The Good and the Bad of U.S. Radio

by Trish on April 1, 2013

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

Like thousands of other Canadians, I spent March Break with my family in Florida.  We prefer to drive rather than fly but it does mean two days each way driving the I-75. To help pass the time I did the “seek and scan” thing and got to hear a lot of radio as we drove down and back over four days.  This got me thinking about the differences between what I hear when I travel in the U.S. and Canada. I thought I would share my observations about radio and other things.

First, the good news

Oldies on FM:  The FCC regulations allow stations to run Oldies on FM, and in most instances these songs sound so much better in stereo.  I programmed an Oldies FM station for several years and it was always a strong #1, adults 25-54, and listening to stations like Big 106.5 in Dayton, Ohio reminded me what a pleasure it is to listen to a well-programmed Oldies station.  The imaging, the upbeat talent and, of course, the music sounded so much better on FM.  The entire package was simply more “fun” to listen to and we all felt better about our long drive.  This format works because it takes that large segment of “baby boomers” back to their youth when life was less complicated and somehow more innocent.  However, the Jack format seems to have killed off a lot of Oldies stations and we noticed fewer Oldies stations, and fewer Jacks for that matter, in comparison to previous years.

Religious Radio:  There appear to be more and more inspirational or religious stations on the FM dial, especially in Georgia and Florida.  This format has really taken off in the U.S. over the last few years and some of these stations sound very polished, professional, and are easy to listen to.  I managed to pick up WFFI which is part of The Fish Network of religious stations in Tennessee, and found that very pleasant to listen to.  They don’t do a hard sell of religion and the music flows smoothly.  These stations have a loyal following and some of them are making some decent money.  I was also told that listeners tend to go out of their way to support the advertisers because they share similar values.  I also heard some of “The Joy” stations which are a network of inspirational stations that are rather impressive in the way they program and market their products.

Consolidation:  This trip gave me an opportunity to listen to some of the Cumulus stations 18 months after the merger with Citadel.  I listened to the Classic Rocker from Chattanooga (WSKZ @106) and thought it sounded as strong as ever.  It is ranked #2 all people 12+ behind US 101, the Clear Channel Country powerhouse that has dominated that market for many years.  Cumulus put a talk format on 102.3 and has grown that to 4th position with a 4.0 share and that also sounded decent.  Their Classic Hits station (107.8 Big FM) appeared to lack focus and did not sound as polished as I expected. I was therefore not surprised to see they have a 3.7 share which is down from a 4.9 share last summer.

The HQ of Cumulus is in Atlanta, where they now own 6 FM stations, and while it is early days as yet, it appears that CBS and Cox Media are still very aggressive competitors.  This is an interesting market with more stations targeting the younger demos than perhaps there should be (similar to Toronto).  To my ear, V103 (owned by CBS) is still one of the best sounding Urban AC stations in America and it remains at the top of the ratings.  At #2 is Magic 107.5 (owned by Radio One) which plays an Urban R&B leaning format.  This station has a huge signal that can be heard for many miles either side of Atlanta. Cox has 4 stations in the top 6 with B 98.5 at #3.  This is a strong AC station that plays music from the 80’s to today, and I spent a lot of time listening to this station so unfortunately did not listen to their other products.  The best performing Cumulus station at this point is Q100, which is an All Hits station and was the station that won the popular vote with my two teenage boys. Q appears to be on the rise and have grown the ratings from a 3.7 to a 4.5 and are now ranked 10th in the market.  Worth mentioning is Kicks 101.5 (WKHX-FM) which, while at #12 in the ratings, is a well programmed Country station and appears to be picking up audience from the largely voice tracked Clear Channel Country station, 94.9 The Bull.  Not doing much as yet is WYAY-FM, the Cumulus All News station at 106.7.  They were a Greatest Hits station under Citadel and Cumulus blew that station up and replaced it with news and information. I listened to it on a Sunday morning and did not think it was in the same league as a CFRB.  By the way, I checked the ratings and it is ranked 19th in the market with a 1.5% share.  Lastly, I stumbled across a Gospel/Country station at 98.8 called The Walk which is a Cumulus station. It positions itself as Atlanta’s newest radio station and I was impressed to hear some of the big country leaning gospel songs from the likes of Tim McGraw, Josh Turner and The Zac Brown Band. I can see this format doing well in the Southern states of the U.S.

Further south in Macon Georgia, Cumulus owns 8 stations and controls 7 of the 10 positions in the ratings. Clear Channel is #1 with Urban at 97.9 and #2 with an Urban AC with V101.7.  Cumulus appears to dominate the market with Country WDEN at #3 and a decent Lite Rock station in Z93.7 at #4.  I did not get to hear the other Cumulus stations but they are Blazing 92.3 at #6 and B95.1 an All Hits station at #7.  One thing that stood out to me on all the Cumulus stations I listened to is the effort they are putting behind their Groupon type offering known as Sweetjack. It is well promoted on air and is easy to navigate to, and use on the stations’ websites.  This appears to be part of their digital strategy and they look to be growing digital revenue by using multiple platforms to reach listeners and engage consumers.

The not so good news

Voice Tracking:  I am a fan of voice tracking, providing it is done properly.  I was, therefore, somewhat surprised to hear just how obvious and bad some of the voice tracking is that can be heard on stations in the U.S.  When I hear someone say, “Just about into our 3 o’clock hour on this Saturday afternoon,” I know there is a good chance I’m listening to a show that was tracked the previous day.  I was disappointed to hear a lot of very generic sounding voice breaks, which lacked local or timely information.  This technology is getting better by the day and makes it easier than ever to create the impression of “live” radio.  But no matter how good the equipment is, good voice tracks happen only if the talent does the show prep and then delivers the material in such a way that it sounds live.  That is much easier to do if the announcer lives in the market and is involved in the local community, but I suspect that many of the voices I heard came from other markets. By the way, you can find a helpful article called, “How to improve those voice tracks,” at www.byrnesmedia.com.  I encourage you to listen to your station during voice tracked periods and see if your announcers are putting in the effort.  It’s easy to track a 6-hour shift in 30 minutes but a well prepared and properly delivered 6-hour, voice tracked show will take at least 90 minutes to create.

Traffic Reports:  It’s a long trip and we really needed the radio to warn us of traffic delays or bad weather.  Normally we encounter traffic delays and sometimes accidents or bad weather which can delay us.  On this trip, we didn’t experience any of the hour-long hold ups that delayed us in previous years, and we had the benefit of seeing traffic delays and problems on our Garmen GPS system which also helped.  However, I was disappointed to hear how generic many of the traffic reports sounded on some of the stations.  The reports on AM stations tended to be better than on the FMs, which gave such limited information and often the traffic person delivered the information so quickly that it was easy to miss the critical details.  The one recurring mistake I heard on several stations was describing the problem first and then the location.  I was only interested in problems on I-75, so when the traffic reporter said I-75, I turned the volume up but by then I had missed the problem.  Traffic reporters must understand that they should always give location first and then situation.

The Quality of the Commercials:  Overall, I believe Canadian, small market radio is doing a better job for the local advertisers.  South of the border, I heard a lot of “price and item” commercials as well as lots of commercials jammed with cliché’s and meaningless phrases. “We must….we must sell 60 cars before Monday,” was one example I heard.  Phone numbers, web sites, too many words jammed into the commercial, and too much emphasis on how great the client was or how long they had been in business were all common mistakes I heard.  I suspect this is more prevalent in the U.S. because often the salesperson has to gather and write the copy while the announcer has to voice and produce the local commercial.  The end result is a lot of commercials, which sound average at best, especially when they play next to a national spot featuring superior production, writing and talent.

Contests:  The Arbitron survey period had not started, so I was not surprised to hear very little promotional activity as I listened around. It was also the weekend, so perhaps the stations had been more active during the week. I did hear some stations offering VIP seats to concerts (Justin Timberlake & JayZ) and sporting events as well as some client contesting. One station was offering a $150 VISA gift card from Reece’s Peanuts which sounded a little cheesy to my ear. I also heard several “text to win” type promotions and a number of stations inviting listeners to join the club to win prizing. What I did not hear were stations teasing a major giveaway, but again the Arbitron sweeps did not start until March 29th.

AM Radio:  This medium is struggling, both in Canada and the U.S.  In most major cities, there are one or two big AM stations doing very well with news, sports or talk, but the other stations are dying.  Of course the big difference between here and south of the border is that no U.S. companies air Oldies on AM.  I listened to the Disney Channel and also a little of The All Comedy Radio on a couple of stations and that sounded decent.  However, the content on other AM stations was generally so poor that they gave the impression they were operating out of a broom closet with content coming from a satellite.  I did hear some baseball play-by-play on stations that air traffic reports during the week, but clearly stay with baseball and drop traffic reports on weekends.  Common sense would seem to dictate that even if you carry live sports, the world is still rotating and between innings or periods, critical news, weather and traffic reports should be aired, but that was not the case on all stations we heard. 

Lack of Discretionary Time Information:  The reason people listen to radio is mainly for the music or the companionship outside of AM Drive.  The stations that manage to create compelling local radio are the ones that prosper.  What was lacking on most of the stations to which I tuned was that critical, local information.  Tell me what to do with my free time and give me ideas of where to take my family.  We are all “time starved” today so the free time we have is even more important than ever before.  Radio stations must find ways to get this information on the air even during weekends.  After all, we know weekends are heavily tuned time periods and the PPM data is showing that in a number of markets Saturday afternoons are the second most listened to day-part of the week.

Lack of News on FM:  Canadian radio stations generally do a much better job of delivering news, especially on FM.  News I did find on FM was so brief that it drove me to the AM band to seek the details.  I think programmers in the U.S. treat news as an interruption and television appears to be doing a much better job of delivering local and regional news than radio from my experience.  News bulletins on FM that I heard focused on local and state news and there was very little news from other states or from around the world.  There were bad snow storms in the mid-west that were not mentioned, and while we were in Florida a new Pope was being elected in Rome.  I heard very little about this on radio until he was actually elected.  Then I learned about it first via social media.  Spending time in the U.S. leaves one feeling isolated and less informed.  Thank goodness for the BBC news service that is carried on one of the cable channels.

Homogeneous Sounding Radio:  This may be a function of consolidation, voice tracking, or both, but many of the radio stations I listened to sounded very similar.  I heard the same music, the same image voice, a lot of the same formatics, and in some cases, the same announcer.  Yes, Ryan Seacrest is also everywhere on radio in the U.S. as well!  While the average listener may not pick up on many of these similarities, I believe they contribute to the perception of cookie-cutter radio, which ultimately cheats the listener and results in people spending less time tuning into radio.  If someone just wants wall-to-wall tunes, there are other, better choices than radio, especially in the States where Pandora is growing in popularity.  Our challenge is to create the impression that the radio people are listening to is live, and that our radio station is very plugged into the community.

Conclusion:  I concede that my “seek and scan” method of listening to radio meant that there was no guarantee I was tuning to the top rated stations in each market.  However, I did get a snapshot of what the average person is hearing in Dayton OH, Corbin KY, Dalton TN, Macon GA and several other markets.  My overall impression is that while there is some good radio in the major markets, the smaller markets in the U.S. are not as well served by radio as small markets in Canada.  There are of course more radio stations per market in the States than in Canada and they tend to run with much lower staff numbers, and consolidation means that a smaller staff are responsible for multiple services.  That undoubtedly impacts a station’s ability to create great radio but overall, I think listeners in smaller markets in Canada are treated to a better product than those in the U.S.  I therefore think that Canadian broadcasters need to be cautious about spending too much time listening to radio in the U.S when they are looking for inspiration and ideas. Frankly, there is more creative radio to be heard in many Canadian markets and in other parts of the world, providing you know where to look. Most stations stream their audio so you do not need to fly all the way to Australia, Europe or South Africa to hear some great radio. The other two non radio related impressions I was left with from this trip is that customer service is much better in the States than in Canada, and the food portions are huge! It is little wonder that obesity is such an issue. So feel proud that you work in radio in Canada, as generally speaking, I think we are producing better radio especially in the small and medium sized markets.

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