Thursday, February 03, 2005

CLEAR CHANNEL BEG FOR UNDERSTANDING ON SLASHDOT: Of course, you can't be absolutely certain that it's genuine, but the slashdot posting from a 'Clear Channel programmer' has the whine of truth about it:

For what's it's worth, most of us Clear Channel programmers would love to have deep, eclectic playlists loaded with interesting songs and artists.

Now, either this post came from a person who believes programming a radio station is just cutting and pasting a playlist generated by a computer 2,000 miles away, or else the Clear Channel Computer has got a /. account. Can we get a Turing Test here, anyone?

The problem is that not enough people would listen to our stations for us to keep the lights on.

Oh, yeah? That's quite a claim, and one that we suspect doesn't hold up. "To keep the lights on" would mean that a radio station with an interesting format wouldn't be able to break even. Clearly, that's not the experience of a lot of independent stations - and surely a station that enjoyed the economies of scale and ability to broker national deals that would come as part of a media giant would be even better placed to be able to turn a modest profit from a more exciting collection of records.

More importantly, it's not about numbers, is it? The Guardian would sell more copies if it adopted an editorial line similar to the the Daily Star, but it wouldn't make it more profitable as it would lose the advertisers who value its readership profile. By smashing everything down to simple, widest-possible-audience/ least-possible-offence, Clear Channel aren't perhaps choosing the route to best underwrite those utilty bills.

We're not force-feeding anything. Our short playlists are dictated by the market, and we spend million each year researching the musical tastes of our various target audiences.

Well, in those markets where you've bought up comeptitors to the point where you're dominant, you are force-feeding, aren't you? "Don't like this... try our sister channel, like this but with 70s and 80s classics..."

It's odd that Clear Channel's "research" - most of which is done in a way that generates the answers the sample thinks the researcher wants to hear - never really chimes with what people say about radio when they're talking to their friends rather than people with clipboards. I used to work at a northern radio station whose parent company spent squillions on "research" which lead it to cut the size of its list of records it would allow djs to play down to just five hundred tracks. My role brought me into contact with a lot of that station's core audience - who all adored the presenters, but would complain that they got sick of hearing the same songs all the time.

While people bitch and wail about short playlists, the fact is that when we exercise poor music discipline, our ratings generally decline. Since commercial broadcasting is still predicated on a free radio, advertiser-subsidized model, low rated stations go away pretty quickly. We're a publicly held company, and have to return value to the stockholders (this could mean you).

Two things: Radio 2 has, over the last few years, moved away from a really rigid and unimaginative format to including a lot of new music, often from surprising artists. It's kept its core audience and grown by attracting a load of new listeners as well. The point is, of course, that if the programmers do their job well, and know their audience properly, the surprises they programme for them will delight and please them. If you can't programme a station that is both interesting and reflects the values and tastes of its audience, you perhaps shouldn't be in radio programming.

Second: Returning shareholder value. What would an advertiser prefer: an audience of 100,000 drawn from right across the spectrum by a bland, inoffensive to all playlist, for whom the programming is so familiar they don't even really notice it any more; or 20,000, tightly focused listeners who pay attention to the radio because it's often surprising them and playing them things they like, but don't know yet.

We know tight playlists aren't for everyone, but they're for *most* people. Amazing as it may seem, radio listeners actually like hearing their favorites on a regular basis. Adults, in particular, punch out more often than not when something new comes on -- no matter how good it is.

Not buying this - for a start: how would Clear Channel know? When have their stations ever tried this? Secondly, the American TV market produces programmes like The Sopranos, Frasier, Seinfeld, Desperate Housewives, Buffy - why is it that when they're viewers, American adults manage to sample stuff that plays with their expectations and does things they might nor expect, and yet when they're listeners they panic and switch off because they get a George Jones album track instead of Islands In The Stream again?

Real music enthusiasts with well-developed tastes have a lot of options open to them these days, if they don't mind paying for them. Hell, I own an iPod, too. But free radio is still out there, playing the hits, ready whenever you need a pop fix or breaking news.

Okay, flame away. But that's the deal.


So, in a nutshell, then: Clear Channel feel they're incapable of programming a radio station that does anything than play the same few songs over and over again; and they've got some expensive research which backs up their timidity. You can hear it in their output, can't you?

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Simon, although I share your general complaints against Clear Channel, I have to disagree with a couple of your points.

First of all, I think most advertisers would prefer the audience of 100,000 to the audience of 20,000. I mean, I'm not really listening to the ads in any case, am I? And, as far as I've been told, advertising rates work strictly on audience numbers. Even if an advertiser BELIEVED he'd be more effective with the smaller, focused audience, the station would not be able to charge nearly as much, would it?

Secondly, I would argue that the number, or say, percentage of people who listen "actively" to the radio is rather small. For the most part, that's not because all the stations are bad, although that may have a contributing effect. It's because people just don't sit around listening to the radio anymore. I might stretch myself to say that the vast majority of people are multi-tasking in some way or another, like me typing right now. Maybe long-distance lorry drivers are focused, I don't know. So my attention is elsewhere, and I am more likely to get mental because the station in the background is playing something awful as I am to stop everything to listen to that great new Daft Punk/British Sea Power/Avalanches song.

But the bottom line is that "shareholder value" bit - the BBC is better than CNN, but CNN turns a profit.

acb said...

I once read that, when Clear Channel do their marketing research, they poll people to rate songs out of 10, and discard the ones with both low and high scores, retaining only the ones scoring around 7-8. The reasoning is that, if a song moves someone so much to rate a 10, it could offend or annoy other listeners, losing market share.

simon h b said...

Anony... I understand what you're saying; I'm not sure I totally agree:

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First of all, I think most advertisers would prefer the audience of 100,000 to the audience of 20,000. I mean, I'm not really listening to the ads in any case, am I?
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I don't know so much; my understanding is that advertisers prefer to speak only to people who are likely to be interested in what they have to offer; and you're more likely to pay attention to adverts in a programme you're listening to rather than one that barely holds your attention.

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And, as far as I've been told, advertising rates work strictly on audience numbers. Even if an advertiser BELIEVED he'd be more effective with the smaller, focused audience, the station would not be able to charge nearly as much, would it?
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Actually, it might - again, if they could demonstrate that a dollar spent by PVC trousers Inc on Goth Radio would be much more effective than a dollar spent on Top 40 Gold. Remember, advertisers don't care about how many people like or hear the adverts, they care about how many conversions there are.

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Secondly, I would argue that the number, or say, percentage of people who listen "actively" to the radio is rather small. For the most part, that's not because all the stations are bad, although that may have a contributing effect. It's because people just don't sit around listening to the radio anymore.
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I totally agree with you here (as i write this, Today is doing its thing about the G8; I'm drinking coffee and trying to stop the cat from hacking up a furball) but the *extent* of your attention is dictated by how interested you are in what's on the air. And you're more likely to be paying that bit more attention if you're hearing stuff which interests you.

Added to which: don't forget that a lot of radio listening is done in the car...

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