What separates winning stations from losing stations?
When you get a question like that from a potential client — and we did recently — you know there is supposed to be only one correct answer. Saying anything other than, “It’s the people” is not unlike Sandra Bullock’s beauty contestant in “Miss Congeniality” failing to offer up “world peace” as the world’s most important issue on cue.
Now, while nobody here would dispute the importance of the right people, it does deserve a little qualification. Programming history shows us that no programmer wins in every situation — even when they can bring most of their team with them. Looking at the most influential programmers of any given time, none of them won at every station indefinitely. And in the post-deregulation era of rapid station growth, there was no longer any one owner whose arrival invariably struck fear in a market — even winning groups didn’t win every time.
There are, in particular, certain circumstances in which stations win and others in which it’s very hard to do well, no matter how good your team is.
There are, in particular, certain circumstances in which stations win and others in which it’s very hard to do well, no matter how good your team is. Often it’s possible to sort winning stations from losers by whether there was a need in the market for what they were offering. And if that seems only a little less obvious than the need for “world peace,” there have nevertheless been plenty of Jammin’ Oldies stations in markets where pop listeners never loved those songs as currents, or Triple-A stations in hard-rocking shot-and-a-beer markets where the right audience just didn’t exist.
A second characteristic of winning stations is the ability to control a broad coalition of listeners. Winning stations are often lucky enough to be in a market where one key player is missing — they’re a Modern AC not flanked by a Mainstream Top 40 or an Alternative station; a Mainstream Rocker not fragmented by Active and Alternative; a Rhythmic Top 40 without an Urban rival and not yet flanked by a Reggaeton station. Sometimes coalition stations have walked in with a body of music that transcends several traditional audiences and creates a coalition; more often, the market hands them a broader opportunity.
The flipside is that there are certain circumstances in which it is almost impossible to look smart. If you are programming one of those coalition stations and somebody aims a new competitor at half of your audience, it’s very hard to do anything other than swallow hard and decide which half of the audience to defend. The well-programmed adult-leaning Top 40s WSTR (Star 94) Atlanta and WAPE Jacksonville, Fla., each handled new young-end competitors differently in the late ’90s. Star stayed the course; WAPE went younger. Both were still holding the biggest piece of their coalition when the smoke cleared but neither could avoid being fragmented.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take new competition for a coalition to fragment. No matter how successfully you’ve made a transition from Top 40 to Hot AC, or from ’60s Oldies to ’70s Classic Hits, you will probably follow a great up book in which the old listeners stay put for a while and are joined by new ones with a sharply down book when the old listeners finally realize the new station is no longer as perfect for them.
But here’s where it does come down to people again. Even in “can’t win” situations, there are certain ways in which good programmers react:
- They make the decision at the right time and stick with it. The programming annals are full of stations that swore they wouldn’t change anything when they got new competition then got the first bad numbers back and changed everything. In doing so, they usually managed to alienate the people who chose their station and chase after those who had left for a reason. The time to roll over and try to pre-empt a competitor is right away, or not at all.
- They can achieve the level of egolessness necessary to assess new competition on the first day and not say, “We’re not going to flatter them by changing anything.” They can acknowledge that what worked in Philadelphia is not necessarily going to work in Baltimore — even if owners in Baltimore want what worked in Philly. And they can let the people in Philly tell them why the markets are different.
- Finally, there’s a willingness to make decisions that serve the listeners instead of their own comfort zone. Many of the owners who found success in R&B/Hip-Hop and Top 40 formats in the mid-’90s would never have gone there if those stations hadn’t somehow ended up in their portfolio during the massive station trading of that era. But often the ability to win in multiple markets is based on not doing the thing you do well in all of them.
And, again, in certain “no win” situations, the best these programmers can do is to keep their team motivated and choose the right half of the franchise until a war of attrition ends, sometimes in nine months, more often two or three years later. When that happens, the same programmers will suddenly look as smart as they did before the new competitor came along.