The case for more talk in music programming

Abstract: The programming ethos for most music radio still sits in the 90s…

I am constantly intrigued by the prevalence of music formats in radio stations. I am well-aware of the secrets behind their popularity, but I also know they’re built upon an outdated, and increasingly flimsy, premise.

I spent over 25 years in radio, most of it in a state of constant anxiety; the reason for this is that I had burned into my brain the inflexible programming maxim of ‘more music, less talk’. As a result, every time I opened my mouth to talk I could hear a metaphorical clock in my head counting down to when I should ‘get back to the music’. And the more I talked, the louder it ticked.

I still hear that clock today. When I monitor music-formatted stations I can sense when the presenter is under pressure to ‘get back to the music’, and the result is programming riddled with missed opportunities for effective content.

So why is radio today so troubled? The reason is simple: we have inherited the mindset ‘more music, less talk’ from a period when radio was the principal provider of music content to media consumers. But times have changed. That was when radio was attractive to media consumers – one of the reasons for the popularity of the music format for media organisations. But there were other reasons why media organisations embraced the music format; and these are the ‘secrets’ I referred to earlier: Music formatting (as opposed to talk radio or full-service formatting)…

  1. Was cheaper (talk radio is very labour-intensive, requiring producers and news teams as well as hosts);
  2. Was easier (whereas talk radio demands highly skilled individuals, any monkey can be trained to watch a stream of scheduled songs play out on a screen); and,
  3. Was safer (you’re not going to piss people off playing Tina Turner’s Simply the Best).

That last point needs challenging.

Firstly I’d argue it’s a false sense of security. When a station plays a piece of music, three scenarios – possible futures – immediately kick into play:

  1. The listener thinks ‘I love this song’ and turns the radio station up;
  2. The listener thinks ‘I hate this song’ and switches the radio station off; or,
  3. The listener is ambivalent towards the song and the radio station slips into the background.

Two of those three scenarios (the last two) are negative, increasingly so in a media environment where music alternatives to the radio station are not only numerous (think competing terrestrial radio stations, online radio stations, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, iPods and MP3 players, smartphones, etc.) but easily accessible.

Think about that for a moment: Music – the core content of many radio stations – risks becoming the very reason people listening would switch off, or relegate a radio station into the background.

It gets worse. Music can be polarising. Play Nicky Minaj’s Anaconda and, guaranteed, half the audience will get up and dance, the other half will scream, “I hate that fucking song!” and throw a small child at the radio. Then you’ve lost them for ever.

Now let’s string all this together: radio presenters on music stations are still drilled by PDs to ‘get back to the music’, to try and cram a station ID, time check, a piece of music trivia, a tease to an upcoming station event and perhaps rush through a traffic update in no more than 30-40 seconds, just so that they can play a full 4’12” of Nicky Minaj’s Anaconda!

The second reason the premise that music formatting is safer needs challenging is this: in an increasingly competitive media environment, playing safe is dangerous – it risks redundancy.

So what’s the answer? How can a radio station with a music format differentiate itself from the growing number of opposition offerings? How can it stand out? The answer is more talk – specifically to encourage their on-air talent to provide more effective talk-based content. There are numerous guides of how to do this elsewhere on The Edge. Feel free to dig around, especially around Preparing the Product and Brilliant Execution.

There should be a new mantra for music format radio stations, and it’s one I burn into the brain of every talent I work with: “Every time you open your mouth, you have to give the listener value“.

Because if they can do that, they have found ‘the edge’.

[All the work here is original. Nothing has come from any other resource. So, if you’re going to use or repost any of The Edge then please give due credit. If not….fine – be an asshole.]

Originally published on The Edge, 23 March 2016