Serving the Audience

Last weekend I went into an upscale department store to exchange a gift. I found the item in the right size and looked for a salesperson to make the exchange. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, I realized that the register stations had been removed from the different areas of the menswear department. Then I noticed the cheery sign below.

The yellow signage directed me to the one register station for the entire second floor of the department store. With cashiers at only two of the six registers, the line was long and slow-moving. I couldn’t help thinking how much easier this transaction would have been online.

It’s an example of a legacy business making changes to try deal with new realities largely brought about by digital competition. You can imagine the meeting where the decision was made: we’ve winnowed down to a small staff, let’s concentrate them at registers in one central location (amidst the dozens of departments on each floor). It’s sensical … until a customer needs help finding an item or wants to ask if they have an item in their size or in another color or needs to figure out her/his size for a particular item.

For close to 40 years much of music radio has been winnowed down to playlists with minimal presence from DJ’s or hosts, concentrating smaller staffs in the most critical areas – mostly away from content creation. Meanwhile, services like Spotify and Pandora mean you can pull together a pleasing playlist with no presence from DJ’s or hosts and with minimal commercial interruptions. Widely available wireless internet and most of us carrying a smartphone means those services are available wherever you are. If all radio offers is a playlist, we’re easy prey for these digital disrupters.

In the words of our friend, Dom Theodore, “If we want to succeed long-term, we need to play to our strengths: companionship, emotion, unique and compelling content that’s difficult to duplicate and difficult to leave.” Over the years radio has spent a lot of time ridding stations of potential tune-outs, but far less time considering what could be potential tune-ins; in effect, new ways to serve listeners.

The music we play has clues about the emotional connections that could be enabled with listeners – the themes that could make our content more compelling and make us indispensable companions. It’s impossible to test every possible piece of content before putting it on the air, but there are ways to test content, to test concepts, to get reactions from the audience before sending it to the transmitter. Smart operators are increasingly willing to research content beyond music.

Today there are multiple channels to be utilized for content – the transmitter is just one pathway. Some stations and hosts are already starting that work, posting longer-form content to social media in concert with shorter PPM-friendly teases on the air. We’ll submit that’s just the beginning of reshaping the role of music-station host from liner-reader to compelling content creator connecting with an audience.