We’d like to think that programming a radio station is like baking a pie. Use the right ingredients, mix and cook it properly, and the station will be a winner.
And not only that. Once we found the secret recipe, we’d hope that the recipe could be duplicated in market after market, a success in everyone of them.
Unfortunately, most efforts to replicate successful stations have failed.
Time and time again a format that succeeds in one market fails in others. Each time a radio group replicates a very successful station across other markets, the results are uneven at best.
But like the persistent efforts of medieval alchemists to turn lead into gold, the search continues for that elusive recipe.
Arbitron and Mediabase recently collaborated in an effort to understand what makes a music station successful.
They analyzed music station playlists in an effort to find a link between playlists and ratings success.
Surely there has to be some difference between the playlists of successful and unsuccessful music stations.
Actually no, it turns out there isn’t any:
The percentage of airplay devoted to the most played songs in individual formats is largely the same–whether a station is ranked first in its target demo or not.
Two stations can play the same music in the same rotations and yet one can be a winner and the other not.
You might be thinking that there must be some overlooked non-music explanation. Maybe the winner has a better morning show. Maybe they market themselves better.
Sorry to disappoint, but even if stations in two markets are identical in every respect, the two stations will not produce the same ratings, or even the same rank.
It’s the Butterfly Effect.
Radio markets are like snow flakes: Every market is unique.
Long forgotten historical facts (called initial conditions) like a very popular Top 40 or Rock station can tilt a market more pop or rock.
The strength of an Oldies station can have a big impact on a Jack station. A Jack station can have a big impact on a Classic Rock station. CHR can impact rhythmic formats, and rhythmic formats can impact CHR.
A music format does not have some intrinsic appeal that determines a radio station’s share.
Share is determined by music appeal tempered by market history, market characteristics, competitive pressures, and even where the station is on the dial. And a thousand other factors we can’t control.
The Butterfly Effect refers to the belief that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can help create a hurricane weeks later.
Initial conditions, nearly undetectable earlier perturbations can dramatically change an outcome.
It’s the stuff of science fiction. It’s Matt Damon and The Adjustment Bureau.
But it’s true.
Many if not most of the reasons one station succeeds and a similar station fails is beyond our control.
Skill, ability, and experience still matter. Louis Pasteur captured this by declaring:
Chance favors only the prepared mind.
Chance will determine what rolls past you. It is your skill, ability, and experience that determines what you do about it.
So stop looking for secrets of ratings success. Stop thinking that if you just copy what some successful radio station is doing, you’ll be equally successful.
Winning begins with understanding the Butterfly Effect. Winning begins by understanding initial conditions, chance, and randomness.
And winning happens when you create the best damn radio station possible when you’re handed all these things.