Permission to Break Format

What are the tactics to deliver a radio station's strategy, and where does talent fit in?

Commercial radio gets a lot of unfair criticism. I grew up professionally in it, so perhaps I always feel that chip on the shoulder.

Many of the things that are spoken about negatively are conversely the things that can make stations successful - tight music rotations, speed links and research-driven content policies.

Much of why these things work on the radio can often get misconstrued as unbreakable rules. Even people who work in the sector often do the things - but don’t understand why they’re there in the first place.

These tactics are just some that are used to achieve the strategy, they’re not a means to an end.

In the UK, a lot of what commercial radio has to deal with are the dual problem of adverts and the BBC. Ads (and broader commercial deals) are essential to a station’s existence, and the flexibility around them is often limited. For national spot ads there’s a prevailing CPT (cost per thousand times an ad is heard) and a price that the agencies pay. It’s difficult for you to get something different. The only thing that affects your income is how many listeners you have - so maximisation is pretty important. If you can’t affect the price, and if your audience isn’t changing (or its declining), the only option to increase your income is to play more ads.

At the same time you face a historically immovable force in the BBC. Amongst all their output, they run two ad-free, pop music stations, with perfect multi-platform distribution, free marketing across the BBC’s TV, radio and online operations, with one targeting 15 to 34s and one 35 pluses. Each with a content budget of £30m to £50m each.

To face a competitor with one of those things is tough enough, but to compete with someone with all of them is very hard.

Sometimes you hear people say “why doesn’t commercial radio copy what the most successful radio station (R2) does?”. Often meaning a broader music policy or DJs who are allowed longer links. The short answer is that Radio 2, plus 10 minutes of ads, would still find it difficult to compete with, er Radio 2.

When faced with that BBC competition you need to create a product that does something different. To do this assuming you know what your listeners want is a gamble at best, and arrogant at worst. Research with listeners is the best way to understand what they like and don’t like.

Fundamentally, listeners can generally cope with a small amount of what they don’t like, providing it doesn’t happen too regularly. If it does they think “why the hell am I listening to this station that keeps doing things I don’t like”. I often think of these as interruptions. They’re the things that get in the way of the stuff they like.

Commercial radio starts fifteen love down with having 10 minutes of interruptions at the core of their business model - the adverts. Whilst ads are definitely in the ‘would rather not have’ category, they are not the poison some people think they are. If they’re high quality, change relatively regularly and are demographically targeted, then the annoyance factor is certainly reduced. There’s also some historic acceptance built in. However they are still interruptions that weigh down on the scales pushing a listener towards changing the channel.

This is one of the core contributors to keeping presenter links short. If we’ve used up 10 minutes of interruptions how many times do you want to gamble on a presenter link staying on the right side of the interruption/non-interruption barrier? Even the best presenters in the world’s links are going to be a range on the good/less good scale. If you were a PD it would be sensible to work out the number of links and their lengths to maximise your chances, wouldn’t it?

You’ve also got to play to an audience that have already decided that they don’t want to listen to Radio 1 and Radio 2. “Talks to much” is something that often appears in radio research for the BBC stations. What many are actually saying is the DJ is talking about things that are uninteresting to me (and therefore is interrupting their general enjoyment). Some of the others are also after a product that is more (or seems more) music intensive. If you’re a commercial station trying to compete with Radio 1 and Radio 2, and carve out your own market, it makes more sense to lean into that.

And finally, the third element is ensuring that song choice doesn’t become an interruption too. Researching listeners’ favourite songs and ensuring you’re playing one when they tune in, is often a good way to achieve that aim.

I’ve done lots of music research in my time, it can be quite gruelling when you get the data back. Especially when you’ve popped on some of your own favourites to the test and realise there’s little interest in them!

For newer music, programmers, and particularly commercial ones, juggle familiarity (have listeners heard it before), the favourability score (liking a song) and the burn score (sick of hearing it). For the back catalogue they look at all of that, but often concentrate on how much its liked. On your station would you play songs that are liked by at least 80% of people? 60%? 40%? You may be broadening what you play, but you’re racking up interruptions to a growing number of people, every time you do it.

There’s definitely not one way to run a radio station. It’s why I tried to separate the tactics from the strategy. There are other tactics you can deploy to achieve your strategy too.

Boom

I was talking to Phil Riley about the response they’ve had to Boom Radio and how they’ve been stunned by it. So much so they accelerated their plans and took it nationwide within a month of launching!

For them, their strategy is about filling a gap. They’ve created a radio station for over 65s, an audience they believe has been abandoned by Radio 2 who have moved demonstrably younger over the past few years in music content and personalities. I assume R2’s hunch is that this audience don’t really have many other places to go, so they’ll stick around. I think this is, disappointingly for 65+ listeners, likely to be true. The challenge for Boom Radio is to get their message out there - so people know there’s another option.

Listening to Boom (and what people say about it) the core difference is that the music rotations are very broad and the presenters have a little more time to speak. But doesn’t this break all your rules, Matt? Well, they weren’t rules remember, they were tactics for minimising interruptions. As a new station not on RAJAR and not participating in the big group spot ad market, Boom’s advertising load is significantly smaller than other commercial stations. This means they’ve won back more interruptions to use. A duff song (to one listener) or an over-long link can be forgiven as there isn’t also over 10 minutes of ad interruptions too.

Boom’s also creating a brand position that’s different to other stations and isn’t replicable by them. By being firmly 65+, and embracing that, they build a position that no other station can copy without causing themselves trouble. If R2 suddenly abandoned Dua Lipa and Justin Bieber and returned to Sing Something Simple it would cause them lots of trouble with its younger audience - it would be hard for them to ever beat Boom at their own game without compromising something else.

I think the other clever thing about Boom is that the show lengths are short - usually around 2 hours. This helps it to sound different throughout the day and probably makes it easier for the presenters to keep their speech content fresh. Again, it’s a different tactic to serve the strategy.

Virgin

They’re not the only ones doing different things. Virgin Radio’s acquisition of Chris Evans and Graham Norton has been enhanced by making their shows spot ad free and supported by a single advertiser (Sky for Chris, Waitrose for Graham). Their big push was to steal BBC talent and replicate their original shows, including no ads. They wanted to make it easier for a listener to change the dial from Radio 2 (itself a big interruption) but then not find any new interruptions to send them scurrying back.

The challenge for them is to make that work financially as I would be surprised if the sponsorship covered the talent bill. The opportunity is to encourage those Evans and Norton fans into station fans, growing the audience and revenue in the other day parts too.

Transfers

The last few years has seen a number of BBC to Commercial Radio transfers. As well as Chris and Graham, there’s been Chris Moyles to Radio X and Simon Mayo recreating his Radio 2 Drivetime show on Greatest Hits Radio. A core tactic for all of these has been adjusting the station to fit the talent rather than getting the talent to do the regular format. Having a strategy built around the talent obviously necessitates new tactics. There’s also not a lot of point in hiring someone because of a certain act, and then making them change that act.

Whilst all of that seems sensible, it does make me sad that the commercial stations haven’t had many places to grow their own talent that can occupy similar positions. Why don’t they have existing DJs that have the awareness, content and position to encourage the station to re-think the more standard format tactics?

In a world where each radio group has a number of brands, each with spin offs, wouldn’t it be sensible to use some of these to experiment with alternative tactics, or differing strategies?

The consolidation of radio has meant a much more efficient business, but one with a potential talent pipeline problem. In the old days, with more local shows from brands there were opportunities for talent to move up stations, growing their skill and impact. Commercial radio’s structure makes that hard now. Also simultaneously, podcast opportunities can provide a place for new talent to experiment and grow, alongside a direct monetisation option that rewards success too.

Commercial radio has become very efficient. It’s tactics are well worn and, generally, pretty successful. Historically there’s always been an over supply of talent with a large number of people being keen to move up, and radio being the only medium that skilled audio folk could do well at. Has that now changed? Or is it at least changing? In the rush to focus on brand success, has the flow of talent been taken for granted?

Or is stealing from the BBC the only thing left to do?