By: Sean Ross
When radio’s spotloads became unbearable in the early-to-mid ’00s, leading to stopsets that could last seven minutes, some broadcasters began to entertain the notion of shorter, but more frequent breaks. Nobody was suggesting a return to the ancient model of two songs in a row, followed by two spots. But would three breaks of moderate length each hour be better than two endless ones?
At radio’s behest, Edison put that question to audiences a number of times. Listeners are not radio station traffic managers, and the only conclusion at the time was that listeners didn’t have a strong opinion on the subject. It wasn’t that listeners were sanguine about spotloads — they knew they wanted fewer commercials. It just usually happened that three separate four-minute breaks researched the same as two six-minute stopsets.
In Australia, the top 40 Nova FM stations were successful for several years with a “never more than two ads in a row” policy that lasted until 2010. In the U.S., the question lost momentum in the mid-’00s after a brief industry-wide burst of resolve that took spotload from the draconian to the merely wearisome. Then PPM measurement came along and spurred broadcasters back to fewer interruptions — two breaks an hour at :15/:45 or :00/30, as if by legislative fiat.
But please turn your attention to the just released format breakouts from Edison Research and Triton Digital’s “Infinite Dial 2014.” Edison gave more than 2,000 respondents a choice between more (but shorter) commercial breaks, or fewer, longer stopsets.
The clear majority (54%) went for shorter/more frequent breaks. Only 31% voted for fewer-but-longer breaks. 15% didn’t know or had no opinion.
By format, the results were more dramatic. Here’s the percentage of P1s opting for shorter, but more frequent spot breaks:
Country — 62%
Classic Rock/Classic Hits — 61%
Urban — 61%
Top 40 — 59%
Religious — 58%
Rock — 50%
AC/Hot AC — 49%
News/Talk/Sports — 46%
Public Radio — 40%
Having personally worked with stations that went from three breaks to two over the past several years and saw significant improvements in PPM, it was easy to view these numbers guardedly at first. Was this a considered opinion, or just, “yeah, sure, shorter interruptions, great!”? But this is the most decisive that the audience has been to date on this issue. And the landscape has changed in a way that explains their new resolve.
Specifically, the 31% of the Infinite Dial respondents who listen to Pandora every month have gotten used to more frequent interruptions, but dramatically shortened breaks. Ten days ago, I clocked an hour of oldies programming on Pandora. There were six breaks, each containing a :15 or :30-second spot. Given the length of the songs, even three-songs-in-a-row could get you less than ten minutes of music between commercials. And yet the total spot time in an hour was just over two minutes.
For listeners to broadcast radio a decade ago, neither “2 x 6 minutes” nor “3 x 4 minutes” may have been attractive propositions. That was more a choice between long and longish. And how quickly can any commercial break pass, really, if it contains the hard-sell debt-relief spot into the hard-sell tax-relief spot into the hard-sell student loan relief spot? Or if every radio station in the market has chosen the exact same time to break?
I have maintained for nearly five years that Pandora and other pureplays were redefining what listeners would consider an acceptable spotload. By modeling the combination of more-but-truly-shorter breaks for the audience, they may have also redefined the discussion on the number of breaks as well.
Because these differences in spotload are so severe, broadcasters often glaze over when the spotload issue comes up. I recently spoke to a group of broadcasters who were atypically open to discussing spotload. What would be reasonable? I floated six-minutes-an-hour, three times what I’d heard on Pandora, but about the lowest spotload that any viable station had ever run. The lowest spotload that anybody in the room could even consider was eight minutes.
But if you divided eight minutes into three breaks, you’d still be making your radio station better and more viable. It’s also easier to ride herd over the quality of a three minute stopset. At six minutes, the old trick of starting with the most entertaining spot just guarantees that the stopset will become more unbearable as the commercials get worse.
However respondents may have arrived at the conclusion that they would prefer more-but-shorter-breaks, it is further evidence that what listeners will consider acceptable has changed. Journal Broadcast Group was correct last week in unveiling its Radio League app with seven custom stations that are committed to a limited number of spots (and presently have almost none). Because, if broadcasters don’t take control of the discussion, a new landscape will continue to be provided for them.