Clutter, Chatter, and Repetition. We call them Radio's Deadly Sins.
They’ve been telling us for decades. They hate all the talk and clutter, and they hate hearing the same songs over and over.
Yet they listen, and they listen a lot. Over 70% of Americans listen to local radio every day, and over 90% over the course of a week. And people listen two to three hours a day.
They complain and yet continue to listen. Why?
Because the relationship between a local radio station and its listeners is like a long relationship with a significant other. At one time or another, that other person really irritates you, yet you stay together.
The benefits outweigh the cost.
That’s why instead of sins that drive listeners away, radio's deadly sins are the reasons that local radio remains strong in a world of satellite, iPods, and Internet radio.
For decades program directors have tried just about everything. They’ve tried short playlists and long playlists. They’ve tried deep-cuts, and just playing the hits. They’ve told the jocks to communicate, and they’ve told them to shut up. Stations have cut spot loads and loaded up on spots.
This grand experiment of thousands of stations trying all sorts of things has shown that there is a general formula that seems to work better at building a relationship with listeners than the alternatives.
That’s why radio stations sound so similar around the country (another complaint of listeners and pundits).
The winning formula varies a little by format, but the three key components for all formats turn out to be the three deadly sins. Yes, the winning formula turns out to require clutter, chatter, and repetition.
The formula begins with localism. A winning radio station has to have local roots. Clutter is all those localisms that tie a station to its community.
Local commercials, the weather, contests, promotions, and even public service announcements make a radio station local. Most of it is annoying to a listener at one time or another, but it all says this is a radio station of my community.
A station that eliminates clutter becomes a station not of the community. It is a generic anchor-less station, and listeners like anonymous generic stations even less than cluttered stations that proclaim “we live in the same town you do.”
Ask a listener what they think of DJs and they’ll reflexively say they hate them.
Like clutter, however, DJ patter serves a broader purpose than just annoying listeners. First, a jock tells the listener that there is a live person running the show. Listeners can be fooled for a time with voice tracking, but eventually they figure it out, and it turns off listeners.
A jock links the radio station to the community. A live jock, even the few weekenders that have survived, can enhance a station’s localism even when he or she does nothing more than “time and temp” and back-selling the music.
Eliminate the talk deadly sins, and we eliminate the link between station and community.
Listeners love to criticize radio for playing the same songs over and over. A common question in radio station surveys asks which station plays the same songs over and over. Generally one of the top ranked stations wins this attribute.
That alone should be a clue that repetition is not the evil that listeners and pundits tell us it is.
Press listeners who bitch about repetition, and they will tell you that they really enjoy hearing their favorite songs over and over. It turns out that listeners only complain about the songs they dislike. What they are really saying is that they don’t want to hear somebody else’s favorite songs, only their own.
Winning radio stations play an optimum number of songs that the majority of their listeners like. Playing songs beyond the optimum number means that the station is playing songs that fewer listeners like. Who wants to listen to a bunch of mediocre tertiary songs?
The optimum number varies somewhat by format, but it is generally tighter than most programmers would suspect. Stations with tight playlists beat stations with larger lists.
The legendary programmer Scott Shannon puts it this way, “It’s the songs you play that kill you.”
Clutter, chatter, and repetition. Radio’s three deadly sins turn out to be the reason local radio remains strong today. The key is to remember that each can benefit your radio station if you understand and exploit each.
Be local. Localism is the single most important weapon radio has against online national services. Don’t tell your jocks to shut-up. Tell them to talk about relevant timely things that engage your listeners. And play the hits. Play the songs your listeners want to hear.
Embrace the three deadly sins, and you will be rewarded.