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Increasing Broadcast Radio’s Share Of Ear

Edison Research’s finding that broadcast radio controls 52% of the just-over four hours that the average listener spends with all sources of audio cannot be trended. Edison’s new Share of Ear study is a unique first-time look at listening to all media, from music on cable TV to satellite radio to listeners’ own music collections. And part of the impetus for undertaking the study was that this information did not exist elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean people won’t try to trend the 52% number. Many will look at broadcast radio’s one-time cultural dominance, shrinking TSL, and the indifference of their own 16-year-old offspring, and conclude the number must be down. Other broadcasters will maintain that the remaining 48% number isn’t far larger than it once would have been, but merely redistributed with new measured sources of audio replacing the unmeasured “listening to ‘Who’s Next’ in your dorm room,” as Cumulus’ Lew Dickey recently put it.But what if broadcasters ask instead how this number could be higher? Broadcast radio finds itself in the same place as major-network television, likely diminished but still controlling a bigger single piece than any of its competition. A lot of broadcasters’ mental energy goes into spinning numbers like this that are just big enough to brag about. But there are concrete steps that could at least nudge this number forward.

Radio broadcasters are still, in many cases, focused on the PPM-era micro-management of potential interruptions. Even when that’s effective, it only addresses the listening for broadcast radio that remains, rather than addressing larger issues. But even for those with a worldview that begins with “let them punch away once …” and ends with “…and you lose the month,” most of the suggestions here would make stations more effective as well.

Fix the Spotload Issue: When Entercom’s Alternative KNDD (The End) Seattle announced its new policy of “half the commercials” and two-minute commercial breaks, it took on the burden of being the entire industry’s proving ground for something that many broadcasters do not want to do. It is frightening to drastically reduce spotload, despite increasing evidence that 14 minutes an hour will just not be an acceptable way to listen to music going forward. Even redistributing a slightly lighter load across an increased number of breaks goes against the current PPM dogma where any interruption is viewed as a provocation that will send listeners scurrying away from your station for weeks on end.

When some broadcasters weighed in against the notion of more-but-shorter-breaks a few weeks ago,  this discussion was safely in the realm of the theoretical, or at least based on PPM evidence from several years ago before Pandora reset listeners expectations with multiple interruptions of an occasional :15 or :30 spot.

The End has a big job: competing both in PPM with more traditionally structured rivals, and competing on the Infinite Dial against other ways to hear continuous music. But shame on anybody who roots against this working, especially if they’re not offering bold decisive action on the spotload issue themselves. That problem isn’t fixed until we find something that works.

Embrace The Truth: When broadcasters finally take bold across-the-board action on spotload, they are in danger of not being believed. Radio often plays fast-and-loose with the term “commercial free.” The two 23-minute music sweeps bookended by seven minutes of commercials are often punctuated by “commercial free” stagers, or sometimes teased with one as a station goes into commercials. At this point, it seems that any station can be ‘commercial free’ at any moment when they are not playing commercials. Existing “more music” promises also often carry an asterisk: “after 10 a.m.” or “at least three times a day.”

Don’t feel the music war is still winnable? Rather focus on radio’s “live and local” strengths? The good news is that “live and local” is increasingly potent with listeners — no longer the claim made only by the competing station that has to live without the big syndicated show. But radio is starting to throw that one around carelessly as well, plugging it in on the local daypart or two that punctuates syndication and voice-tracking. I’ve also heard it used, incredibly, on syndicated shows.

The precautionary tale here is the use of “variety.” In the years before the Adult Hits boom of Bob- and Jack-FMs, broadcasters found variety something more useful to talk about than to do. After the Adult Hits format, the “all-request lunch” and other such attempts at faux-variety no longer seemed credible in any way. Broadcasters still have a potent weapon in “live and local” and those willing to address spotload have two weapons. It is perhaps too much to expect that those unwilling to commit to actually delivering those things don’t make listeners glaze over with specious claims.

Fix the Streaming Experience: Broadcasters have changed the streaming experience of their AM/FM radio stations over the last 5-7 years, but few have truly improved it. Most typically, a small number of hardsell and downer PSAs have been replaced by a small number of heavily repeated artist features. And as a problem that predates the dawn of Pandora as a major competitor, it is remarkable that the stopset issue hasn’t been effectively dealt with yet.

The same broadcasters who are most freaked out by the prospect of an extra interruption each hour – – the “lose the quarter-hour . . . ” people – – are less concerned, seemingly, about seven minute stretches when their stations are often unlistenable. Broadcasters are always in search of the next eight minute listening occasion, but seemingly unconcerned about the impact on their stations at work, at a time when radio and audio orders are taken in much longer chunks.

Talk About Talk: Many broadcasters have pinned their hopes on spoken word programming, but that franchise is diminished and not promised to AM/FM radio either. With a 1.7% share of ear, podcasting isn’t top of mind for most broadcasters when discussing Talk radio’s recent travails, but I’ve just come from a holiday barbecue where 35-plus men, who might have discussed NPR a few years ago, instead compared notes on podcasts. Interestingly, several in the group were willing to listen to podcasts with opposing political viewpoints because they were thought-provoking, a functionality that has long disappeared with broadcast talk radio. And when one considers how the 4-share talk powerhouses of a few years ago have become 2.5 share stations, that 1.7% number suddenly looks more than coincidental.

Engage Everywhere: Broadcasters finally understand the potential danger of AM/FM radio being hard-to-find or the least novel option in the connected car. It’s a major battleground, but not the only one. The battle is also for the desktop and the bedside table. Even for those programmers only looking as far ahead as the next eight minute occasion, the odds are better if there are more places where listening can occur.

Market, Damn It!: We had a recent discussion with a major-market broadcaster about the FM station in his market that has suddenly appeared on TV in response to a few bad PPM weeklies. What if lost TSL for an entire medium were as compelling an argument to market as a potentially fluky loss of remaining listening? How can broadcast radio engage everywhere if it does not make itself part of the consideration set at all times?

Expand The Sights: The 52% number includes listening to the simulcasts of AM/FM radio stations on other platforms. It doesn’t include the efforts of broadcasters to capture share of ear with non-broadcast-products. Those efforts are a relative handful – – iHeart Radio’s user-generated stations; NPR Music’s “All Songs Considered”; Journal Radio Milwaukee’s Radio League app- – and not concerted enough efforts to represent any significant portion of the Share of Ear measurement for other categories. If broadcasters were their own competition, the competition’s inroads wouldn’t rankle as much.

With Classic Rock’s growing all-ages appeal, the “Who’s Next ” album is still listened to in some dorm rooms and most of its titles could easily be kickers in some consumer press story about broadcast radio today: “Bargain”; “Love Ain’t For Keeping”; “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; and, cheating slightly on “Baba O’Riley,” “Teenage Wasteland.” Whether the next story is headlined “Going Mobile” or “The Song Is Over” is not out of radio’s hands. Unless broadcast radio throws its hands up.

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