the gold on your station, but not the currents. I do, to be fair, hear some stations where PDs have managed to schedule their currents so that they are both front- and backsold. But those are the exceptions. Just as often, a station is clocked so that the jocks feed into listeners’ No. 1 pet peeve—not knowing what the songs are. Giving your air-staff some flexibility to move elements (so that the stager goes next to “Friends In Low Places” instead of over the intro to the new song) is one solution.

  • Stations that don’t frontsell any of the brand new music they’re introducing to the market because they’ve signed on jockless, perhaps a column unto itself. Because jockless launches have been the norm since the late ‘80s, we’ve gotten used to them. But there’s still the whole bait-and-switch issue: getting listeners used to a lean, mean music machine that will go away after the first 10,000 songs. And there’s nobody besides the imaging voice to explain to listeners how to use the station Robert Unmacht of iN3 Partners first made this analogy during the days of the “build your own station” launch: “Welcome to the new Home Depot. As you walk through our empty store, we’re taking your suggestions for what you’d like to see on our shelves.”

Bringing up any of these issues will undoubtedly be like waving a red flag for some programmers, who believe that “what goes between the records” should involve the care-and-feeding of their air staff, not a lot of formatic minutiae. Well, the more you can do to keep your station flowing, the better the structure in which your talent can entertain. And even though the only listener who notices, say, a really great recorded promo being followed by a record that fades in (thus creating the illusion of dead air) is likely to be another programmer, it’s also true that the aforementioned Home Depot folks are doubtless aware of many little niceties of the retail environment that you and I don’t notice. We only know that we started going there and not to our local hardware dealer. In an era where there are finally other choices and tangible dissatisfaction with radio, we need to tend to our retail experience as well.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.