Radio personality and job stability are two phrases that have rarely appeared in the same sentence. Most morning personalities have a resume' longer than that of most college coaches.
Short stays have always been part of a developing talent’s education. Bouncing from station to station was the price one paid on the way to the big time. Today, however, holding down morning drive in a major market is a tough job. The list of major market talent on the beach is long and growing: Steve Dahl, Jonathan Brandmeier, J.C. Corcoran, Dave, Shelley, and Chainsaw, Jeff & Jer, Deminski & Doyle to name just a few.
In most of these instances, the transition to PPM seems to have played a role. Strong morning drive numbers in the diary have been replaced with lower (and sometimes dramatically lower) PPM numbers.
As the role-out of PPM continues, morning drive people have reason to be a little nervous. Is PPM anti-personality? Did PPM just reveal the weaknesses of the sacked morning personalities, or does PPM unfairly punish morning personalities?
The first challenge PPM presents is lower morning drive listening. Diary TSL in most markets runs about five to five and one-half hours. The markets that have switched to PPM now have about three to three and one-half hours of listening. Two hours of morning drive listening has evaporated with PPM.
Adding to the problem is that PPM panelists seem to wake up later than diary holders. The greatest losses are in the first couple hours of morning drive. By 9:00 a.m., TSL of diary and PPM books are about the same.
Interest in talk is greatest in the first few hours of morning drive and declines in the later hours. Many people who prefer talk over music first thing in the morning are looking for music by the time they get to work.
It is bad enough that Time Spent Listening has declined by a third, but to add insult to injury, PPM cumes are higher. This means that the lower TSL that remains is spread across more stations. According to PPM, listeners are spending very little time with any one station. PPM panelists appear to listen to stations just a few minutes at a time. It is not unusual to see stations getting the majority of their morning drive quarter-hours one at a time. In other words, the PPM is registering a total of five minutes listening during most listening incidents.
Questions remain regarding the accuracy of PPM. Some critics believe participant panels are too small. They note that AQH and share are calculated based on a very small proportion of active panelists who actually carry their meter. Unfortunately, most personalities won’t get very far with their general manager rationalizing low numbers with methodological explanations.
The goal of a morning show has to be to produce ratings regardless of measurement issues or problems. PPM may be flawed and unfairly punish personality radio, but personalities have to understand that the game has changed. The personalities that survive will be the people who adapt.
We at Harker Research have studied morning shows for over thirty years. We’ve used Real Time Analyzers giving us continuous listener feedback to tell us what people like, what they dislike, and how long they listen to good and bad material.
The overwhelming evidence is that morning listeners want to be both informed and entertained. Very few listeners prefer music in the morning, and if PPM really is anti-personality, and music intensive morning shows outperform talk with PPM then something about PPM is badly mis-calibrated.
On the other hand, our research shows a change in the patience of listeners. Today they are less tolerant of self-consumed talent that wastes a listener’s time. Today listeners are less likely to sit through a rambling pointless story. Today’s listener demands interesting relevant entertainment.
We therefore believe that growing listener expectations have combined with PPM’s atomization of listening spans to create the challenging environment that personality radio finds itself in. The bar today has been raised so high for personality that radical change is called for. Morning shows of the past just aren’t going to cut it.
Some personalities won’t be able to adapt and radio will pass them by. Fortunately, the troubles created by this seismic shift at the same time create opportunities for personalities with the flexibility and skill to adapt. There will be space on the dial for personalities, but only for a new approach.
Here are the changes that personalities must embrace if they are to survive:
1. Shorten bits. A wandering five minute story was never entertaining, but now we can see it in the numbers. If panelists aren’t listening to morning shows much more than a few minutes, there has to be a pay-off every few minutes.
2. Ruthlessly edit your material. Now every word counts. Bits need to be shorter, but equally importantly, they need to get to the point quickly.
3. Talk to the listener. Teams must avoid the temptation to focus on each other. Talk about things that touch everyone. (Hint: most people don’t play golf.)
4. Constantly create surprises. Reoccurring elements made sense with longer listening spans. Today’s drive-by listening demands change and surprise.
5. Balance entertainment with information. Tell the listener something he or she doesn’t know but should.
6. Understand what is important for your listeners. Be in touch with what they are talking about, what they like and dislike, and the things that get their attention.
7. Be honest with the listener. Today’s listener has a very sensitive B.S. meter and we can no longer fake interest or relevancy.
8. Don’t “break” for news and commercials. Weave all elements on the station into a single cohesive product.
The majority of these recommendations are not new. What is new is the critical importance of them. High priced talent once thought that these basic principles applied to lesser personalities, but not to them. Because of their talent, listeners would put up with their indulgences. That is no longer the case.
PPM doesn’t have to be a career ending change.