Winning Vs. Losing: It’s The People . . . But It’s More

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.

7 replies
  1. Bob Wood
    Bob Wood says:

    I believe that, as (hopefully) from talent, we place way too much emphasis on talent (as in ON AIR) except for maybe the morning show – in this sense – that a bad or average talent will hurt you more than a great one will help. They simply don’t stand out, are cliches, cardboard cutouts, announcers, and as such reinforce that stereotype. Sadly, great ones are too few.

  2. Gary Begin
    Gary Begin says:

    As a programming consultant I’ve found that it’s often very difficult to get adults to move outside their “comfort-zone.” When you ask an adult to change radio stations or change listening habits, the first question that comes to mind to the listener is; “What’s in-it for me?”
    You must develop and sell that compelling reason to the listener before any long-term listening habits are changed. The listener must preceive a benefit to changing their habits or it won’t happen!
    There isn’t such a thing as a “no-win” situation.
    It becomes a “no-win” when we’re not able to give it the attention or money it needs to see real change.

  3. Tim Byrd "The Byrdman"
    Tim Byrd "The Byrdman" says:

    As always you make good points. Let’s be real, how many REAL programmers are there left in this messed up business. I venture to say…maybe a handful, if that. You know the deal. It is all corporate, with no real decision maker in the PD or even a lot of cases in the GM position. So, it really doesn’t add up to much in this day and age to even address a pd, because in most cases, they are just glorified babaysitters, and schedule makers. I respect you immensely…just thought i would add a touch of reality. It is all food for thought.
    Submitted Respectfully.
    Tim Byrd

  4. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Sean – You miss one important point that defines winning – ARBITRON. I’ve worked with more than one station that is knocking off consecutive successful ratings periods only to find themselves on a sudden roller coaster. Are we winning or losing or winning or losing. You get the picture.

  5. George Johns
    George Johns says:

    Sean, I think it’s the premise! What kind of radio station is it, and who do you hope will use it? The people follow that.
    I think radio stations are like restaurants. If you have the worlds best Italian Restaurant and you decide to serve the worlds best Chinese food also, you’ll be bankrupt shortly.
    I hear this on the air all the time!
    Geo. Johns

  6. Doug Daniels
    Doug Daniels says:

    Good stuff…as always. Bottomline is you simply can’t account for idiocy, which is usually wrapped in suffocating layers of bravado and ego. There is nothing more dangerous than when ONE person with POWER and a BAD idea gets one additional person with power to agree that his bad idea, is a good idea! We see it in Washington, we see it in radio, and just about everywhere else. Funny thing is…they never ASK the listener…not directly. They do research to try to find a “hole”. Maybe the reason there is a hole in the first place is because the listeners simply don’t WANT to fill that hole with their time and attention. A great Thai restaurant in a town that doesn’t want/need a Thai restaurant isn’t going to stay open for long. Same with radio. Programming isn’t that hard. Give the people what they want/need…and LOVE them…LOVE them…LOVE them! (if your station is formatically structured where it is hard to show your listeners love…change the structure…now!)

  7. Lou P.
    Lou P. says:

    I agree strongly with your thoughts about the importance of an ownership group’s willingness to program outside of its comfort zone. The more options you have as a programmer, the more opportunities you have to be a long-term success in meeting the needs and demands of a given market. As such, companies with the capacity to program in multiple languages (i.e. English and Spanish) and to not be limited by ideology or a narrow outlook on formats will be stronger in the long-run.


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