10 Things I Have Learned Over the Last 20 Years

It was 20 years ago this month that ByrnesMedia was formed. As I reflect on all the incredible people we have worked with, the radio stations we have helped, and the successes we have enjoyed, I got to thinking about all the things we have learned. Here are some that are perhaps more important today than ever as we all navigate the impact of a pandemic that none of us had heard of until a few months ago.

Music: I have learned that size matters when it comes to the number of songs in active rotation. Most radio stations have too many songs in their active library which impacts Time Spent Listening. This is because the PD and announcers listen to the station way longer than the average listener and they get sick of hearing the same songs. Remember, it’s never the songs you do not play that will hurt you. Music makes up 70% of the hour on most music stations, and in this Covid-19 world where commercial islands are smaller, chances are you are playing play even more songs each hour. Therefore, it is more important today than ever that your active music library is the right size, and that every song is right for the format and appeals to your target audience. If just one song per hour is weak, burnt, or unfamiliar to your audience, this will cause tune out. Low TSL often indicates a music issue, which can be fixed. Radio stations that still do some form of research have an advantage. By the way, there are new forms of music research that are a lot more cost effective than the old auditorium music tests. For those stations who cannot afford local music research, we provide a weekly list of format specific suggested currents, as well as our twice yearly gold safelists. We then work with the station to ensure the music universe is right for their market and station.

Music Scheduling Software: I have learned that many radio stations do not know how to get the most out of their music scheduling software. We work with the most popular (Music Master, RCS Selector, and PowerGold) and any one of them can help your radio station sound better, provided they are configured to achieve the programming goals of the station. We have rebuilt more music databases from the ground up than I care to count, because it is often faster than trying to fix the problems caused by lots of different hands messing with the database over many years. Getting the correct fields set up, ensuring the right information is present for each song card, establishing categories, the optimum number of songs per category, building the right number of clocks, and setting up the rules are all the basic things you must get right so the software can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Next comes the training of the person who will schedule the music. A computer can schedule a day in minutes, but editing the daily log for tempo, style, and flow will take at least an hour per day provided the person editing the log is trained properly and understands the programming objectives.

Information: In many Canadian markets, the radio station is now the only source of reliable local information. Newspapers have either closed or become regional and they often lack the local information. There is a real cost to have trained news staff who can cover the various local body meetings and gather and write stories that explain what the story means and how it will impact the average listener. Those radio stations that get the importance of local news are likely getting more hours tuned today because the listeners trust them to have the local information and deliver it in such a way that they feel informed and safe. The thing that I have learned is the importance of local news and information as a tangible way to create a point of difference between one station and their competitor.

Personality: I have learned that few stations invest the time and effort into coaching and helping their announcers to become local personalities. Often, it is the personalities on the radio station that becomes the icing on the cake that sets one radio station apart from all the others. You can often get that talent to the next level quicker by identifying their strengths and encouraging them to amplifying those skills and talents. All personalities benefit from regular coaching and positive feedback. Morning shows need the most attention, but other dayparts also benefit from regular coaching sessions.

Imaging: Do you know who your biggest advertiser is on your radio station? In most cases it is the radio station itself. Count the number of times in a day your radio station runs recorded imaging promoting the station, features, personalities or shows. Radio stations need to take the time to ensure the image voice appeals to the target audience and the production and writing is up to par. Imaging should sell benefits of listening, and should help the radio station achieve its programming goals. Unfortunately, imaging is often not given the attention it deserves on many radio stations.

Promotion: In my experience, most radio stations do not have a clear strategy when it comes to promotions. Promotions should either make the station money, grow audience, or grow Time Spent Listening. There is a place for all three, but you need a clear plan. If your goal is to grow TSL, then your promotions should encourage forced tuning or listening for extended periods of time. The “Song of the Day” is an example of a forced tuning promotion. Listen at 7:10am for the song of the day and when you hear it played later in the day call in, to win a prize. Many stations took all the promotions off the air during the initial stages of Covid-19. But now that summer is here and things are starting to open up again, perhaps it is time to revisit this strategy. If your station is famous for a particular promotion, you should consider bringing it back again, providing you can execute it. Prizing may be an issue and connecting the listener with the prize may also be a challenge if your office is closed to the public. In that case, do a deal with a local courier company to deliver your prizes to the listener’s home for on-air mentions. On-air contesting that is “fun” to listen to is important when there is so much doom and uncertainty in the world. Listeners who have been stuck working from home for months will appreciate this.

Strategy: This is where it all starts, but not every radio station has a clearly defined game plan that they review on a regular basis. To win, you need a roadmap and everyone on your team needs to understand the goals, the role they will play and the timeframe to achieve success.  In my experience, not many radio stations have a strategic plan. If your new fiscal starts on September 1st, you should be working on this now.

The Power of Local: Radio stations that have personalities that listeners relate to, and who are involved in the events that are important to the local community are the stations that win. This is a bold statement in a world were remote voice tracking has become more prevalent. There are some personalities who voice track from another market that sound more local and deliver more relevant content than some of the lazy talent who are located in the market. To be on the air in any market is a privilege but an average sounding talent who can truly reflect what is important in the local community day in and day out should do better than that slick out of market voice tracked talent.  However, with technology that is available to any radio station today, and provided that out of market talent is briefed on what is happening in the local market, I think they could have an advantage over time. But it requires a “content captain” to be present in the home market who is skilled in gathering perishable, important local information and getting that to the talent no matter where they are located. If you look at the cume in the major PPM markets you will see that it continues to erode from survey to survey, which is a real concern for our industry. If we turn our radio stations into jukeboxes which lack local content, then we are no better than Spotify, Pandora, or any of the other music services that are available on listeners’ smart phones, tablets, and in vehicle entertainment systems. All these services are chipping away at the reach of radio. My experience is that not many radio stations truly embrace the power of local.

Sales: We encounter three types of radio stations in our travels; radio stations that make money but have no fun, radio stations that are not making money but are having fun, and the best of all are those stations that make money and have fun doing it. We are often asked to meet with sales staff when we work at a radio station, which is more likely to be via Zoom or Teams these days. I love talking to sales staff because not only does it help to break down the barriers that exist between sales and programming, it also means that we get to learn things about the station and the market that are important. There is always one salesperson who will be eager to tell it like it really is. What I have learned over the past 20 years of visiting radio stations is that good sales staff are hard to find and they are often harder to keep. Stations need to train and compensate sales staff, and ensure the product is as good as it can be, so the advertising is more effective, and the sales staff can generate repeat business. Without good sales staff it is hard to have a successful radio station that is making money and having fun.

Technology: Not many radio stations focus on the audio quality and the audio chain to ensure the product sounds the best it possibly can. The old saying of garbage in equals garbage out, is never more accurate than when it comes to the audio of a radio station. It all starts with the music library. If your music has come from a variety of sources and was recorded at different bit rates and levels, then no matter how good your processing is, your levels will be all over the place. In the old days when you had announcers in the booth, you hoped they would control the levels and log anything that was a problem so it could be fixed. Today many control rooms are empty after AM Drive and the automation system controls the radio station. So today more than ever it is vital that you spend the time to ensure all your music is of the best possible quality and recorded properly into your system. A number of stations we work with have gone through the process of recording everything from scratch and you can really hear the difference. By the way, this is a job for only one person, so that every song is recorded the same way. Do not think purchasing music from a service and importing the audio will solve your problems. I know of one station who did this and found several mistakes, including the wrong songs, the wrong versions of songs, and in once case a song with no audio just 3 minutes of white noise. Next, your engineer needs to do a complete sweep of your audio chain to ensure all the levels are consistent from the control room to the transmitter. Lastly, getting the processing right is critical to a great sound, and must be in line with your strategic goals. Do you want to be the loudest, the cleanest, or the least fatiguing station in your market? I visited a station prior to Covid-19 and immediately noticed how “muddy” the station sounded. The staff thought it sounded fine, so I went looking for the engineer. He lived in a different market and only visited the station once a month. On my next visit, we took a trip to the transmitter site and found that the processor was set to the wrong format, and the firmware had never been updated. In summary, I have learned to always look at the audio, the audio chain and the processing as that is such an important aspect of any radio station.

Conclusion: There are lots of other things I could tell you about what I have learned over the past 20 years consulting stations in Canada and beyond, but I’ll stop at 10. You may not agree with all my observations, but if there is one suggestion from the above that you decide to focus on, then you will make your radio station better. I am now well into my 43rd year working in a business I love. This is a fun business to be in, and every day I wake up excited and energized to do my part to help radio stations be more successful. I hope you feel the same way.