One thing I’ve always enjoyed about working in commercial radio is the ongoing banter between Programming Teams and their counterparts in the Sales Department. I’ve been reminded by cocky salesmen (and women) on numerous occasions that receipt of my pay cheque is dependent upon their ability to perform – I of course remind them that without myself and my colleagues delivering the goods, they wouldn’t have a product worth selling. Both sides of the argument are equally valid, but a commercial radio station minus the commercials is likely to be a business venture with a pretty short shelf-life.
Whilst programmers all accept that commercials are a fundamental part of the output, it doesn’t stop them constantly trying to find new and clever ways of pretending they’re not really there at all. That’s right – those sales staff work their bollocks off to seal the deal, using those trusted old sales pitches (ad avoidance among radio listeners is far lower than in other forms of media, a radio presenter is your friend – having a presenter play your ad is like a personal recommendation etc…) only for the programmers to try and minimise the impact those ads will have on their precious listeners.
You only need to look at the various strategies used over the years to ‘get away’ the commercials, and the impassioned debate those strategies can generate, to realise what a hot topic this is. Of course radio programming is not an exact science. Whilst research, focus groups, listener panels and the rest all play a part in influencing, or informing, programming decisions, the thorny issue of where to stick the ads continues to cause division even among the most respected radio minds.
Clearly opting for fewer stop-downs, giving your listeners fewer potential switching points, is the way forward. Except if you go for more breaks – shorter in duration – you’ll be back to the music that much quicker. And where do you place them? At equal intervals through the hour? Maybe you could back-load your hour to accommodate a big music sweep after the news, after all surely the best way you have of convincing your listeners that you really do play more music, is to…err….play more music. I’ve heard an argument for always making sure you’re playing music when the opposition are playing commercials. Their listeners hear the ads, flick the preset, hear you playing Ed Sheeran, decide to stick around, job done. Until of course you go to your commercials. At which point they flick again to find this time it’s your competitor pumping out the tunes.
Hang on though; if your Sales Team are telling their clients that ad avoidance by commercial radio listeners really is that low, is there actually a problem in the first place? Why are you worried about listeners tuning out when the evidence your own sales team uses suggests that they don’t? The whole subject really is a mass of contradictions!
Radio is very much an industry for both innovators and followers. There have always been those that come up with the ideas, take the risks, break new ground, and reap the rewards. Then there are those who watch the innovators take the risks and reap the rewards, before ‘borrowing’ their ideas. It’s been this way since back in the 50s when a couple of American gentlemen realised that playing a small number of very popular songs on tight rotation was a great way to win an audience. My point here is that radio is full of good practice and accepted norms, yet so far nobody has claimed to have discovered the perfect spot laydown. Trends come, and trends go. I’ve certainly tried various combinations over the years before, like a favourite pair of shoes, returning to what I’m most comfortable with.
My view, for what it’s worth is very simple. Your listener will only tune away during the break if it’s in their subconscious to do so – in other words if your station is just one of several they may listen to. They’ll do it if they get into the habit of hitting the preset when the commercials come on. So make sure you are the undisputed number one in your patch. Ensure your presenters sell creatively and persuasively across the breaks. Make sure your listener knows that what is coming three minutes from now will be better than anything they could possibly find elsewhere. And if they don’t know what is coming, use your forward sell to make sure they want to know. If you avoid giving them a reason to tune away, then generally they won’t. Don’t ever show them the exit. Getting those things right far outweighs the importance of where the breaks go. Plus, if you get it right you’ll have a very happy sales team as well, not to mention a pay cheque at the end of the month!