Audience Dialogue

Participative Marketing for Local Radio, Chapter 4
Marketing through program strategy: section 3

4.3 Marketing and programming

A lot of people have the wrong idea about marketing. They think that marketing is an extra, something that can be added on to whatever they're already doing. But marketing is much more pervasive than that. All communication includes an element of marketing, as explained in chapter 1.

The marketing is not the transaction itself (that's commerce) but the information that surrounds it, and the perceptions that build up through repeated communication.

Any type of communication can carry two messages: both content and marketing. When I tell you something (right now, for example) you are reading the information, but at the same time you're assessing its credibility, wondering if I really know what I'm writing about, how you might use it, whether you might tell somebody else about this book - and so on.

It's the same with a radio station. Marketing isn't an afterthought: it's built in. Simply by choosing one program format, you're limiting one set of marketing options, but at the same time creating another. Whether you plan it or not, all programming conveys a message about the station, therefore listeners form opinions about the station. That's part of marketing.

Let's consider a few key aspects of marketing through programming: staying on air, quality, originality, interactivity, and community-building.

Staying on air

Though governments and budgets sometimes don't allow this, it's important for a radio station to stay on air as much as possible. If all the other stations in your area close down overnight, nobody will be surprised if your station does it too. But if you're off air between about 6am and 11pm, you're likely to lose listeners.

A mid-1990s survey conducted for the National Association of Broadcasters in the USA asked listeners what they most valued in a radio station. The top priority, far ahead of everything else, was simply being available. If a station is off air, it's not going to win listeners.

An automated broadcast (e.g. playing unannounced music all night, from a multi-CD player) is preferable to being off air. But there's another way of being off air that is usually more confusing than silence: this is called frequency sharing.

In some parts of the world, several radio stations are forced to share one frequency. In South Australia, we currently have three stations sharing one frequency: one plays mostly classical music, one plays the latest dance music, and the third station serves the Italian community, broadcasting mostly in Italian. Three times a day, the station changes. Listeners are very confused!  But it could be worse: at least all three stations are quite different. Listeners may be annoyed, if they expect one program and hear another, but at least they are not confused. Fortunately, this situation is temporary, but in some parts of the world it's permanent. There may be some advantages in easing the transition between program types. For example, just before 4pm when the Italian station hands over to the classical music one, the Italian station might increase its audience by playing some Italian classical music.

A less obvious example of frequency sharing occurs when a station has a local program during the day, but is networked at night. Unless you have technology that broadcasts your own call sign during a network broadcast, people will be very confused about what they listen to. Though this surprises broadcasters, many listeners don't spend much time with radio, and have only a hazy idea of what station they're listening to. If one frequency broadcasts different call signs at different times of day and night, many listeners think they've made a mistake and somehow tuned to the wrong frequency.

If the station carries programs for minority groups - perhaps in a different language from usual - there are two ways of scheduling such programs without having  most listeners switch off. One method is to have very short programs in the other language - news, for example, about five minutes at a time. The other method is to reserve a regular timeslot - perhaps late at night, every night, before the station goes off air, or at a time when mainstream listeners are watching TV news.

Quality in radio

For the typical industry - such as manufacturing nuts and bolts - quality is the same as consistency. Every bolt must fit every nut exactly. But the media industry is different. With radio, this approach would be so boring that nobody would listen. At 9 o'clock every morning you'd play the same news story. In radio, that's not quality.

But nor should programs vary too much. Total unpredictability doesn't satisfy most listeners either. Imagine this schedule for 9 o'clock each morning:

Monday News
Tuesday Children's story
Wednesday Symphony
Thursday Techno music

...and so on. That's not quality, either. (Strangely, some stations are still programmed like this - mainly in centralized government radio networks.)

The ideal is a certain range of variation - programs should be similar, but not too similar. Within this range, most radio stations are probably too consistent.

Listeners (as I've found in research over and over again) would like a little more variation than they usually get. They don't mind if the style is the same, but they prefer the content to vary. But it's hard for radio staff - they have to produce hours of programs every day, and they run out of ideas. No wonder that they just recycle the same mixture.

The endless need for new program ideas

Radio (like other media) needs a constant supply of new ideas. Broadcasters tend to run out of ideas after a year or two, so they tend to copy programs from other stations. But with all the stations copying one another, they run out of ideas again.

Where can you find more ideas? Well, you have thousands of listeners out there, and if some of them come up with new program ideas occasionally, you'll never run out of ideas. So the problem becomes one of encouraging listeners to come up with new ideas for programs - and to keep doing so, even though most of the ideas turn out to be unsuitable.

Community stations often have a large pool of volunteer workers - and these people are an excellent source of ideas. They're better informed about what's possible than are listeners at large. Because there are so many volunteers, and because they're closely (but not too closely) involved with the station, they can be expected to provide many of the program ideas. Chapter 10 covers marketing with volunteers in more detail.


To be successful, marketing must be interactive. If producers and consumers don't communicate fully, they won't learn from each other, and the product won't improve, to better meet the consumers' needs. Because radio was designed as a one-way medium, a radio station needs to pay special attention to encouraging messages from listeners: through letters, phone calls, email, meetings, and simple conversation.

These return messages don't happen naturally (in large quantities, anyway). They need to be encouraged: for example, by constantly giving your phone number and/or address on air, and mounting regular publicity campaigns (see the next chapter for more).

However, interactivity is radio's big advantage over other media. Combine radio with the telephone, and you have an instant feedback system. Print media can't do this, because even a daily newspaper has a minimum turnaround time of one day.

TV could do it, but it's unlikely, because there would be no pictures (until most people get videophones - which seems as distant now as it did 50 years ago). Also, TV is expensive to produce. It has a large staff, and therefore needs large audiences. We don't (yet) have small-scale local TV stations, which allow many viewers to go on air.

The internet, in theory, can have very quick response. But unless internet users are glued to their computers, the typical turnaround time for internet communication is about a day.

So, for the time being - till cheap TV production, videophones, and broadband internet are universal - radio is by far the best medium for quick feedback. Make use of it while it lasts!

Encouraging interactivity through programming

Traditional radio is a one-to-many medium. One voice - that of the radio station - educates and informs the public. This was the basis of public service radio, and it was an effective method of national development until a few decades ago. But in some countries, public service broadcasters still haven't realized that radio listeners are no longer willing to be passive recipients of programs - even if the programs are highly educational, informative, or artistic.

Community radio, with its tradition of local involvement, is usually much better attuned to its listeners' interests - though sometimes a community station is "captured" by a small, unrepresentative group.

Audience survey figures usually show very clearly that the most popular radio content (allowing for the different numbers of listeners available at each time of day) is interactive programming. This means programs that give listeners' voices an opportunity to be heard on radio. This can be done in three main ways:

1. Programs that create two-way communication, between the listeners and the station: talkback or phone-in programs, musical requests, free classified ads, on-air competitions, games, talent quests, appeals, radiothons, Q & A "question and answer" programs), and radio browsing programs.

2. Programs that encourage listeners to discuss them: special programs, major sports matches, community noticeboards, "vox pop" interviews with ordinary people, controversial presenters and opinions, outside broadcasts, programs of greeting and commemoration, and so on. All of these can include phone-in segments.

3. Programs of co-operation with other local media, creating an exchange of audiences. For example, you could invite the local newspaper editor to read the editorial on air once a week, followed by a phone-in discussion. In return, the newspaper could print your program schedule, and review some programs.

The more interactivity you can include on-air, the more your audience is likely to grow, and the more likely your station is to satisfy the whole community's needs.

The exception is phone-in programs hosted by "shock jocks" - announcers who exploit people's fears by encouraging hatred against unpopular minorities. That form of interactivity encouraged persecution and murders in Nazi Germany and Rwanda. It creates an attitude of suspicion and separation that destroys communities. A more constructive issue is how the power of interactivity can be used to improve social relations between local people from different religions, races, and cultures who often don't realize how much they have in common. An interactive program that demonstrated similarities and opportunities for mutual learning between mutually suspicious groups would certainly be worth trying.

Another advantage of interactivity is that by encouraging and monitoring feedback, you can develop response cultivation (as explained in chapter 12) as an alternative or supplement to formal audience research.


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