“8 Second Talk Break” – great!

Mark Ramsey wrote an entry this week about a purported e-mail from a group programmer to stations asking them to stick to 8 second talk breaks. I was enormously pleased to read about that, but not necessarily because the radio industry is heading towards 8 second talk breaks.

What gave me encouragement is that this particular programmer has realised that he has a problem, and is now programming his radio station not against the other guys on the FM dial, but in the real media world that listeners inhabit. It’s not about beating the other radio stations – the real battle is about preserving radio as a viable media choice against things like iPod, Last.FM and more… and also beating the other radio stations.

Of course consolidation means that one company tends to own more of the other stations on the FM dial, and I do wonder if that encourages complacency. In buying up “the enemy” I sense that some people are brushing off their hands and feeling like they’re achieving their career goals. The sender of our “8 second talk break” e-mail has at least worked out that the old enemy is gone, but replaced by a new set of battles.

I think programming people fall into one of three categories:

  • Thoroughly Unreconstructed – play 15 songs an hour, stick a station ID between each one, talk breaks up to the ad breaks, have a funny breakfast show and a younger evening show. If your station’s ratings are going down, you’re obviously not following this formula closely enough. Grudging acceptance of e-mail, SMS and websites.
  • In Denial – they know they can’t keep making radio like this, but they just can’t kick the habit. Actually, that’s not quite fair. In many cases they have to be outstandingly courageous to take on shareholders who’s expectation of risk/return in the radio industry is now way way out of whack from reality.
  • Risking It – furtively sneaking resource away into cleverer ideas, and implictly supporting new initiatives, but always with the risk that they will get belted by the next management level up if the ratings go down and some resource was diverted away into “future stuff”.

The majority seem to be in denial (those who are thoroughly unreconstructed usually live largely undisturbed on non-metro stations), and those who are risking it don’t make it public.

So is the future of radio the 8 second talk break? It might be.

The point is that what the “8 second talk break” describes is thinking about a listener experience that’s more like having an MP3 player, but with some tangible benefits for the end-user; bursts of useful information (like an Audio RSS feed?), and some serendipity of the music choice. It’s not competing to grab listeners from another station, but to win over someone who might just be tipped back from pressing play on their iPod/iTunes.

I also feel quite strongly that for every low-cost product radio produces, we must protect a premium and a uniqueness in the market by showing that we’re the people who really understand talent; that’s talented producers who make incredible imaging that makes your spine tingle, and talented presenters who can tweak and play with your emotions.

It would be good if this e-mail could embolden a few more of the In Denials and Furtive Risk Takers to come forward and really make change happen, and have the courage to deal with the critism that might generate. Switch to 8 second talk breaks or employ a million pound talent; either might be valid, but at least do something to start evolving radio.

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