Nearly eighteen months ago, with most major broadcasters finally streaming the bulk of their stations again, we took a look at how they were handling the next challenge – Web stream stopset insertion. At the time, Web-stops were a morass of hard-sell PSAs, fill music that would be unbearable for 30 seconds on a hold button, and, sometimes, just silence. One might choose the stream from the ‘station that picks you up and makes you feel good’, but it would be punctuated with frequent visits from McGruff the Crime Dog and reminders that your pre-teen might already have a drinking problem.
In February, 2007, Edison monitored an hour of programming from five of Atlanta’s major group broadcasters, with an ear on how well they were filling their Web-stops. The good news then was that you could hear a certain number of Web units filled with either paid spots or full-length songs (as opposed to looped fill music). In a fairly sophisticated market for streaming, none of the stopsets were entirely untended. But there were also repeating spots, plenty of PSAs, long stopsets in which the repetition became particularly noticeable, and a lot of clunky transitions.
What inspired a return to Atlanta’s Web-stops was, as it happens, a good streaming experience with a non-group broadcaster. A few weeks ago, I heard a particularly well-assembled hour of WBEB (B101) Philadelphia in which the Web-stops were covered with fill songs; the only hint that one was hearing Web-only songs was a lack of the song tags that B101 uses at the end of its over-the-air music. Fill songs aren’t the ideal solution for Web insertion. That would be either resolving the AFTRA issues or selling enough Web-only spots to avoid gaping holes. But it was still devoid of the clunkiness of so much else that is encountered in Web streaming. (It was also a particularly good sounding stream as well.)
This time, we ended up listening to seven Atlanta radio stations over the course of several days. And we can report genuine progress on some stations, although no seamless experiences on the order of our B101 listening. There are more spots in evidence this time, and more of them coordinated with display ads on the streaming media player; none of the stations we listened to is without any paid advertising on the stream. But there are still plenty of PSAs and lots of repetition. And some of the sync issues we heard nearly a year-and-a-half ago are still very much in evidence.
Here’s a rundown of the stations and the progress they’ve made since February, 2007:
WVEE (V103) (CBS)
Then: The R&B market powerhouse was a decent on-line experience in 2007 with several local spots that ran in each of its two stopsets. But the stopsets themselves were long and there were, among other things, back-to-back PSAs for the same charity and some dead air.
Now: As with many of the CBS stations, the stopsets, once very much McGruff’s playground sound a lot better, thanks to the involvement of TargetSpot – which runs ads for itself here as well. There were no PSAs here, although I did hear a few seconds of fill music at the end of a stopset. There were spots in every stopset, including one heard on many CBS stations for HearPhilly.com, as well as promos for CBS’s on-line station AllNumberOneRadio.com. That said, many sponsors repeated from stopset-to-stopset, and a few even repeated within the stopset. Also, given their mission to sell on-line advertising, Target Spot would itself be well-advised to start rotating a second commercial (as opposed to always playing the one about how Web advertising will make your employees start grumbling about all the extra business they have to deal with).
WWWQ (Q100) (Cumulus)
Then: This Top 40 station had the most actual spots, including some apparent agency production. But every Web spot could be heard cutting off its over-the-air counterpart.
Now: Once again, lots of spots including AT&T, Jared Jewelers, and Coca-Cola. There were some house ads for CumulusJobs.com and a few seemingly paid PSAs. There was also an ad for the band Green Eyed Stare that would be heard on rocker WKLS as well. You could still hear Web spots cutting off on-air spots at the beginning of stopsets, and some barely perceptible clunkiness between spots within the set, but a big improvement from last time.
WSB-FM (B98.5) (Cox)
Then: Smooth transitions from main feed to stopset, relatively short breaks (which is to say only five minutes). Already running a few spots among the PSAs.
Now: About 50% spots, 50% PSAs and fill promos. As with Q100 (also a StreamAudio client), you could hear a few seconds of the first over-the-air ad before each of the two Web-stops kicked in. There was also one “thanks for listening” promo that actually ran three times consecutively at the end of the hour’s second stopset — and the third time, it was sped up. Unlike most of the stations we heard, the paid spots weren’t always in the first positions; spots and PSAs alternated here.
WKLS (Project 9-6-1) (Clear Channel)
WUBL (the Bull) (Clear Channel)
Then: Project 9-6-1 had clearly given some thought to the streaming experience, with some more customized Web content and several fill songs. Unfortunately, those fill songs weren’t very well coordinated with the rest of the hour – cutting off other songs in some cases instead of filling stopsets.
Now: It’s a good thing we were determined to listen to this station, since multiple attempts ended when the pre-roll ad for the streaming player’s sponsor refused to stop playing over-and-over. We eventually managed to get a working stream by going in through the stream aggregator RadioTime.com.
Once we finally heard WKLS, there were a decent number of local spots, followed by a fill song in each Web-stop and only one PSA in each unit. There was one brief “thanks for listening on-line” promo with deliberately campy fill music. Interestingly, the Web breaks were timed to skip the final on-air promo/stager/etc., and segue back into music. That sounded OK when the station was playing a fill song online, a little less so when the segue was from a PSA directly back into a song.
We also ended up listening to sister station WUBL (the Bull) whose Web-stops were about 35% ads, 65% PSAs (including a few hard-sells) and several of those advertisers repeated within a stopset (albeit with different spots). The good news is that there were some agency-quality spots in evidence. And the nice programming touch here was that the HD Radio spot that ended the second stopset had been recut locally to promote WUBL-HD-2.
WKHX (Kicks 101.5) (then ABC, now Citadel)
Then: It was a great sounding Country station during the sweeps, but WKHX’s Web-stops were the most challenging for the listener. There was a five minute break and an eight minute break with no custom content, just PSAs and instrumental fill music, and a lot of clunky transitions between them.
Now: This time, there was an eight minute stop and a seven minute stop. The good news was that there were two web sponsors this time (one of which audibly cut off the over-the-air ad). The rest of the break, however, were the same PSAs that have long been ubiquitous on Web stream, including McGruff and many other perennials. (To be fair, they didn’t repeat within the stopsets this time.) There was a minute of dead air between one of the paid spots and the PSAs. And, as with WKLS, the Web-stops covered over whatever rejoin was taking place on the air, so that the PSAs segued immediately into music.
WHTA (Hot 107.9) (Radio One)
We didn’t include Radio One last time, but they’ve been heard aggressively pursuing local retail on their streams around the country in other recent listening. Here, the good news was that there were three spots–one of them an agency-quality spot for an upcoming Tyler Perry play that kicked off the stopset. The same spots played in each of the two stopsets and were, in each case, followed by two minutes of generic fill music. The Web-stops also cut off the station promo that began each stopset and an over-the-air spot was rejoined in progress each time.
Again, the good news here is that since we last looked at this issue, the major broadcast owners have clearly been paying a lot more attention to the on-line streaming experience. They’ve put more content on their players and made it easier to jump among commonly owned stations. They have been more aggressive in ensuring their stations’ place among the on-line content aggregators. And there are indeed more spots than we encountered – if you can’t hear the Brinks truck pulling up yet, you don’t quite hear the crickets chirping either during Web stops.
As with the little details on any radio station, some of the minutiae we’ve cited here is more likely to drive program directors crazy than to be picked up on by listeners. But it all figures into a listening experience that has gotten better, but could still stand to be improved in most cases. The at-work streaming audience is the one that is both less positioned to switch stations looking for music and the one that has the most commercial free choices. Their stopset experience should, if anything, be better than that of the over-the-air audience.