Is radio becoming famous for boring things?
Or trying to?
It’s long been something I’ve wondered about. It was always possible to reimagine McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” if broadcasters had chosen the slogan. But the fast-food giant never became “a better variety of burgers and chicken sandwiches — now with breakfast after 10 a.m.”
In recent months, I’ve been listening to a lot of radio, even compared to my usual pace, and a lot of the traditional imaging is blending together. Without notes, I wouldn’t know where I heard “today’s hits, today’s favorites” yesterday, and where it was I heard “more music, more variety.”
I wonder if those stand out enough against Spotify’s “Music for Everyone” or Pandora’s external marketing line “The Next Song Matters.” Only AccuRadio’s “Better Music for Your Workday” has the tenor of a broadcast radio slug-line and, in that case, it is telling that it has the specific goal of establishing itself as “radio.”
I asked my Facebook friends for favorite recent imaging statements. Many of them came back with the classics instead. It was WKXW (New Jersey 101.5)’s “Not New York, Not Philadelphia” that got mentions. Or attitude liners of the “lock it in and rip the knob off” vintage.
Radio is like the spouse or parent that sometimes expresses its emotions clumsily, if at all. It’s hard to find a tone. The U.K.’s Bauer group recently announced a group-wide change in positioner from “Your Music, Your Life” to “The Biggest Hits, All Day Long.”
In the ‘80s, then-Urban WBLS battled back against an influx of competitors with a one-word positioner, “Home.” That was a pretty good summation of what WBLS means to its audience, but it ultimately wasn’t enough. And yet, for a while, “The Big Station” became a very effective positioner for R&B radio — even though it claimed no more specific turf than the “Big 89” positioning of the AM Top 40 era.
When radio stations do successfully tap into listeners’ emotions, it tends to turn into radio speak soon enough. Being the station that “picks you up and makes you feel good” was brilliant and once radical. But it too became background noise eventually.
Perfectly encapsulating your radio station used to be something that could be easily enough done in the name of your radio station. But “Oldies” hasn’t been replaced by anything that straightforward. Stations called “Lite” no longer want to be taken at face value.
It hasn’t helped either that contemporary pop formats have squeezed closer together, pitting “Today’s Best Music” against “Today’s Best Variety.” “Playing slightly more library than the other guys” doesn’t make for a great positioner. “’90s, 2K and Today” is one of the catchier things that has emerged, although you can practically hear PDs in the station conference room asking, “Does it matter that we don’t really play any ‘90s?”
On a successful radio station that already has a franchise, some of the more traditional imagery is just fine. “More music, more variety” becomes one more usage liner. But I think that type of imaging has lost the ability to propel a station into success, especially if, as is often the case, there’s limited marketing and station building is all supposed to be done with on-air imaging anyway.
I also think it’s sometimes possible for mass-appeal stations to position themselves too narrowly. I don’t believe that PPM has relieved broadcasters of the need to market or position their radio stations, but it’s also true that many successful radio stations cover multiple positions. So if you already have an eight share in PPM, is it not okay to let listeners decide what they see in the ink blot for themselves?
For some, that’s a heretical statement. Clearly defined usage has become a central tenet of radio law. And yet, in my Facebook thread, consultant and veteran programmer Kevin Robinson went further, and it was nice to hear it from somebody with established AC credentials. “Does your brand need one?” he asked. “Starbucks doesn’t have one. Positioning statements are actually more important to us than the audience. And if you have one, forcing your talent to say it is a fumble.”
Your thoughts on the topic are welcome. Next week, favorite radio positioners of yesterday and today.