What CC’s Spotload Initiative Means For You

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Several years ago, when Cox’s radio stations began imaging heavily around playing at least “50 minutes of music” each hour, I remember thinking that it hadn’t been so long since 50 minutes of music would not have seemed exceptional. Anybody who’s been in the business since the early ‘90s can remember when two three minute stopsets an hour outside of morning drive were ideal, two four minute breaks were typical, and two five minute breaks were where PDs started to get a little nervous about spot load.

But we’re coming from a much different place these days. So for most of its stations, Clear Channel’s just announced spot reduction initiative will represent a significant change. Effective next January, CC music stations will run a maximum of 10 minutes of spots per hour from 10 a.m. to midnight on their music formats and 15 minutes at News/Talk.

Some thoughts on what the Clear Channel initiative means for stations, CC-owned or otherwise:

Being able to credibly image around more music is always a good thing, but it’s only the first step for any station. Cox’s stations are most likely better off for having publicly committed to fewer spots, but they have tracked up and down like everybody else’s, even though most of them hit the music quantity imagery hard. A few Cox stations, such as KKBQ (93Q) Houston and WPYM (Party 93.1) Miami have pounded their rivals on that front, but the ratings suggest that it’s easier to hurt a competitor that way than to make your own station huge. If you’re a mainstream CHR, fewer spots won’t give you more viable pop product. If you’re Oldies, cutting the spot load won’t make the demos younger. And if you’re Howard Stern, you’re doing just fine with a high spot load at the moment.

Being able to credibly image around more music is harder than ever. Listeners are still recovering from those music quantity battles of a decade ago where stations had to make “in-a-row” promises that they couldn’t consistently keep. Those were followed by more generic commitments—“here comes another long music sweep”—that were more believable but had less impact. Stations are going to have to find ways to communicate the more music message on the air that listeners believe. And they’re going to have to find a way to be “new and improved” without making listeners think they were old and lousy before.

Creativity will make a difference. Rhythmic Top 40 WRDW (Wired 96.5) Philadelphia is imaging around only one stopset an hour, but what really cuts through is the promos built around consultant Jerry Clifton’s faux-Hawaiianism “nottalottatalka.” And even before the Clear Channel announcement, one already had a greater sense of stations looking for ways to draw attention to “more music,” such as imaging around shorter stopsets.

January is still two ratings books away. It’s hard to cut spot loads now when you’ve got political ad season and holiday advertising coming up. And a lot of stations are planning to run all-Christmas formats and those do transcend spotload. But if you’re lucky enough to already have a lower spot load story, you should be telling it on the air now and taking advantage of the national publicity this story has created. In January, you’ll be competing with all those other electronic toys, whether iPod, Xbox, or satellite radio, which listeners have gotten over the holidays.

Being able to credibly image around more music is always a good thing, but it’s only the first step for any station.

For years, the notion of being able to sell fewer commercials and charge more for them has been one of those concepts that was so perfectly sensible that, of course, it could never happen. Even in the days before consolidation, it took only one operator in a market willing to sell “dollar-a-holler” spots to destroy everybody’s rate integrity. While one would like to see more operators follow Cox and CC’s lead, the industry may benefit in listeners’ minds regardless. One colleague, pondering why spot load hasn’t yet become a more exploitable issue for more stations suggests that there’s a listener perception of clutter as an industry problem that individual stations cannot transcend. Fair or not, CC epitomizes today’s radio to some listeners. So maybe the consumer press publicity that’s accompanying this announcement will create a perception of fewer spots overall.

All of which leads back to a need for all radio stations to tell all their stories better—not just those related to spot load. In recent years, radio has been more aggressive than ever about addressing other longstanding complaints, from variety to repetition. Those moves often don’t translate to the consumer press where there’s still often a view of operators as determined to do the worst, lowest common denominator radio possible. Within hours of its announcement, the CC spot load announcement had given radio another opportunity to address the public again. And it’s given more than 1,000 broadcasters the chance to worry less about making their stations listenable and turn to making their stations compelling.

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.