Why are we afraid of blurring lines between talk and music radio?

In a world of fake news and people who only too readily believe that any written word is true, let’s do some heavy lifting on the strategy behind running a radio station.

Succession plans are not annual documents

When your products are people, there are many layers of possibility, problems and potential in every move that a radio manager makes. As a result, succession plans and any other strategy is a dynamic thing. It is an iterative process because it consists primarily of people who we do not trade like stock or consume like fast-moving goods. As people change, strategy changes. So it is necessary for a radio station to update its plans on a much more regular basis than annually. DJ management is not inventory management. We are always moving towards plan A but we have B, C, D and several ‘what ifs?’ at the top of our desk drawers at any given point in time so that we may always aim to provide the best talent to our community at the point at which a change needs to be made. This may sound obvious, but the best laid plans… well you know the rest.

Formats are guidelines, not stone tablets

If you read a radio station license agreement you will notice that it is a simply stated document containing a broad format description that is intended to guide the station in delivering a particular requirement in terms of audience needs. So taking 5FM, our license states that we are a contemporary hit radio format and may not deviate more than 15% from that format. So what is a contemporary hit radio format then? Specifically, CHR was defined by an American Magazine in the ‘80s to describe stations that ran a Top 40 rotation and chart show and played hits across different musical genres. That’s it… just that.

So how you interpret your format is not a legal matter, it’s a matter of defining your brand proposition and complying with the license conditions that are, quite rightly, supportive of innovative content creation and responsiveness to the demands of the market, and in the case of a public broadcast station like 5FM, the demands of the country.

The beauty of format is that it is elastic. It can stretch to accommodate any number of different content types and delivery mechanisms. This is what making interesting and engaging radio is all about. It is not about ticking boxes.

Target markets go beyond demographics

If you think that a target market is defined entirely by age, stage and income, particularly in terms of a free-to-air* service like radio, then you are not only mistaken but you are going to be highly frustrated when you discover your carefully segmented market is not behaving in the way you predicted and programmed for. In today’s digital world people migrate across segments constantly. People belong to niched sub-groups and redefine those groups all the time. They enter and exit at will, aided by the internet. People shun certain groups they may be classed into and embrace others we might not predict them to belong to.

So 5FM does not target 16 to 24-year-olds as much as it targets youthful South Africans through the power of music. LSMs are greatly misleading and we don’t use them to define target markets anymore because they are fundamentally flawed. Can we all agree to let go of demographics despite how safe they make us feel as marketers? [More about demographics in radio here.]

Beware the source of viewpoints

My mother always told me that if you want to find out the source of trouble you should follow the trail of who benefits most. That’s a wise lesson, particularly in our fake news reality. When you read an article claiming viewpoints or expertise on a brand or a person you should first check who is making those claims. Are they credible individuals to whom we can esteem our agreement or not? If you didn’t work in station management at a radio station then chances are you are not an expert on how to manage a radio station. Any loyal sport fan thinks he can do the coach’s job better… from the safety and comfort of his couch at home.

Talk and music are not oil and water

Yes we know that there are stations with talk formats and other stations with music formats. But we also know that talk station heroes like Radio 702 have some of the best weekend music shows in South Africa and music station heroes like Metro FM have some of the best talk programmemes in the country. I challenge the best to take a look at the figures that Robert Marawa’s sport talk and Criselda Kananda’s Metro FM Talk shows pull in.

It was people like Criselda Kananda and John Robbie that inspired 5FM to launch a dedicated talk show hosted by Nick Hamman called 5Talks. Young people care about important issues and need their radio stations to help them formulate viewpoints that will assist them in everything in their lives from deciding where to study and what career path to choose to who to vote for and when to participate in a political demonstration. Young people specifically are under a lot of pressure and it is increasingly difficult to define and carve out a home for yourself in a rapidly changing and often frightening South Africa. Despite being digital natives, young people can concentrate on talk and do want their radio presenters to help them sift through multitudes of information to work out where they stand on issues and to help them develop their viewpoints.

In the specific case of 5FM, the station undertook in-depth qualitative focus group research. This research asked the audience, “Why do you listen to 5FM?” 10% of the respondents said for the music only, 70% said music, entertaining content and information, 10% said entertaining content and information only. So if the majority of the audience comes to 5FM for more than just the music, why would 5FM presenters be concerned with ‘blurring lines’?

Yes music is important but so is everything else we do. When it comes to programming a CHR radio station in 2017 a programmer would be well informed to use Valerie Geller’s** (2011) rules of engagement by always asking:

– What is in the content for the listener?
– Is it relevant to your audience?
– Does it matter to them?
– Do you as the presenter care?
– Can you make the audience care?

The reality is that a segment about the legalisation of marijuana and the Western Cape High Court’s recent ruling, conducted on 5FM by presenter Nick Hamman, has had more downloads as a podcast post broadcast than any other piece of 5FM downloadable content in 2017. In fact almost 30% more downloads. This would mean the content is clearly relevant and matters to the audience, arguably more than the presenter presenting it because our community took time to search it out and download it. Being the subjective medium that radio is, it is safe to say that young 5FM presenters might not hit complex talk pieces out of the park everytime, but judging by the online response it was clearly a piece the audience appreciated.

In closing we want to be clear. Regardless of the research saying that someone doesn’t like talk but does like music is like saying that you are either a cat person or a dog person. What if you like both?

Radio (and its digital and social soulmates) can provide a very rounded and rich information experience. It can give you both information, help you interpret complex issues, introduce you to things you haven’t thought about and people you will never meet in person. It can entertain you, expose you to music you haven’t heard before and give you insights into how that music is created. Radio is a community creator, a fire starter and a storyteller and sharer. It is not a format. It is not music or talk. It is a platform for debate and an important tool in bringing people together. And whatever it takes to do that, 5FM will lead that charge.

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