What Your High School Band Has to Do with Keeping Your Station Relevant for the Listener

Like most of the people in and around the music industry, I too played in a band during high school. As with many of those same people, my life got in the way after graduation. Sure, every two years or so I would pull out the lovely bubinga root wood bodied Sandberg Bass I have, feel it’s familiar weight around my shoulder and strum a line or two. Then I’d start to realize how my timing is pretty off and my fingers have lost their callouses, and back in the case and behind the door you go for the next two years. 

Last month, I sold my bass.

I wasn’t easy. I almost balked shortly before the guy was supposed to come pick it up, but the reality of the situation – I hardly ever play it, and its worth more to me as money for Christmas presents and room behind the door than it ever will be with me spending five minutes every two years on it – won. I wondered why it was so hard to get rid of it, and it got me thinking. The root of the matter became apparent when talking with a friend of mine in a similar situation; the following sentence crystallized:

I saw his eyes light up: “Yes!” he said and laughed. Losing that instrument meant losing a piece of our identity, but more importantly a connection to our past accomplishments. What does this have to do with radio, and more importantly, what does it have to do with your station? 

That bass is your aging on air personality/hit show, and your stories about the high school band are the successes they used to have.

In a maturing radio industry, the most successful stations of our age have built themselves around great personalities. Coming to terms with the decay of the appeal of those personalities, and the diminishing returns that accompany it, are no easy task. 

There is always transitional pain, there is always a fear of making the wrong decision and losing the (already) decaying lead you have left in the market. As a program director and a consultant, I have had this conversation with upper management many times. It always boils down to this:

Why Do We Hold on to Something We Know Is Clearly Getting Worse?

Well, for one, it’s hard to pin the “getting worse” part solely on a single component (like a dj) of your program, and two, starting over is pretty scary, especially when you are on top. And then there is always the hope that things will return to exactly the way they were if we just keep everything exactly the same as it was (which never works).

The key is finding a metric that allows you to measure not how much worse the new show is compared to the old one, but how quickly it starts to gain traction after the initial launch, and how the momentum develops.

Since station momentum overall is not linear, this can be increasingly hard to effectively measure. At RadioAnalyzer one of our biggest challenges was finding a way to measure those patterns and figure out when a gain is actually a gain, and when a loss is actually a loss. Many of our key performance indicators and tools are geared around exactly this idea. 

Continuous comparative measurement is the other key: you need to be able to start tracking impact and momentum the minute you start.

Finally, you need to filter out the station fans that are just as nostalgic as you are. We live in an age where consumers start worldwide twitter shit storms over fast food restaurants not stocking enough Szechuan sauce, you can bet your biggest fans are going to be the most vocal about any change you make to the makeup of your station, even if they are listening to the new guy just as much or even more. Measuring real audience reactions is vital in this situation. 

This is not a plea to throw out your most successful programs and DJs, it is a warning to take a good hard look at your successes of yesterday and see if they still perform, or if it’s the nostalgia twinge that makes your hope for the good old days. Nothing is sadder than the guy at the party running around telling people how important he used to be.

It’s a new year! Let’s learn something new, make a new band, start a new hobby, create some new accomplishments and start telling the stories that go with them.

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