Hell Is Still In the Details: Fixing What’s Between The Records In 2007

More than three years ago, I devoted a column to my list of pet peeves about the way radio stations were produced and executed, with a special emphasis on bad habits that unnecessarily cluttered up a radio station. The list included running produced station promos for the same event that the jock had just taken a minute to talk about, produced promos for things that didn’t require a recorded promo (“call now to vote for the top 8 at 8″); and just the overall amount of time it took to get in and out of stopsets that were already seven minutes long at the time.

Hell Is In the Details: Fixing What Goes In-Between the Records” was one of the best-received Ross On Radio columns ever. Every PD might have had a different list of bugaboos, but they had a list nonetheless. As the industry-wide concerns about clutter and declining listening levels mounted, we finally saw the introduction of Clear Channel’s “Less Is More” initiative, which addressed both stopset length and the amount time it took to get into those commercial breaks. LIM doesn’t get the on-air attention or real-estate it did at the outset, but it has since been augmented by an overall on-air streamlining at most Clear Channel stations that has also kept things moving.

By and large, I felt like most of my issues with the production and assembly of radio stations had gotten a little better over the last few years. But this weekend, I was in a Top 10 market and again heard my least favorite combination: jock frontsells upcoming station event at great length, then plays a produced promo for the same event. And I heard the same radio station do it three times (as many times as I heard them go into a stopset). So I went back to my list to see how things had changed, or not.

Here’s the 2004 list and how programmers are doing in 2007:

  • Recorded promos for things that your jocks have just talked about: Overall, it got a lot better when “Less Is More” reduced the number of sponsor promos, and gave more of the on-air real-estate before stopsets to “Less Is More” itself, at least at the outset. And it’s significant that the station I heard overkilling their upcoming event was not a Clear Channel station. But it can still happen even at a well-respected radio station. After all, we’re not exactly in an environment where event sponsors are willing to accept half the number of promo mentions that they’re used to.
  • Recorded promos for station features that don’t need recorded promos: My concern was wasting the station voice on something that the jock could as easily do. As I noted at the time, I was already hearing a little less of this, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve started letting the jocks do their own job again. In fact, in the post- Bob-and-Jack-FM era, the imaging voice doesn’t just handle the business of the radio station, it tells the jokes, too. That’s disappointing for different reasons, but I can’t say it’s the waste of on-air real-estate that the “call now” promo is. (And with our new on-air austerity, the “call now” promo has often been replaced, for better or worse, by an increased number of drops that are station-name-only.)
  • Music image promos into stopsets: My objection to this was that we spent 30-60 seconds telling people about all the great music that we weren’t going to play for another seven minutes. It rankles less in an era when stopsets are a more bearable length, but I still hear it plenty.

Some of my concerns were about other radio cliches that weren’t necessarily related to pacing:

  • Using “Money” by Pink Floyd and “For the Love Of Money” by the O’Jays in cash contest promos: I heard “For The Love Of Money” just last week. I think I hear these songs less often, but the whole issue was that they were so overused that they were in danger of flying right by without being noticed. So maybe I’m just tuning them out.
  • Using recognizable songs, particularly current hits, as music for unrelated promos or jock beds: This one is still very much among us. And if you’ve seen the level of burn I’ve seen on certain currents recently, you’d stop your jocks from doing it immediately.
  • Jocks who frontsell a song by a new artist with “here’s the latest from…”; Jocks who somehow manage to front-or backsell the oldies, but not the currents: I’ve heard both of these recently, but this one by-and-large seems to be getting better, ironically, perhaps because stations are often deflecting the job of identifying music to the Website or to those little MTV-style song tags.
  • Stations that don’t frontsell any of the brand new music they’re introducing to the market because they launched jockless: Again, the greater availability of this information on the Website or streaming audio player has taken the edge off this one–I don’t find myself Googling lyrics or firing off a song query e-mail to a station’s music director as often.

The upshot is that a lot of radio’s production and formatic issues have gotten better in the last few years, such that when I hear my pet peeves resurface–as they did this weekend–they really stand out. That said, other issues have emerged since then:

  • Talking too much about talking less: This was particularly noticeable around the introduction of “Less Is More.” If it’s less so now, it’s because stations have drifted back to somewhat longer stops and can’t invoke “never more than two [or even three] minutes of commercials” as often.
  • The myriad of issues related to Web stopsets: On too many stations, the streaming stopset is still a melange of half-finished fill-songs, generic hold-button music, station promos–sometimes expired ones, and dire-sounding PSAs–sometimes repeated more than once in a stop. Badly executed Websets make three minute stopsets sound like six and they make the six-minute ones unlistenable.
  • Promos that tell you the commercials are here: The good news is that a lot of radio stations have rediscovered the art of getting into the stopset in just a few seconds’ time. The bad news is that they’re often undoing that goodwill by announcing that spots are coming up. Three years ago, this promo might have been a good way for a Bob- or Jack-FM station to show its irreverence. Now it’s as much of a cliche as any other. More over, I’ve heard at least two recently launched stations run these promos even though they weren’t actually breaking for commercials at the moment.

Okay, that’s my list. Once again, it’s time to hear your list of pet peeves. And your thoughts on whether these or other clutter issues have actually gotten better since the mid-’00s.are welcome as well.

20 replies
  1. Bill Campbell
    Bill Campbell says:

    Right on every count, Sean. Ron Chapman and KVIL had it right 30 years ago:
    * Content over music intros;
    * Get into the spotset before the song fades out;
    * No imaging voice; (Chapman voiced promos and they were excellent);
    * Talent sold the station elements, creatively’
    * Talk only when you have real “content”
    I’m not “living in the past.” The kind of radio KVIL and a few other stations were doing then is exactly what a station that wants to win should be doing, now. And, it works in every format.
    Takes a great PD with coaching skills. Any left?

  2. Don Hallett
    Don Hallett says:

    WWFS, fresh-fm in NYC is doing an interesting thing to identify new titles. They call them “song tags.” On the tail end of the songs they drop in a V/O of artist and title from the station’s voice. When I thought about it, this seems quite smart. Listeners wonder who the artist is and want to know the song title DURING the song, not before it has played.

  3. Greg Williams
    Greg Williams says:

    As a freelance Creative Services Producer, I flinch any time consultants and direction-turners approach the subject of promos and imaging. That’s my stock’n’trade you’re attacking there. But I do agree with the execution ear-aches mentioned above. The Double Promoting and JACK’s snide anti-commercial billboarding drive me up the wall.
    One issue I wish to addressed: creative sweepers to make listening to the radio more enjoyable than your Ipod or CD’s. Give it to me straight, Doc. Is it overly narcissistic for me to want to hear entertaining production elements between the songs I know are going to be played over and over again? And what about the comically heavy ear candy on NewsTalk stations? Are listeners receptive to quick cuts like these, or do they consider it just more clutter (pray, say it’s not so, sire)

  4. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    Great article. It will be posted in the studio before the gang comes in tomorrow morning.
    Also kudos to previous poster “Bill” you made some great points as well.

  5. Kevin Robinson
    Kevin Robinson says:

    Jingles mean music. Not spots – don’t jingle into stopsets. And don’t talk after them. Jingles mean music.
    Tell me something interesting about a song coming up – NOT that it is just coming up. We know country stations play George Strait. What about his latest song hooks me.
    Uptempo jingles and production into ballads. Momentum killer.
    Local Talk Radio – why 30 seconds of bumper music? Are you waiting for a network to re-join? No. Don’t tell your GSM that there’s too many spots when you play several minutes of bumper music per hour.
    OK – done for now!

  6. rick jackson
    rick jackson says:

    I guess this commentary must be useful for most of the industry. I believe it should also serve as a good example as to why the radio industry is stuck.
    Radio is failing to progress because we have forgotten how to create. Our programmers have become so enamored with the science of radio – namely research and administrative process – that we have lost the art and craft. You can include imgaination in there somewhere too. By the mid 1990’s our industry had taken music research and programming science as far as it can go. But we continue to try to process it more and more and now, we’ve lost our way. Instead of creating better programming, we try to create a better process for reviewing our system. No wonder we’re confused.
    There is a simple solution, from my point of view and it involves the idea that art and science must find confluence. I strongly disagree with the Edison Research article. The author, by his own admission, believes we can win through micro management of programming details. It’s simply not true. Perhaps this idea was true a decade or two ago – but that was during an era when we were learning how to apply research. We’ve got it down now and taking it any farther has become more than tedious – it’s dangerous. It isn’t unimportant but in the scheme of things, the devil isn’t going to win with these details. This ideaology isn’t going to change your world and you are still going to have the same 2 share you had last book and last year if you subscribe to the micro management theory.
    What can and will change your world is a new view. What format can you own? If you have a direct competitor, you’re already a loser. Create an exclusive format and focus on people and personalities. Never hire another “jock” and make music secondary to the rest of your offerings. There are many available chocies waiting to be discovered – unless you’re a small minded, micro thinker. We need bigger minds, more imagination and a creative bone or two in the radio business. We also need to recognize that we are slowly losing our monolithic grip on the music world.
    We are wringing the life out of our frequencies folks and it’s time for the consultants and researchers to work more in harmony with the creative visionaries who can still create compelling, engaging, difference-making radio.
    Or you can believe that a better positioning statement, tightly controlled talent and more Matchbox 20 will save the day.
    Rick Jackson

  7. Keith
    Keith says:

    I hate a Kickoff our Top of the Hour jingle into a slow song. I want tempo!!! And, I want to start the set with a tempo song, not some sleepy ballad.

  8. Bill Campbell
    Bill Campbell says:

    Great post, Rick!
    My first post dealt with some simple mechanics, but KVIL Dallas, as an example, was a great content-driven music station with local “magic” in between the songs, all day! Masterful promotion.
    When they took the tolls off the freeway in Dallas, and closed all the toll booths, KVIL went on the air and got jobs, through their airwaves and listeners, for all the toll booth operators who were losing their jobs!
    They did stuff like that all the time. Listen, or you might miss something.
    Nowadays, is anybody in the radio station even listening?
    Rick, your stations make a difference!
    Sean’s post in his blog is insighful, but just the tip of the iceberg…that’s melting!

  9. Mark Vanness
    Mark Vanness says:

    I think it’s sad that radio companies are trying extra hard to increase their large to major-market profile for business’ sake, all the while forgetting that they have the power to effect their own furture by developing talent to fill the shoes of out going pros down the radio road. Why don’t more broadcast companies hang on to a few smaller markets for talent development — minor leagues if you will?
    Radio has gone through the stale phase. We all saw and lived it: business first, creative last. We honestly need to get back to basics and not bottom line and have fun again! Fun! Entertain! Be original! There are formulas that for the most part guide us through the day — but pull the collective cork out of the coporate butt and get back to doing radio! Watch the movie “FM”! I started my career in the mid 80’s when radio was a ball and rules were few. We kicked butt and made a ton of money!
    I’m with Keith: power jingles into ballads at the top of the hour, with a little jock talk opening? Yawn! Ouch! Leave the music alone. Sometimes the intro is the best part! Big balsy station voices? Out. Real human beings with stationality, in!

  10. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Our Readers Have Pet Peeves, Too

    It seemed like a pretty good bet that my list of things that rankle about the production and assembly of today’s radio stations would unearth some of our readers’ own pet peeves, from ballads out of that uptempo top-of-the-hour jingle…

  11. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Part of the problem of creativity between songs has been dashed by slashing of production department budgets. Now it may be one or two production guys in charge of all commercial and imaging for a cluster.
    As to my pet peeves:
    -The entire Jack approach. I have no idea how hearing the same sarcastic, snarky voice between every song and in every stop set wins at the end of the day.
    -Clear Channel’s abandoning of all creativity on some stations and going to dead segs and frequency only ID’s.
    -Mandates of corporate programmers of limiting jocks to 20-30 seconds of talking in a break. If you want to crush any creativity, this is the way to do it. Why would anyone want to be on the air when you can only back sell a song and tease a promo by sending listeners to the website? The next great wave of talent is not coming from 20 second liner card readers.

  12. Jeff Gerstl
    Jeff Gerstl says:

    Very interesting article. When I worked at KDON Monterey in 1986-87 I worked under PD Jeff Hunter aka Terry Steele. (legendary of The Mighty 690/XETRA, KITS San Francisco during the Hot Hits years and KWOD in Sacramento. BTW, last I heard he was in Hawaii. If anyone knows his whereabouts please e-mail me directly!) One point he drove home to young 17 year old jock Jeff was “never ever mention the word ‘commercial’ on the air or ever talk about ad breaks.” Yet years later I was hearing jocks and liners promoting “zero COMMERCIAL hours” and “more music less COMMERCIALS” which always unnerved me.
    Another thing that bothers me (and I am even hearing these in large markets now) is going directly from a song to a spot with nothing bridging them. I don’t necessarily mind a station promo or voice rather than the jock (although it usually indicates to me they are about to go to stopsets) but it seems so hokey and small-town, like the station was unsure what to do next. In the ’80s and ’90s I always laughed at small town automated and satellite operations that would play a song, a stopset, and more songs without so much as an ID or interruption. Obviously ratings and driving the station name home didn’t matter when it was Paso Robles or St. George. The music was just something to keep the station on the air and going.

  13. John Wilbur
    John Wilbur says:

    Love Rick Jackson’s comments! Rick, how can I get in touch with you? Secondly, we should all remember the article is coming from a research company. Research companies have taken over the radio industry with their misguided suggestions. I’m on the air at CC and about every 3 months, I have a PD or RVP telling me to do radio in a new way. Usually the new way is just an old way that the research has told them is the way to go.

  14. FRED.NL
    FRED.NL says:

    Research companies are the nail in the coffin of powerful and creative radio! Stop talking about small things nobody cares about. Radio is about feeling it! The personalities, the music, the fun! Let talent run free with content that triggers the the people listening to the radio! Quit with the 20 sec max. talks: make it your show with the hits and sometimes a fun record that makes you stand out from all the f’n voice tracked, emotionless CC bullshit stations. When you rule the airwaves nobody cares about with way you go in and out of spot-sets.

  15. M䴴
    M䴴 says:

    Some good thoughts in the article and follow-ups. Some of mine…
    Creativity is great and risk-taking propels a business, but that’s the key word: business. Radio is a business, and while the ’80s might’ve been some fantastic radio time for programming people, it wasn’t really an outstanding time for business.
    As it relates to that, the listeners’ environment now is different from “the good old days.” With so many on-demand media availabilities, we have to identify what radio is good at in relation to those other options. Radio can’t be like it was because the listener doesn’t want that. This is where research comes in handy. Use research, but don’t let it overwhelm you.
    What’s wrong with dead segues? What’s wrong with branding your station with just a frequency? Especially with PPM expanding, we don’t need to continually hammer listeners with our station names to achieve that top-of-mind awareness. They find that annoying. A lot of listeners couldn’t even tell you their favorite station’s name, even though they’re considered a P1 — they could only tell you the frequency, car radio pre-set number, or some mixed-up abomination of the station’s actual name.
    When I’m on the air, I try and ask myself continually, “Does the listener care about this, or why should they care?” If I answer “no” and “I don’t know,” I’m doing something wrong. The focus should be on THEM, not on US.
    Those are my top-of-mind comments. But maybe I’m just a 26 year-old kid who doesn’t know anything about the business or today’s audience.

  16. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    It’s easy to rile up a crowd about research and its impact on today’s radio. Research, real or imagined, sometimes gets thrown at air talent when Program Directors either haven’t established the authority to make their point any other way, or when jocks don’t have the professionalism to accept it unless it comes from a third-party. So it’s natural that there might be some resentment there.
    Formatics are also an easy target. To be clear, I don’t see them as a substitute for great talent, music or stationality. But when the stationality is great, there’s usually great execution behind it. Think of it as cinematography or editing: They’re not what bring people to the movies. But when they’re good, they help make a film great. And when they’re wrong, the content has to be pretty terrific otherwise to withstand them. And the time that many radio junkies would gladly go back to is indeed a time when much more attention was paid to execution.
    And here’s something to ponder: What if the problems in today’s radio were not the result of too much research, but too little? I’ll elaborate on that one shortly.

  17. Charles Everett
    Charles Everett says:

    Recorded promos for things that your jocks have just talked about:
    It’s not just in music radio. Last Sunday morning I was listening to WFAN New York. The 20/20 Sports Flash at 8:40 AM leads with that day’s Giants football game, then a mention of that night’s Chargers-Colts game. At the end of the Sports Flash there’s a recorded promo for … that day’s Giants football game and that night’s Chargers-Colts game.
    This is on a format pioneer with engineers on duty 24/7!

  18. Jeff Bennett
    Jeff Bennett says:

    Great Article! Here’s another one for your list. Staging beds. You know the looped 6 drum beats or same 12 notes that play to infinity under some canned jock rap. In most cases, minus the bed, the rap is not even capable of standing on its own. Time to lose the ’80s CHR crutch!

  19. Dave
    Dave says:

    Like many of you, I’m out here doing this, and unfortunately this is the world we’re working in today. I’m just a jock, I have no say in any programming or formatics, and that’s cool. I wouldn’t want the pressure. That being said, I was brought up outside New York with the jocks on WABC, ‘NBC and Z100: all those jocks could do anything in 20 seconds and it would kill. If this is what we do for a living, do it in the 20 seconds they want, and make it kick ass.

  20. Greg
    Greg says:

    There are many great comments posted above. As a person who has worked many years on both sides of the industry, on-air/programming & sales management, it’s a tough business now. Most of the large companies are publicly-owned or privately held by investment firms (CC soon). It’s about the bottom line and that won’t be changing anytime soon.
    I currently travel a great deal with my present job and this allows me to listen to radio stations in many markets of from major to small.
    As far as jock talk is concerned, I hear too little of it. Now CC has their personalities pushing the website in every break going into a stopset. If I’m in my car listening, I can’t go to the website now and I find the constant reminders very annoying. I agree with Sean and previous posters, that hearing a jock promote a station event which is immediately followed by the recorded promo for the same thing has to be a major tune-out. I still hear it occuring in many markets.
    Come on guys, let’s use our heads and get back to entertaining our audience. They don’t mind hearing us talk about what’s happening if it’s relevant and not redundant.


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