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Most people have a favourite radio station, one that they listen to more often than any other. They know where to find it on the dial, and they know approximately what programs it offers, at what times. Most listeners have only one favourite station, but others have different favourites for different times of day, or for different situations - maybe one station to listen to at home, another while driving.
» Implication: This force of habit helps stations (including yours) to keep their listeners, but makes it difficult to increase the audience by taking listeners from other stations.
In rich countries, where most households have several radios, many listeners have a habit of listening to several different stations each day. They may listen to one station at breakfast time, another one while they are working on weekdays, and another station at weekends - all depending on the types of programs they want to hear at each time, and their knowledge of each station's programming.
» Implication: if your programming style regularly changes at certain times of day, or certain days of the week, new listeners are probably tuning in soon after the changes. This is a good time to promote your other programming - specially material which is similar to the current content.
Audience measures usually change together. The station with the highest reach will usually have the highest share, as well as the highest duration of listening. These three measures are related mathematically: as long as the total radio audience doesn't change - and it seldom does, much - a station's share is proportional to its reach multiplied by its average duration of listening.
Workers on stations with small audiences often think "our audience may be small, but it is very loyal. They don't listen to other radio stations much, and they spend a lot of time listening to ours." Unfortunately, that's seldom true. It usually happens that the stations with the smallest number of listeners also have the smallest average time spent listening. This is called double jeopardy. Generally speaking, a 1% increase in loyalty is accompanied by about a 3% increase in reach - and vice versa, on the way down.
» Implication: In my experience, the best way out of this hole is to concentrate on getting your current listeners to spend more time with your station. This is done partly by eliminating opportunities for them to switch off: sudden changes in sound, specially at times when the audience is usually not increasing - e.g. after meal times. Don't try to go after new listeners. Instead, try to make the station more attractive to existing listeners. When you do this, the new listeners usually follow, but perhaps a year later.
Another implication is not to compete for the same target audience. Stations with a unique programming style in their area don't have this problem.
Consider an area with two commercial stations, each with a 50% audience share. Each station will (other things being equal) also get 50% of the revenue. But if one station gets a 55% share, it will get not 55% of the revenue, but maybe 70%. Why? Because many advertisers will prefer to advertise on the most popular station - even if the cost per thousand people reached is the same as the other station.
» Implication: If you can't win in this situation, don't compete on these terms. Use a different set of arguments; pursue different advertisers, or do it in a different way.
They discover them slowly, often taking several years. And in markets with more than about 3 stations, advertising of new stations attracts very few people to try a new station.
» Implication: If your station is new, and you are relying on commercial revenue for survival, plan for a smaller income than you might expect, in the first few years.
When a well-liked presenter moves to a different radio station, you'd expect the audience to follow. But that usually doesn't happen: most listeners stay with the station, not the presenter. For example, when Clive Robertson, one of Sydney's most popular announcers, moved from 2BL to 2DAY-FM, 2BL's audience share dropped 1% and 2DAY-FM's rose the same amount. A year later, he moved back to 2BL - and 1% of the total audience moved back with him.
» Implication: Don't panic if your most popular presenter leaves. Most listeners tune in to hear the whole station, not a single person.
In Adelaide, where I live, the top-rating commercial station once hired a new manager, who decided that the audience was too old, and too boring. His idea was to target a new audience, much younger, "more exciting." So the station changed its programming, to appeal to young people.
What happened? Many of the older audience immediately switched off, because they didn't like the new style of music. The young people in the target audience already had several stations serving them. As most of them were not dissatisfied enough to search for another station, few switched to the station which had changed its programs for them.
So instead of getting a larger audience, the station ended up with a much smaller one. It stayed like this for several years, spending a lot on publicity - but its former audience didn't return.
A few years later, another local station also decided to go for a younger audience. It changed its music programming, ever so gradually. For more than a year, it slowly changed its mix of music. It was like the fable of the boiled frog (which never jumped out of the cooking pot, because it was heated up so slowly). The older listeners didn't go away, and younger listeners tuned in. The station almost doubled its audience - but then it got greedy, and expanded its musical scope too much. The younger listeners turned away, and the station's audience was almost back where it had started.
» Implication: don't think you can easily exchange your existing audience for a "better" one - audiences are easy to lose, and hard to gain, when programs are drastically changed. I've seen many stations fail by changing their programming too much.
Imagine a radio station in the centre of a circle, surrounded by its listeners. Imagine that each listeners is attached to the station by a rubber band. If the station moves its programming towards one edge of the circle, the listeners on the other side find their rubber bands becoming tighter, unless they move with the station (becoming less pleased). If a listener stays still, and the station moves too far the other way, the rubber band snaps - and the station loses that listener.
Sometimes, after several surveys in a series, a station notices that its audience seems to be falling. "Why aren't people listening to us any more?" the managers wonder. They have an idea for research. "Let's find some ex-listeners and ask them why they no longer listen."
It's a good theory, but in practice it doesn't happen like that. People don't declare themselves ex-listeners to a station - often they don't even realize they are listening less. It's seldom a conscious decision. Instead, other activities (including listening to other radio stations) gradually take more of their time. Even if you have data for them from several surveys, and you can identify them as lapsed listeners, they usually disagree. They still regard themselves as listeners to the station, even though their measured behaviour doesn't match the perception.
» Implication: Don't waste money by trying to rescue ex-listeners. Instead, focus on getting existing listeners to spend more time with the station. If that succeeds, it nearly always brings new listeners as well.
If most of your funding comes from the government or another large funding agency, it's more important to have an impassioned audience than a large audience. Angry voters can dissuade a government from allowing major changes to a station. For example, in the mid 1980s, a new management group at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation suggested radical changes to two radio networks. The first of these networks had mostly spoken features, while the second had mostly classical music. Little reaction came from listeners to the first network, but the second network's listeners - perhaps because they had no alternative station - reacted strongly. They organized public meetings, appealed to their members of parliament, and so on. The management backed down.
» Implication: if you are threatened by a major funding agency that is susceptible to public opinion, your listeners are your best ally. But what will you do to make them feel so strongly in favour of your station?
[At this point, in mid-2006, two new findings have been added. They are numbered 24A and 24B, so as not to upset the existing cross-references in this set of pages.]
It's reasonable to think that if people are listening to your station, it's because they like what they hear. Why would they listen if they didn't want to?
Sorry to disillusion you, but a lot of people spend a lot of time listening to stations and programs they don't like. In a study I did once, about 25% of listeners were unwilling ones: they'd have preferred to be listening to another station, or not listening to radio at all. So why were they listening? Mostly because somebody else had chosen the station.
Some examples: a new commercial radio station in Adelaide made deals with some large factories, to entertain the staff by broadcasting their program all day. Thousands of people were listening to this station, because they had no choice. Another example occurs within families - for example, mothers who drive their children to school. People in Melbourne spend a lot of time doing this. In a study there, we found that deals were being made about in-car listening, such as "You choose the station in the morning, and I'll choose it in the afternoon." Half the time, these passengers were listening to a station they didn't like.
People's habits seem to be most fixed early in the day. As the day goes on, habits are more changeable, and people get more adventurous, trying new things - such as radio stations they don't normally listen to. This also applies when people are on holiday, or otherwise out of their normal routine. One reason for not changing radio listening habits in the breakfast session is that many people use clock radios to wake them, and seldom bother to change the station.
» Implication: Don't worry about losing your audience if a very popular breakfast announcer takes a holiday. It takes more than a few weeks for most listeners to get around to changing the station, even if they want to. ( The exception, of course, is listening in cars, when the driver is always within arms length of a button or knob that will change the station.
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