All posts by Sean Ross

Editorial: Is Radio Milking The Wrong Callers?

Sean Ross webBy: Sean Ross
[email protected]
Twitter: @RossOnRadio

It is a seemingly inevitable moment in any call-to-win contest, especially for a prize of any significance.

You will hear the caller before the correct number caller. Sometimes it will be a quick groan of frustration when they’re informed. Sometimes the on-air personality feels the need to play with them, dragging out the suspense, even when the caller doesn’t think they’re the right number. If they can’t be sure of getting the winning caller to scream appropriately at the office, they can at least milk some extra agony from the loser before hand.

There are multiple variants on the “call before the winner” call.

  • There’s the “I’m sorry, we already got a winner, but don’t worry, because there’s more cash in four hours” call.
  • There’s the “I’m not giving away anything right now, but don’t worry, because there’s more cash in four hours” call.
  • There’s the “I’m sorry, you’re listening for a different Taylor Swift song, but don’t worry because something by Taylor is coming up again in 20 minutes” call.

Airing these calls comes out of an absolutely correct programmers’ instinct, or several. Generate the most possible excitement about your cash contest. Tell people what you’re going to do, then do it, then tell them that you did it. Set appointments. Don’t let a hundred dollars’ worth of excitement be over in just a few seconds, much less a larger amount.

Hearing a contest milked, well or badly, is also a function of jock nature: “We’re giving away money on my shift.” You can generally count on that kind of excitement for any prize greater than the $50-gift-certificate-from-a-jeweler-that-doesn’t-actually-buy-anything.

Jocks also seem to think it’s okay in particular to make fun of any listener stupid or greedy enough to call when nothing’s actually being given away. For the most part, however, the bulk of the losing callers are doing the thing a station told them to do—listen longer and call to win.

I always feel bad for the caller-before-the-correct caller. I particularly feel bad when there’s any level of sadism on the jock’s part. That might just be me. Listeners love prank phone calls. I don’t want to hear the person on the other end squirm, even when they’re an actor and it’s a set-up.

Beyond that, after enough “you didn’t win” phone calls, I also find myself wondering about the message being sent.  Do enough of those unintentionally brand a station as the place where people don’t win money? Isn’t radio station money supposed to be easier to win than, say, Powerball money? I hear an increasing number of stations during a big Powerball jackpot making fun of the unlikelihood of winning.

So, what’s the right balance between milking excitement and sending the wrong message?

For starters, I’ve come to believe that if you’re taking caller number 109, there should always be a little something for caller 108. And, maybe for caller 110. Station swag would do it, but imagine what message a modest, unexpected cash prize (before the big one) would send about your station. You’re not just giving away money, you’re giving away extra, unsolicited money. Think of Oprah Winfrey and the power of unexpected winning.

I’ve also come to think stations aren’t getting enough from the actual winner. In many cases, the jock briefly tries to negotiate a scream from the winner-who-can’t-scream-because-they’re-on-the-job. Maybe there’s a quick “so what are you going to do with the money?” or “who are you going to take with you to the concert?”  Then they’re gone until the winner promo, and you’re back to hearing the other callers.

One station that got me thinking about the power of having the winners hang around is CFXL (XL103) Calgary. Like a lot of other “Greatest Hits” (or Classic Rock) stations, their signature promotion has become the daily payroll game in which a winner continues to rack up cash until somebody else hears their name called and displaces them. The contest isn’t new, but XL gets more out of it than many stations I’ve heard.

Often, middayer Buzz Bishop and afternoon host Bob Steele effectively make the current winner into the hour’s co-host. You get to know them. They are often coached into doing talk-ups over intros that are sometimes better than our own first airchecks. They do shtick with the next winner after being “fired.” By the end of the hour, they are “people just like you” who won money.

The payroll game structure lends itself to a winner sticking around, of course. But who’s to say that anybody who just won cash wouldn’t be happy to visit with the host for a few more breaks? The callers aren’t necessarily people with inherently mesmerizing on-air personalities, but the same work that goes into extending a contest payoff with losing callers goes into making the winners sound great.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of the above article do not necessarily reflect those of the MAB. Contact the MAB for information on the MAB’s official editorial policy.

Editorial: The Radio Road Trip Lives

Sean Ross webBy: Sean Ross
[email protected]
Twitter: @RossOnRadio

You don’t have to go on a road trip to hear small-town radio anymore. Not every small-market station streams, but I come across interesting small-market stations in my various listening apps on a regular basis — often discovering them in the course of searching for some other station.

You don’t have to listen to small-market radio if you go on a road trip. If you’re a satellite subscriber, it’s likely that you’ve cheerfully given up on futzing around for a new station every hour. We drove from New York to Florida in December, and the song I’ll remember the trip by was not a current or developing hit, but “When I Was a Boy” by Jeff Lynne’s ELO, then being showcased on Sirius XM’s triple-A The Spectrum channel.

But, I recently drove the 5-1/2 hours from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. Both ways. Without satellite. Without streaming. That means about three hours each way with only small-market music FMs. Many people wouldn’t consider doing that now, but if you’re reading a Ross on Radio column, there’s a better-than-average chance that you would.

Just as there is still excitement in hearing an “oh wow” song on the radio — even if it’s a song readily available on your phone — there is still excitement in hearing local radio locally. A few weeks ago, I surfed across a station in Hazard, KY, talking about the difficulty of finding younger coal miners. There was ample and fascinating “sense of place” there, but it was still somewhere else. Large or small-market, it’s different knowing what you’re hearing represents the place you are.

To that point, there was also excitement in scanning across “Bohemian Like You” by Dandy Warhols, never a consistent hit on U.S. radio, in St. George, Utah. That moment of wondering “how would this song end up on the radio here, of all places,” was barely diminished by figuring out that it was the Dixie State University alternative station, KXDS (Radio Dixie 91.3), operating with a translator in the commercial frequencies. (To drive the Mountain West is to rarely have the frequency on your car radio match the dial position being given by the station.)

The Dixie State station had its own sense of place. The ads were for campus organizations. One tried to recruit students for chemistry club by promising, “You could be the next Walter Wh…,” before the announcer trailed off, and allowed that nobody would actually be breaking bad.

Some other observations from 5-1/2 hours spent largely off the grid:
There are always the stations covering multiple positions by necessity. CHR, Adult Top 40, and Hot AC are closer than ever, but KLGL (Eagle 94.5) Richfield, UT, which was positioned as a Hot AC, still played “Undone (The Sweater Song)” by Weezer, “Please Forgive Me” by Bryan Adams,” and “Alright” by Janet Jackson in the course of my listening.  To Eagle’s credit, it all flowed well. I kept listening for some provocative segue that I could include in “Radio’s Best & Worst,” and barely found one until “Alright” went into Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man.” Weezer went into OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars,” which wasn’t jarring at all.

Radio road trips used to be defined by the unavoidable current song, or better yet by the developing song discovered in market after secondary market. That changed with the tightening of major-group-owned radio in medium markets, and although I certainly heard “Stressed Out” enough times, you are as likely to remember the trip for hearing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, or some other reliably testing library title more than twice, even in the major-markets.

But, you also hear the records that have disappeared. I’ve heard “Getting Jiggy Wit It” three times this week. I heard “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie more than once. Of course, your chances of the latter have been bolstered by the recent boost in super-soft ACs. Las Vegas and Salt Lake City have had the format for years. But St. George has one, too. I heard at least four supersoft ACs.

You also really notice the rise of the Classic Country format on a road trip. It was the thing most often encountered on the handful of music AMs I came across, but it wasn’t only on AM. I would have been happy with either “Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard on Me” by Juice Newton or “Baby I Lied” by Deborah Allen. Within an hour, I’d heard both.

When you do hear recent songs that you wouldn’t hear in the major markets, they tend not to be brand new but mid-chart records that other stations have dropped. Ellie Goulding’s “Something in the Way You Move” disappeared almost instantly from major-market stations. I heard it repeatedly on this trip.

Some things don’t change. There is always that hour-or-so stretch where your only choice is one Country station and one station playing choral religious music. Also still true, the first other station you find after that sounds really good. Even if you’re traveling during the week, there will always be the station you can’t hear in regular format. I heard a “Greatest Hits” station playing Scott Shannon’s countdown on Sunday night. When I came back 24 hours later, it was running Tom Kent.

The biggest change is the consistent availability of big-sounding imaging. On a road trip of the past, a great legal or promo always helped establish a small-market station as something special, even if a weak part-timer came along to kill the vibe a few songs later. These days, everybody has good imaging, and you won’t necessarily hear any part-timer in a small-market or any part-timer in a large one. That said, one of the trip’s happiest moments was turning on KLUC Las Vegas at 8:35 on Sunday morning and hearing it hosted.

In fact, while there have been road trips where the small-market radio made the larger-market stations sound bad, just by being more essentially radio, the market sizes were pretty evenly matched this trip. Salt Lake City radio, in particular, impressed me. After decades as the most-overradioed market in America (the geography of Provo and Ogden essentially gave it enough radio stations for three cities), it’s a rare instance of competition truly making everybody better, not just bankrupt. I’m also prepared to declare KZHT vs. KUDD (Mix 105.1) the best CHR war of the moment.

That holiday drive to Florida was a disappointment, from a radio standpoint, because it didn’t stack up to similar versions of that trip from my formative radio years. This drive put me back in touch with some of the things I used to love about radio road trips. The marathon drive was more than worthwhile.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of the above article do not necessarily reflect those of the MAB. Contact the MAB for information on the MAB’s official editorial policy.

Editorial: Active Hits That Really Rock, And the Alternative

Sean Ross webBy: Sean Ross
[email protected]
Twitter: @RossOnRadio

If you’ve been watching the monitors of Active Rock stations, it’s no secret that they have grown more gold-based over the years. And, that the nature of the gold has evolved as well. It started with playing a little more AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. Then PDs decided that Jimi Hendrix was timeless. Then they decided that maybe Van Halen was still relevant. Now, a lot more mainstream Classic Rock is fair game—“We Will Rock You,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” even “More Than A Feeling.”

Active Rock was digging into Classic Rock by necessity. In the early 2000s, the current rock world was essentially one guitar-driven entity with two different charts. As Alternative radio moved back to the indie side, the existing harder currents that lived primarily at Active Rock no longer had the same sort of lateral support. Even the biggest Volbeat and Avenged Sevenfold current titles rarely survived to become long-term library titles. Disturbed’s high-concept cover of “The Sounds of Silence,” currently the format’s No. 1 song, will probably continue to test, thanks to its familiar hook, but it’s not a solution for the format, it’s a stunt (albeit an appealing one).

Existing Active Rock stations have had to try and finesse all these disparate pieces. Alternative stations famously found themselves unable to go “from Tool to Jewel” in the mid-‘90s, something that drove Active and Alternative Rock together. Now, Active rock stations have to figure out how to go from Hendrix to Halestorm.

The last few years have seen a handful of launches of library-based hard(ish)-rocking stations that don’t sweat the issue of recent music. They play harder classic rock, but they’re not just “Classic Rock that Really Rocks” because they play grunge, they can play Linkin Park, and they can play the handful of alternative ‘00s titles with guitars (e.g., “Seven Nation Army”). The iHeart Media “Man Up” stations, often translator-driven flanker stations, of recent years worked this territory.

Then, there was KFMB-FM San Diego, which launched early this year. The new “KFM-BFM” ticks all of the above boxes, and, because it’s San Diego, a heritage Alternative market. And, there’s no traditional Adult Hits station, they also play Soft Cell and Stray Cats. And, they played “Hate To Say I Told You So” by the Hives four times last week. Although KFM-BFM actually dropped the “Jack-FM” handle, think of the current format as “Active Jack That Really Rocks.”

Since I profiled it earlier this year, KFMB-FM has gotten fast traction, up 2.9 – 3.4 – 3.8 in its first two PPM monthlies. A few weeks ago, Seattle got a similar station, KVRQ (Rock 98.9). The new station doesn’t have San Diego’s pop/new wave component, but it does span the Doors through Linkin Park. In doing so, they’ve parked between heritage rocker KISW and Classic Rock KZOK.

I’m also a fan of KZTI (Z105.3) Reno, Nev., launched last September with its own version of harder classic rock. KZTI covers a similar era span, but it goes a little deeper into earlier generations of metal. I’ve always loved UFO’s “Too Hot to Handle,” but I’ve never heard it on the radio until Z105.3. And that song is from 1977.

Here’s a recent hour of KZTI from the station’s Website:

Rainbow, “Street of Dreams”
Ozzy Osbourne, “Shot in the Dark”
Sammy Hagar, “I’ll Fall In Love Again”
Skid Row, “I Remember You”
Foghat, “Fool for the City”
Soundgarden, “Spoonman”
Def Leppard, “Animal”
Creed, “Torn”
Judas Priest, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”
Smashing Pumpkins, “Cherub Rock”
Black Sabbath, “Fairies Wear Boots”
Warrant, “Cherry Pie”
AC/DC, “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”
Whitesnake, “Still of the Night”
Staind, “Mudshovel”

San Diego and Seattle will almost certainly not be the last launches of this type. And the impact of a gold-based format will probably be felt on those Active Rock stations that still play currents. A few Active Rock PDs might see this as an opportunity to stop worrying about Bad Company and embrace “Bat Country.” More likely, PDs are already shoring up their gold libraries as a pre-emptive strike. And if you need to be told that “Bat Country” was Avenged Sevenfold’s breakthrough song, well, that’s why.

If there’s another way forward for Active Rock, it seems to lie in what made the format successful a little more than a decade ago. Until the White Stripes, Strokes, and Killers set Alternative off on a path of its own, the two formats were both guitar-based and differed largely in reporting status. Active Rock played early grunge before many markets even had a significant Alternative station. Now a lot of the harder grunge is defaulting to Active Rock. But even “Loser” by Beck has been a playable record for Active Rock for a while.

In other words, Active Rock’s franchise could be as the continuation of guitar-based Alternative. That was the successful formula for stations like KTBZ (the Buzz) Houston in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but the Buzz has experienced a ratings resurgence over the last year by rocking harder again. It’s still an Alternative reporter. The Lumineers, and Coldplay are still heard. But so are recent songs from Shinedown, Deftones, and Disturbed. Similarly, Cumulus’ Active Rock stations are taking more music from Alternative these days—Cold War Kids and Twenty One Pilots’ “Ride” most notably.

The late ‘90s paradigm in which most current-based stations were playing Active Rock, but reporting to the Alternative Rock chart (with its greater prestige) wasn’t entirely satisfying for listeners or PDs on either side. Alternative PDs got into the format to play the Smiths, not Trapt, and when the two formats diverged, both sides tended to default to the music that set them as far apart from each other as possible. And yet, when the two formats were more closely synched, the lateral exposure helped keep rock music more entrenched in the mainstream.

The ideal situation this time would be just enough overlap for two successful formats to exist, and for multi-format hits to emerge. There’s not a ton of music for Active to take from Alternative now, but we have certainly seen bands like Black Keys or Cage the Elephant, rooted in traditional rock but worked to Alternative first. AWOLNATION’s “Sail” initially seemed like a stretch to some Active Rock stations. But by the time they came to grips with it, Active Rock bands were already making songs that sounded like “Sail.”

I’ve really enjoyed the new handful of harder-rocking Classic Rock stations, particularly KZTI with its extra “oh-wow” factor. But it’s not where I want to see today’s rock radio end. In the late ‘80s, the rise of Classic Rock left existing “Album Rock” stations unsure how to react. Some became Classic Rock stations. Some found a path forward, once they were nudged.

Editorial: When Bad Spots Hurt Good Stations

Sean Ross webBy: Sean Ross
[email protected]
Twitter: @RossOnRadio

I set the radio buttons in my rental car. (Yes, it took a minute to find them).  And, for the next hour I found myself surprised by just how much I was really enjoying KIIS-FM, Los Angeles.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. KIIS is a perennial on many people’s list of the best top 40s. But as a Sirius XM subscriber, I’ve had KIIS as a punch-button, even in the Northeast, for years, and yet I hadn’t listened much lately. I knew I should listen, if only out of professional curiosity, but, whenever I went there, I didn’t stay long.

The difference, I now realize, was hearing KIIS with the local commercials. On satellite, the KIIS stopsets already felt very noticeable, surrounded as the station was by satellite’s own commercial-free music channels. But, it was also the tenor of the ads. The satellite stopsets sounded like what you’d hear on an online stream — some produced vignettes, some tax-relief ads and start-your-own-business spots that you might expect to hear on a News/Talk station. They weren’t the worst of the ads I’ve heard in recent years, but, they didn’t say “fun, uptempo CHR station” either.

Hearing the station in L.A. was a much different experience. Maybe it was the combination of sunshine and Southern California. But, the stopsets on KIIS, as heard in Santa Monica flew by. And, it proved that the content of spots makes a difference.

So did a station launch that I worked on last year. The station was fun and uptempo. The ads, in the first few days, were not — debt-relief and graphic medical spots, sometimes back to back. Even one of my friends, not aware that I worked with the station, commented on them. Until then, I’d accepted the spots as all a new station could hope for. But, I passed my friend’s feedback on to the PD.

What happened next was a pleasant surprise. The PD worked with sales to help minimize the impact of the downer spots. But the station also received fast acceptance from the local ad community, even in advance of the first numbers coming back. Then, the first ratings were promising. For whatever reason, the tenor of the spots improved rapidly.

The result was that within 45-60 days of the launch, listening to the station became an entirely pleasurable experience. I’m sure some of it was just a function of the usual shakeout of any new station’s issues. But, I was already predisposed to like the music. Better spots just made the entire station experience better.

Not every station is able to upgrade its available sponsors that quickly. The same friend heard another successful recent station launch, owned by a large group broadcaster, and reported on the spots he heard online: all of them dry-voice, minimally produced, and with a hard-sell delivery. There were two tax-relief spots, a credit-relief spot, mold remediation, “and on and on.”

One of the things I realize now is that I’m not sure which hard-sell or downer spots I’ve heard where in the last few months. Was the ad that promises to cleanse rotting food out of your intestines on a client station? Or have I just heard it so much recently that I’m unfairly tagging somebody? What about the ads encouraging listeners to talk to the doctor about their poop? It sometimes feels like no major-market outlet, no matter how successful, is safe from downer spots — even over the air. But, hearing KIIS locally, I know that’s not always the case.

After these recent experiences, I now believe that there’s some value in being the station that can say on the air, “While every station has some commercials, we’ll never run ads that make you depressed or uncomfortable.” It’s been years since stations talked that directly or earnestly about what they do. But, I now feel it’s as important a point of differentiation as “commercial-free.” And, a unique one, because “commercial-free” has been cheapened by overuse and misuse. In fact, unlike “commercial-free,” it’s not anti-sponsor. It’s supporting the integrity of the sponsors you do run.

I also think there are ways to finesse the quality of a station’s spots, even if it can’t hold the line on downer spots altogether. The most obvious is keeping them away from each other. Because many stations do not. And because it is impossible to hear two hard-sell spots back to back without thinking, “Another one? Really?”

There is also a specific combination of gratuitous and unpleasant that makes some spots particularly unlistenable, and makes other hard-sell spots around them feel that much worse. If a station is only in a position to turn down a few ads, digestive functions would be a logical starting place. I don’t want to deny anybody with the inability to break down food enzymes the help they need. Hearing the results described graphically is another matter. And any morning team who led an equally explicit discussion of the same topic would be in trouble these days.

Placement makes a difference, too. The tax-relief spots aren’t entirely gone from the station I work with. But, when they follow the concert spot and the jewelry spot, they rankle less. Many stations used to have a firm protocol of starting with the best, most-produced spots first. I don’t hear much of evidence of that these days, but perhaps that’s because so many stopsets have no “most-produced” spots.

Over the last decade, we’ve made a commitment as an industry to improving the quality of our spots — often because broadcasters feel it’s a more attainable goal than tackling spotload or converting from spots to sponsorships. Downer spots and graphic spots – coming in from bulk purchasers outside our purview – are undermining all the hard work we’ve done with other advertisers.

In Canada, there was a regional spot last year in which a caller complains that mortgage woes were keeping him up at night, so the mortgage agent sings him a lullaby. That ad is undoubtedly better in the hearing than the retelling, but it proves that even financial help can be made entertaining or even touching. The tenor of our spots is something that broadcasters can seek to control, and when we do, it makes a difference.