Tested to destruction 

19 May 2008 tbs.pm/900

Fed up with local radio playlists? Blame audience testing

In recent years the majority of commercial radio stations have somehow lost all their so-called ‘rough edges’ that once made them distinctive, and this has been attributed to a number of factors including what some regard as the scourge of modern radio, namely a near-slavish adherence to demographics and market surveys.

A problem with much of modern music radio (commercial stations in particular but some BBC stations can also be included) may relate to the practice of relying too much on surveys to dictate a station’s playlist; a problem exacerbated by radio industry consolidation combined with station policies being dictated by marketing departments.

Factor in highly-paid marketing consultants that benefit financially from the compilation of marketing reports based on demographic surveys, and you start to realise just what has changed in recent years. Don’t get me wrong; it’s useful to know what people think of a radio station but an obsession to know everything has an inevitable downside.

The problem is that reliance on surveys can result in a “chicken and egg” situation that seems to cause stations to repeatedly play the same tracks. When radio stations usually play a relatively narrow selection of tried and tested music tracks, this in turn results in that station’s listeners being accustomed to hearing predominantly the same tunes.

If you then ask a sample of those listeners to rate music tracks based on 40 second excerpts, they will naturally rate anything that they are accustomed to hearing (and they “quite like”) higher than anything that’s unfamiliar to them, since anything unfamiliar may require repeated listening on separate occasions in order to properly appreciate.

Also you would require to sample a huge number of lesser-known music tracks in order to determine what additional track(s) are worth listening to, which even at 40 seconds a go would take up an inordinate amount of time, so it’s no wonder that the music variety remains restricted when based on a sampling survey.

Therefore a radio station’s playlist ends up being constructed using raw statistics as a foundation on the premise that anything cosy and familiar is preferable to something that’s challenging and unfamiliar, since commercial stations in particular don’t want their listeners to switch to rival stations. Right?

Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by cosy and familiar music tracks, and the holy grail of many stations is to be the only station listened to in a workplace (hence a captive audience that cannot channel hop during the adverts).

However there is a problem with this cosy scenario apart from the risk of inducing terminal boredom. Someone cannot be expected to like all the music tracks that are played, even if you happen to conform to the perceived listener stereotype (women aged 30-55, or whatever is used as a benchmark) that is being targeted.

Therefore the inherent risks of alienating listeners as a result of playing more ‘challenging’ music tracks may be less than perceived to be the case, especially when listener(s) end up liking the new/different/unusual music that gets played instead.

So you can either bore listeners with Robbie Williams’ Angels for the 50000th time (listener switches off) or instead play something more obscure even if it’s still by Robbie Williams; the listener may still switch off as a result but they may later listen again with the expectation of hearing something that’s interesting as opposed to just plain dull.

Given the fact that a little variety doesn’t go amiss, it’s not hard to see why BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 are still hugely popular both in the workplace and elsewhere; big name personalities combined with a reasonably safe selection of records for much of the time but crucially mixed with tracks that probably wouldn’t see the light of day elsewhere.

Then there’s the radio DJ presenter personality factor, since if most of your music tracks are relatively indistinguishable from your neighbours on the dial then the quality of presentation becomes even more important. XFM tried dropping presenters from daytime slots but that didn’t seem to go down too well with its target audience.

Some large commercial radio groups such as Global Radio have blamed local radio’s decline on the varying quality of the presenters used, citing the popularity of BBC national stations for a requirement to use more networked radio shows amongst most if not all of its local stations.

Then there’s the amount of freedom/personality that a commercial radio presenter is permitted to have within a fairly rigid format dictated by a marketing department; it’s unlikely there would be a place for someone like Kenny Everett in the modern radio world when presenters have to target specific demographics with their chit-chat.

And certainly no room for ‘naughty bits’.

Even so, a ‘good’ presenter plus a tightly regulated playlist is not the same as a good presenter plus a wider selection of music tracks, and this is one differentiation that Global Radio and Bauer, etc., should learn to properly appreciate before claiming to be a direct competitor to BBC national radio stations outside of London.

Ironically the reason why radio stations such as Heart are doing better in London than elsewhere is because they have a semblance of regionality about them for their target audience, namely catering for London residents as opposed to a pseudo-national network.

And that’s before we reach the issue of what makes local radio worth having as opposed to a semi-networked, quasi-national hotch-potch which inevitably ends up sounds exactly like one; is it trying to be national? Local? Or somehow both at the same time?

Unless you regimentally listen to a specific timeslot either on weekdays or at weekends (but not both), such an approach fools nobody.

Let’s face it – Global/Bauer/etc. want a national FM radio station in order to compete with the BBC nationals having abandoned digital radio in the short term; it’s cheap and has an inherited audience, as well as being so much easier to do when the advertising market is stagnant. Cutbacks sound better to the ears of shareholders than investment.

At the other end of the spectrum is the small community FM radio station which has been virtually neglected by most of the radio industry; the example given by Martin Kelner is an interesting one, namely ALL (Ardwick/Longsight/Levenshulme) FM which technically speaking covers parts of East Manchester but is receivable in a wider area.

I have heard ALL FM a few times myself whilst travelling through Manchester, and it is the very antithesis of most of the other so-called ‘local’ radio stations, often exposing them for the sham that they really are. (That is if you think that local radio begins and ends with ELO/Fleetwood Mac/Robbie Williams plus the occasional local news bulletin.)

It’s hard to imagine a more eclectic playlist even though many of the tracks that ALL FM plays are familiar ones, and it’s this combined with presenters that obviously have a real love for the music they play (especially as they effectively do it for next to nothing, money-wise). You may not like everything you hear but you’re not supposed to.

As for listener surveys, ALL FM presumably can’t afford to conduct them, especially if they can barely afford a new sofa for their guests to sit on. Therefore such stations have to pay very close attention to the needs of the community that they serve as opposed to concocting conceptual playlists based on snatches of what some people might like.

So are stations like ALL FM the desired future for all of local radio? Not necessarily, but many so-called local radio stations could do a lot worse than to listen and learn from them. Bear this in mind the next time you hear Robbie Williams on your ‘local’ radio station.