Audience Dialogue

Participative Marketing for Local Radio, Chapter 4
Marketing through program strategy: section 2

4.2 Station format and positioning

If your station is a brand new one, you have the luxury of being able to choose a program format. Otherwise, it's better if you ignore the next section and go straight to the following one: otherwise, you might get dangerous ideas!

Radio programs have two main components: talk and music. Throughout the world, the most popular stations are the ones that play music the majority of the time. But listeners want more than just music, and a station that has no news will get a smaller audience (other things being equal) than a station with short news bulletins every hour. The most popular stations have either "mostly talk" or "mostly music" - but not a 50-50 mixture (which produces very small audiences), nor 90-10.

If you want to maximize your audience share, I suggest playing music about 80% of the time, 10% news/information, and 10% commercials.

That's OK for a commercial station, but maybe not desirable for a community station, on which listeners will expect to hear local issues discussed. A mostly-music community station would probably have several half-hour programs a day that are mostly talk, but interspersed with music.

For most commercial stations, the criterion of success is maximizing audience share, based on the absolute minimum definition of listening: being in the same room as a radio that is turned on.

More relevant, from an advertisers' point of view, is maximizing reach: the number of different people who listen in a week. Formats that maximize reach are a little different from those that maximize share. Typically, different time zones will be aimed at slightly different audiences. You might, for example, slant the program towards commuters at breakfast time, older people late in the morning, women in the middle of the day, sports fans late in the afternoon, and so on. Reach can also be increased by having lots of interactive programs, at regular times.

However, unless you have only a handful of competitors, don't aim at different age groups or people of greatly different education levels in different time zones. It doesn't work: stations that take this approach confuse the listeners, and their reach becomes smaller, not larger.

A good format for a mostly-talk station is to broadcast lots of news, current affairs, fiction, and short documentaries - but never talk for more than about 15 minutes, and intersperse each spoken segment with popular music, with clear lyrics. (People who like talk programs on radio also seem to like to listen to the words of songs, rather than the musical qualities.)

Before deciding on a station format, you should be aware of the potential audience it will attract. Any radio station format will have an audience ceiling, because some people will not be interested in some types of program. In most parts of the developed world, a "foreground radio" station that specializes in produced talk programs will do very well to get an audience share of 10% - but it will often have a high reach, because its listeners won't spend much time with it: not because they don't want to, but because they can't spare the time to fully concentrate. A station that broadcasts mostly classical music will do well to get a 3% share, or about 10% weekly reach.

Bearing in mind the size of a station's potential audience, there's not necessarily an inverse correlation between purity and popularity. "Talking down" to your audience doesn't necessarily increase it size, nor does broadcasting complex ideas necessarily result in a tiny audience. The better you know your audience (from formal or informal audience research) the better knowledge you will have of the most acceptable forms of presentation.

Setting your target audience will also, to a large extent, set your station format. It's no use aiming for a target audience of people aged 60 and over, and choosing to play techno dance music constantly. (Except, maybe, in Los Angeles, where there are so many stations that extreme specialization is needed -  and nobody wants to admit growing old.)

To link the proposed format with the proposed target audience, you need some current audience research data. You'll probably need to commission a survey.

Which comes first: the target audience, or the format?

Well-trained marketers will advise you to set the target audience first, then find out what type of programs they like.

Experienced radio programmers will know the format they want, and try to find a target audience for it.

In practice, you need to work from both ends at once, juggling formats and target audiences (based on survey data) till you have both a viable-sized potential audience, and a format that you think you can deliver better than any competing station.

The more competing stations in your market, the harder the decision will be. If yours is the first radio station ever, it's easy: have a program for everybody, and they'll all listen. But there can't be many parts of the world still in that position.

I could write a lot more about programming styles and their effects on audiences, but as this page is about marketing, I'll stop right now!


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