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Where Did the Listeners Go? Literally?


I’d been working at home all day. I’d had no human contact.

I was sort of wiped out. I needed a pep talk. We all do sometimes.

I knew what I had to do.

I reached for my phone. And played the produced sweepers that I’d had professionally voiced. “Ross On Radio – number one for programming theory and fun!” “If it’s about a song that sounds like another song, you’re reading …  Ross On Radio!”

I still needed to hear a friendly voice. So I hit another sweeper, and heard a series of them: “Really thought-provoking”; “How do you remember all that stuff?”; “I read it all day at work.” They weren’t actually my friends and readers, however. It was too hard to coach them to sound natural.

Okay, here’s what I really did yesterday.

I listened to a medium-market CHR in the last hour of its morning show. Two good topics had been thrown out to the listeners. Each time there were five or six Facebook responses read on-air. But not even the best one resulted in a caller making it to the air. The only listener I heard was the one in the multi-voice sweeper who actually gave a name and hometown.

I listened to a News/Talk AM in the same 9 a.m. hour. There were two lengthy interview segments. Neither was local. One was pre-taped (volunteered by the host as a way of explaining why some subsequent news developments hadn’t been covered). Neither involved listener calls.

Then, just for comparison, I turned to WSAN Allentown’s two-week-old “iHeartPodcast” format. I did not come across a listener call on “Ridiculous History,” or expect to, but with two hosts, a producer, and a guest, I did hear as many different voices and as much back-and-forth over the course of an hour as I’d heard in some of my other listening. The podcast didn’t have any more listener involvement than what I’d just heard. But it didn’t have any less.

You don’t hear nearly as many listeners on the air these days. About 15 months ago, I heard a major-market CHR night host doing what would have been utterly ordinary a few years earlier — a series of short teasing exchanges with callers who were there basically to supply his laugh track. But now it sounded novel.

A variety of forces keep listeners off the air. Voice-tracking makes callers more of a logistical challenge. Public radio with its more produced shows and pre-interviewed guests has long made “spoken word” more than just “two-way talk.” PPM ended the notion of a participatory morning-style show in every daypart. It made programmers and on-air hosts afraid to put celebrities on the air for too long, much less a listener.

National contesting and the switch to “text-to-win” makes listeners scarce on-air, too. The screaming winner promo is a cliché of a bygone century. The winner who won’t scream is a universal frustration. Airing an anonymous winner with no proof of locality, just to have some payoff, is now considered not worth it. So now there’s often no proof at all that real people win.   

Program directors used to use the station’s comment line for authenticity — even the negative feedback rallied a station’s fans to the phones themselves in defense. Now listener voices are used a few words at a time like movie drops or other audio artifacts. That promo I heard that actually ended with the listener identifying herself is the exception.

The comment line used to be a regular second step in any station’s launch. Some stations made it sound bogus by airing comments within the first hour of a format change. But now, the entire 10,000-songs-in-a-row kickoff may pass without hearing thank a station for bringing back all those songs they haven’t heard on the radio in years. So for weeks, there is no phase two.

Of all the feedback I’ve been asked to give stations over the years, “We should get some listeners on the air” is the advice least likely to be acted upon. I understand that usable comments are hard to get and hard to coach. I realize that listeners are no longer in the habit of calling stations — a self-fulfilling prophecy that is dispiriting to try and derail.

And yet, listeners do show up to answer a station’s “Impossible Question” every day, no matter how rote the execution. Even then, their role is perfunctory. Wrong answers are quickly dispatched, even the intriguing or unintentionally comic ones. And I’ve heard some hosts do even “Impossible Question” without the callers.

Should radio start airing more callers? “Only if they are good,” says talent guru Valerie Geller. “You have to get them to get to their story fast.” Yes. And “only if it’s good” is the measurement for any element. Nobody wants the old clichés or indulgences back. But even the screaming winner would be novel again.

Even when listeners have found other ways to communicate, an actual voice or two makes a difference. BBC Radio 2 reads a lot of texts on the hour’s topic, but usually punctuates with a call or two. The call to “join the conversation” that CKNO (Now 102.3) Edmonton, Alberta, made famous throughout Canadian radio usually means texts, too. But today there was still a caller to finish the stories on “symptoms that finally sent you to the doctor.”

Listeners reinforce immediacy and the notion of radio as community. “With just the minimum of companionship, why not choose your topic and host at the time you want in a podcast?” asks former Tom Taylor Now publisher Robert Unmacht. “Why not use the musical equivalent of podcasting — Spotify or Pandora?”

Listeners ratify our programming decisions, and sell other listeners more convincingly than we can. The power of the on-air host as spokesperson has long been rediscovered. We would never edit that endorsement down to three-word fodder.

At this particular moment, listeners reinforce broadcast radio itself. For the last decade, radio’s story has depended so heavily on the size of its audience. Can we not produce at least one listener to back that up every now and then?

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  1. Beachguy says

    A couple of decades ago, a friend started his transition into programming. He asked for advice, and I told him, “Make it fun. Every station you compete with will have about the same playlist. But they will not have your team- your staff is where the difference comes in so your has to be better than theirs. MAKE. IT. FUN. No one ever remembers boring jocks, boring stations, and boring programmers.” One of the keys to making it fun is making it sound like the listeners- and there is no better way to do that than to put calls (GOOD calls) on the air. I said “Make it sound like a party and your listeners are all invited- and THERE!!

    He took notes, shook his head in agreement and promised that wasa going to be his way. He has APD stops at some big stations in big markets- Philly… L.A…. and then returned to LA after being a PD in a large market to be OM at a station. He’s now back in that large market. His stations have always bored me numb. He didn’t listen to the advice. No calls, no personality, no life.

    Thanks goodness I got out of radio when I did.

  2. says

    Sean…To me the question is how do we again engage listeners to call the station. In the stations I’ve run we got much more participation with ‘text-to-win’ than phone calls. Very discouraging to open the phone lines to have either NO calls or the same two contest pigs calling. We have tried salting calls (set up with friends), paying for calls (dinner at the Four Seasons…or a free burger at Dicks Drive In) and getting listeners at remotes to call a unique number. We hoped priming the pump would help. Not much made a difference.
    So I’d love to hear how other operators solve the problem…because local listeners really add the spice we need for local radio.

  3. Bill O'Brien says

    Time to dust of the buzz phrase from a few years ago, “compelling content”. This isn’t about contesting, it’s about actual WORK to engage a listener…presenting content that actually moves them to call. That has to do with set up, presentation and emotional connection and THAT’s what is missing in most radio stations, period. It used to be what personalities would plan during the music…I can’t tell what the hell their doing now because most breaks are re-hash of station promotions, boasting about a giveaway, a station concert, how the station is just the best, the most, more, my, blah blah blah…meaningless to 99.9% of listeners who won’t win and won’t attend. I’ve worked in major markets and live in one now and there still are a handful of really good personalities who can connect with the audience sprinkled throughout the majority of mediocre hosts who seem to be given a shift with no direction, coaching or critiquing…and you can hear it.

    BTW, if you’re a CHR / Top 40 station and still touting Face Book, you missed the memo. The majority of your demo doesn’t use FB, unless your going strictly for adult females and ignoring your younger base.

  4. johndavis says

    Ironically, right before I clicked on this, I saw a friend post his periodic rant on FB that he wishes that people would just text him because he’s too busy doing three things at once to take a phone call. Other than checking in with my older sister every couple of days and calling my wife to say I’m on the way home, I can’t think of the last time I called a friend just to say hello. Is it any wonder that my request lines don’t ring, either?

    That being said, we can make those phones ring the moment we do a contest. We air the winner calls, too; short enough to run on an intro without a bed. You can take me out of a CHR station, but you can’t take the CHR out of me… the country station down the hall has listener voices all over it, too; we record those at concerts and put them in imaging. We also have voice memo features in our apps where listeners can record a message and send it to us to air. While the phones don’t ring as much, we can engage people on FB Live & Instagram pretty easily.

    Radio is really good at holding up a mirror to the audience. If they’d rather interact via text/social than phone, we need to meet them where they are. There’s power in listener voices on the air, but if they’re not calling us, it’s up to us to find them.

  5. mikecouchman says

    Sean, you almost touched on it but maybe didn’t come right out and say it because it’s stating the obvious: even stations who are live, with large cumes can’t BUY a call from two generations who’d rather text. I’m talking CHR here (Millennials and the ones coming up behind them).

    Smart jocks and PD’s work around this though because they know how valuable the right kinds of calls can be. We seed phoners in advance of kicking topics off. We join private radio groups where jocks exchange calls with each other (I run one that has every market and owner represented). And as a PD, I COACH and INSIST on hearing good caller audio. My jocks know how to bank, how to seed, how to get multiple breaks out of a single caller. Most importantly: they know and buy into WHY we want callers on the air.

    If most PD’s aren’t airchecking their jocks enough, there’s no way good Phoner Coaching is happening.

    Besides texting being the preferred way to go for many listeners, it was touched on in the above comments: but engaging brands and compelling content that’s inclusive aren’t widespread enough.

    When we as an industry decided Lowest Common Denominator, PPM friendly programming was the ONLY way to win (or when it was forced on us), we severed our deep connections with our listeners. We’re a mile wide and a half inch deep. I’m grateful to program two niche’ brands who are very deep with our audiences. Our cumes are half (or less) what the market’s leaders are, but you wouldn’t know that by the amount of quality listener audio we put on.

  6. saladressing says

    Lack of listeners on air and the prevalence of voicetracking are probably the two biggest shifts I’ve noted in radio’s on air presentation as compared to the 1990s.

    The absence of listeners removes the critical elements of immediacy, engagement, community and more. It’s like pizza without cheese.

  7. graham mack says

    Great article!
    Here’s a link to a talk I gave on this in London;

    Here’s what I sounded like on BOB;

    There’s more Mack Nuggets here;

  8. borderblaster says

    To echo some of the above comments, younger people think it’s rude to even call, rather than text, a friend without a pre-scheduled appointment. They even think having a ringtone on their phone, rather than having it set to vibrate 24/7, is something only old farts do. With that, how exactly do you get phone bits, contests like we had in the past (Mr, Whisper anyone?) or heartfelt dedications. It’s a puzzle with no good solutions.

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