by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
For the last decade or so, I’ve felt about comic strips the way that some listeners undoubtedly feel about radio. I still enjoy the handful of funnies that I follow, but I’m not motivated to seek them out every day. When New Jersey’s statewide paper, the Star-Ledger, opened its latest revision of the comic pages up to readers, I took notice, but I didn’t feel the need to weigh in, or call the request line as it were.
But 3,000 readers either did feel the need to send an e-mail or letter. And on Oct. 2, the Star-Ledger went public with its decision and the feedback, announcing not only which seven strips it was adding and dropping, but also summarizing both editors’ and readers’ reactions to every single comic strip in the paper-those that stayed and those that didn’t.
The columns made me wonder if there might be some advantage in making radio’s music selection more transparent to listeners.
Even in an age where recent journalism scandals have prompted more ombudsman columns and more frequent public self-examination in the daily press, the Star-Ledger articles were two of the most fascinating I’ve encountered in a long time, both because of their candor and because of the parallels to radio. And the columns made me wonder if there might be some advantage in making radio’s music selection more transparent to listeners.
Like many program directors and the records they choose, the Star-Ledger came out of the process determined to stick with those strips that were active, not passive. The Star-Ledger’s Kathleen O’Brien quoted a reader who advised, “Note which strips get no mention either way (good or bad); they might be replaced without anyone knowing or caring.”
O’Brien added that the paper had determined to look for “strength. That means we’re keeping the strips that a lot of people love, even if an equal number of readers hate them.” As with radio, that was often easier said than done. The “clear favorite across all ages” was the amiable, but not so flashy “Zits.” About another strip, the paper wrote, “Hardly anyone actively dislikes it.”
Radio has records that stay on the playlist because they’re the only recent representation of a certain sound. The Star-Ledger had “Broom Hilda” (“a one-of-a-kind strip that plows a unique field. Would be hard to replace with anything comparable”), “Hagar the Horrible” (“Were we to cut it, we doubt that we could find another Viking-based strip to take its place”) and “Nest Heads” (speaks to a special slice of life not represented in other strips).” As O’Brien wrote, “There’s something for everybody and we want to keep it that way. Therefore, we’ll be substituting like for like to maintain that mix.”
And yet some strips that a casual reader like the author might still regard as big names, Cathy,” “Garfield,” and “Marvin” among them, went away. Strips that were no longer written or drawn by their creator were also an issue. So even though one correspondent said of “Momma,” “I feel a tad guilty reading a strip where I actively wish the title character would die,” the involvement of original creator Mell Lazarus still mattered.
Some other inside glimpses of the comics debate:
- “Andy Capp”: “Even its fans would admit that this is a one-joke strip that wrings humor out of alcoholism, unemployment, and, as one reader put it, ‘off-panel violence.’ They know that, and yet they still love it. Call it a guilty pleasure.”
- “Dilbert”: “Despite complaints it has become a little stale, it remains the go-to strip for workplace humor.”
- “Family Circle”: One reader asked, “Can we please move this strip to someone’s church bulletin pages? What decade are they supposed to be living in?” Another wrote that the strip “induces diabetic coma.”
- “For Better or For Worse”: “This quiet Canadian strip has a deep, deep following of devoted readers. Artist Lynne Johnston is expected to retire in the next few years, and the strip’s disappearance then will be hard enough on its fans.”
- “The Lockhorns”: “It distresses us to think that so many readers relish this go-nowhere depiction of an unrelentingly nasty marriage, but ours is not to reason why. We concede that in its own way, it scores a bull’s eye every time.”
The Star-Ledger articles were, in many ways, like sitting in on a radio station’s music meeting. In fact, some of what gave it so much weight for me is the knowledge that it’s hard to imagine the inside logic of radio station music decisions ever being shared quite so candidly with listeners. Even if you believe that the recent disclosures in New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer’s settlement with Sony BMG either exaggerated or ended the horse trading aspect of the promotion process, many PDs would doubtless feel that sharing even the best-intentioned music decision would give the competition too much information. It’s not like most daily newspapers have direct, in-market competition.
Yet, this might be a good time to give the audience at least a glimpse of a station’s music process. We don’t know just how tarnished, if at all, radio became after July’s post-Spitzer flurry of press stories (some of which all but said, “if you don’t like what’s on the radio, blame payola”). But even one Star-Ledger reader suggested that only payola could be keeping “Prince Valiant” on the funnies page after all these years. But we do know that radio has lost its hegemony, if not its lead, as the place where listeners discover new music. After the Star-Ledger articles, I went back and read every single comic in the Sunday paper for the first time in years. It would be nice to reignite listeners’ passion for new music in a similar way.
Some program directors are more democratic in soliciting feedback than others. Many stations have listener advisory boards. More PDs go down the hall looking for non-programming staffers to invite in to the music meeting, if only because it’s often the only way to add a female viewpoint. And the number of stations utilizing on-line callout has made the process more familiar to a station’s biggest fans, not just those randomly dialed.
But little of this outreach has made its way on to the air. Stations’ new music promos have extended the time it takes to say, “Here’s the latest from…,” but they often give little actual info on what a record is, much less what it’s doing there. It would be interesting to hear the PD or MD on the air again to set up a new title-and not just the galvanizing reaction record that comes along once a year and needs to be set up. Or to see a weekly blurb on either the Website or a listener e-mail blast that gives more than artist bio information on new adds.
Radio stations have also never tried to turn those listeners who are discovering new music from other sources into an advantage. Most PDs dread the listener calls that begin with, “Dude, why aren’t you playing ________?” But maybe they should be used to set up some of those records on the air. After all, it’s not just once-obscure rock bands that come to radio’s attention from listeners; “The Look” by Roxette came from a listener as well.
There might also be something to be said, in the wake of the Spitzer settlement, for publicly declaring a station’s music policy on the air. Those of us who grew up in the era of printed station surveys remember those disclaimers at the bottom about “sales, requests and the judgment of the programming staff.” If your station is making its programming decisions for the right reasons, why not remind listeners of that and show them how?
Print publications face a lot of the same challenges as radio-a diminished, if still substantial, audience, new technology, and a new generation of users for whom both media hold less sway. Like radio, it has recently undertaken an institutional ad campaign to publicly address its perception of declining influence. And yet, the Star-Ledger articles demonstrate that the best way to remind users of your place in their lives is to find out what aspect of programming still generates the most passion and to make them a part of it.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming. 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.