Audience Dialogue

Radio scheduling workshop

Case study 17

Long before the 1990s, most radio stations in Australia (as in other western countries) had abandoned the old format style, in which every hour or half-hour had a completely different program. Almost all TV stations still organize their programs this way: e.g. an hour of news, followed by a half-hour situation comedy, a game show, a music program, a documentary, and so on - in that order. TV can generally get away with this, because people are motivated enough to look up newspapers, etc, to find out what program is on when. Alternatively, if they're addicted badly enough, they'll sit back and watch any program at all.

But people don't want to do that with radio, it seems. They expect to tune into a station and find something predictable. So Australia's Radio National network - the last to have separate programs, TV-style - was steadily losing audience. The question arose as to whether all the programs were scheduled in an optimum way - perhaps a better arrangement of existing programs would stem this slow leakage of audience. I was asked to research this.

Previous attempts at finding program timing preferences by doing surveys had not worked well. Most audience members just didn't seem to care very much about what program was on, when - as long as the programs they liked most were on at times when they could easily watch. The logical outcome of this is to schedule the most popular programs at the times when most people are available. (This is generally the way TV scheduling works, in a market with few competitors.)

Bearing in mind the inconclusive findings of previous surveys on this subject, I decided to try a totally different approach. Using an existing database of listeners to Radio National, we invited 100 of them to come to scheduling workshops. There were 2 workshops; about 50 people were invited each, and about 40 turned up.

When they arrived, we divided them into groups of 4 people, with a table for each group. My assistant had spent hours cutting out cardboard rectangles, each bearing the name of an existing program. The pieces of cardboard were all the same width (about 7cm: enough to write a program title on), but their depth was proportional to the duration of the program. For example, a half-hour news bulletin had a piece of cardboard about 15mm deep. The cardboard pieces were colour-coded by program type, e.g. all news programs were on pink card, all fiction on green, all sport on orange, etc. There were also blank cards of various lengths (half hour, one hour, etc) which participants could use for newly invented types of program.

On each table was a large piece of cardboard, laid out like a chart: 7 days wide, and 24 hours deep. Each group of 4 participants was asked to come up with a preferred new schedule for the radio network. They were asked to first decide the times for the programs that were most important to them, and to fill in less important programs later. Our purpose in putting people into small groups was to get them to discuss the reasons why some programs should be on at some times of week. After all groups had finished their schedules, they were asked to justify it to the other groups.

It took them several hours, but they finally did it. The results were disappointing, in a way - most schedules were remarkably similar to the status quo, and few new programs were suggested. However the reasons given for scheduling certain programs at certain times were of interest to the professional schedulers, and the rearranged format finally chosen was similar to many of the listener-planned schedules.

If you have a station facing similar problems, with widely varying programs and declining audiences, I'd like to offer a warning: the fastest way for a station to lose its audience is to reshuffle its programs. Audiences can take years to recover after a major reshuffle. I've seen this happen over and over again. So often, a new manager comes along - one who has been listening to the station for a much shorter time than most of its listeners - and decides to make his or her mark by rescheduling programs. And just as often, the more experienced managers of competing stations will lure away the disaffected listeners from the station that changed too much.

What seems to happen is that when listeners tune in expecting a particular program, and it's not there any more, it seems not to occur to them to seek it out at another time, or on a different day. They want to listen NOW! So they scan along the dial for another station. If it seems OK, they'll probably come back to it. It's hard for radio managers and producers to believe, but most listeners don't actually care very much about missing programs. So a station that changes its schedule will lose listeners instantly, but any other potential listeners (who might have been found in a survey) may take a year or two to discover the new program.

But of course, if the programs never change, you also lose listeners - but more slowly. The secret of success is to change your programs very gradually - almost imperceptibly - over a year or more. This way, you retain the former listeners while still attracting new ones.

If you are interested in radio station marketing, radio marketing and program strategy, radio audience research and related topics, I suggest you review our book Participative Marketing for Local Radio. Chapter 3 talks about research findings on radio audiences, and chapter 4 discusses program strategy.