We understand who you want to talk to
Programmers, corporate big-wigs and consultants all talk about trying to get a younger audience, but who exactly is that audience? That answer depends on your station and who your station wants to target. Keep in mind that “younger” is a relative term, meaning that a younger audience could be 25 years old or 45 years old on average and still be considered “younger”.
Most news/talk stations across the country are currently attracting listeners over the age of 55, many who are retired or are in the process of retiring. Most news/talk stations should be targeting 40-year-old men primarily working either in an office-based industry like banking or finance or small business owners like contractors or other local service providers. In some markets, stations may want to be slightly older by targeting 45-50-year-olds because they are an affluent retirement community and these listeners bring a lot of money with them. In other markets, stations may wish to aim younger by targeting 30-35-year-olds because it is a younger city with a “hipper” crowd. In any case, your station needs to decide who you wantto talk to, who your current and potential advertisers want to target and work towards targeting them.
One of the most common problems news/talk stations have right now is who they are talking to and what they are talking to them about. Many stations, especially in smaller markets, are talking to the audiences that they have rather than the audience they want. Talking to your listeners about their grandkids? That’s a pretty clear sign you are talking to an audience you have rather than an audience you want. Let’s compare a news/talk (or any format) station to a local diner. If you owned a diner and wanted more and newer patrons, do you be personable with only your regulars or everyone who walks in that door? If you want long-term success, you’re going to ask every single person who walks through that door how they are doing, how their parents are, how are the kids in school and if they want cream or sugar in their coffee. The same applies in radio. If you want every single person who tunes into your station, or even just a portion, to set your station as their number 1 pre-set, you must be talking about what is of interest to them. Each and every one of them.
We understand what you are and what you want to be
Another surprising issue many news/talk stations have is that they are working the wrong side of the news/talk coin.
Despite being one format, in its current phase, news/talk is actually two mini formats smashed together into one. News is black and white, just the facts, and pure information. Talk is gray, often filled with opinion, and is pure entertainment. They are polar opposites. Your station needs to understand what they are first, are they a news first station or a talk first station? Figuring out what type of station you are alone could help your station’s ratings because you are fulfilling a public perception.
But wait, what about being the station you want to be, not the station you are right now?
In order to be the station you want to be, you have to understand the station you are now. There’s a saying that perception is reality and that is definitely the case when it comes to radio and news/talk programming. When you don’t understand how the general public perceives your station, you are already starting behind because you are fighting a war that doesn’t have to be fought. There are two ways to correct being on the wrong side of the coin: become what your perception is (the relatively easy option) or change how you are perceived (the not as easy option).
The easy way to fix the program is becoming what he public perceives you are. It’s easy because you don’t have to go on a huge PR spree to influence and coerce potential listeners to listen to you or think differently of you. If you think you are a news station and the public thinks you are a talk station, make sure you have more talk-oriented programming than news-oriented programming (local or syndicated, whichever best fits the station’s needs) by getting rid of programs like Wall Street Journal This Morning and running programs like Rush or Glenn Beck. The opposite applies if you think you are a talk-first station, but the public perceives you as a news-first station.
The harder way to fix this is doing a “faux flip”. Again, you want to target the audience you want and if your audience wants a format that they don’t perceive you to be, but you think you are the format everyone wants, you need to change their perception. There are plenty of examples across the country of “faux flips” that are aimed to change the perception of a station (examples: Cox Media’s WDBO, WHIO, WOKV become “News [FM signal]” and Bonneville’s KTAR becoming KTAR News after being considered News-Talk). There are often very few programming changes made during these “faux flips”, but these flips are necessary because they alter the perception of your brand into something you and your audience want.
Be unique, build a culture
A big question surrounding the news/talk format is its future, who will replace Rush Limbaugh when he is done? It is obviously a concern because there is no heir apparent for Mr. Limbaugh and there are hundreds of Limbaugh knockoffs and wannabes across the country, but no one has had nearly the success Mr. Limbaugh has. Why is that?
You have to be unique. Rush is successful because he knows how to entertain the audience. Doesn’t matter if you agree with him or not, if he is right or wrong, he is entertaining. The hoopla around “Rush is Right” is entertainment, it’s a shtick. Is he right? It doesn’t matter. Does he think he is right? That doesn’t matter either. It’s a world he created around himself using parodies, tantalizing storytelling, and pokes and prods at whomever he wishes. Howard Stern does the same exact thing: he entertains his audience. Stern and Limbaugh do their entertaining differently, but the results have been the same for them both by drawing large, dedicated audiences.
Is conservative talk dying off? Probably not, but it does have the same elements of the ill-fated hot talk format many stations tried with Howard Stern. The problem in the current news/talk environment is that Rush’s knockoffs think that being “right like Rush” is the key to success when it’s not. Scroll back up to the news/talk coin: talk = pure entertainment. One size does not fit all. Listen to Rush’s fill-ins when he is off and you will hear some Rush wannabes, as well as some personalities who are truly entertaining (Mark Steyn comes to mind).
Look at the other notable ill-fated talk format: liberal talk radio. What happened with that? They tried taking the conservative talk model, the “Rush is right” model and changed it to “Rush is wrong”. It failed because it was not entertaining.
So why is sports talk so popular right now? It’s because it is entertaining and light-hearted. The listeners who left hot talk went to sports talk because the content is fun and personable. What sports talk is doing right is what could be compared to a chocolate covered nut: you have a sweet, fun coating with a solid core. The reason why sports talk and conservative talk are the two most popular radio talk formats at the moment is that the successful shows know how to entertain using a common topic. That’s why hot talk failed: there was no core to the programming. If you are driving in your car and turn to any station on the dial, you are going to that station with an expectation and forethought of what you should expect. If you tune into a CHR station, you are expecting music from Lady Gaga or Jay-Z. If you turn on a classic rock station, you expect Led Zeppelin. When you tune into a news/talk station, you expect talk about politics and with a sports station, you expect talk about sports. What do successful stations in all four of these formats have in common? They deliver this core content in a uniquely entertaining way. You have to give the listener a reason to tune in (the format) and then a reason to stay (the content).
...and build a farm
Another huge mistake many stations around the country make is that they don’t have a farm. Every station should have a farm team, no matter how big or small of a market it operates in. Every business knows exactly where they get their supplies and products and news/talk stations should have a pipeline they can tap into to get the personalities they need to succeed.
If you operate a smaller market news/talk station, you have two big personnel factors to consider: long-term personalities and rising “stars”. Not having a farm team to pull from can kill a small market station in either case. When your station has a recognizable, long-term host that has run the station for decades and decides he’s going to retire (or worse, leave to join a rival), do you have a plan? Not having a farm team or at least someone in mind to replace your talent could put your station behind and cause it to lose its voice. Having a smaller market station or even a college station to tap into for new prospects will give your station the opportunity to pull someone in who knows that market and knows the station well enough to continue the cycle. On the other end, having a rising “star” on your staff is great because of the good work they do, but keep in mind that other stations, especially in bigger markets, will take some interest in your rising “star”. So, unless you have offered your little nest egg the perfect opportunity and have the money to back it up, you need to make sure you have a farm to tap into to easily fill a vacancy.
For bigger market stations, ratings mean everything and knowing where you can find reliable talent is crucial to making sure you are always on top of your game, whether it’s from a talent leaving to go to another market or “things not working out”. Identifying reliable “farm stations” to pull from will help your station never fall into a lapse where it has to train someone new or spend months looking for the right replacement.
Use these farm teams to cover holidays and other off days for your station if you can, because it will sound better on these off days and will give your prospects a chance to get the feel for your station for when you actually need them on a full-time basis, or if there is an emergency. Always have a plan and farm teams will make that plan easier to execute.