Monday, November 29, 2004

When It's Time To Change Format

Jones Radio Networks is kind enough to allow us to share highlights of their weekly client newsletter, "Share Points," and this week's features a great checklist on format changes by Jim Murphy, JRN's VP/Integrated Country Media:

Occasionally, despite everyone's best efforts, a total makeover is the only option that will not only grow your station's audience, but also give local advertisers new reasons to do business with you.

As format specialists, the programmers at Jones Radio Networks assist dozens of local stations each year in navigating the sometimes unfamiliar waters of a shiny new format. With that in mind, we'd like to share some ideas to help make the transition as smooth and productive as possible, while helping you avoid the three most common mistakes broadcasters make during a format flip. Before we get to the big "don'ts," let's run through a few "dos."

Do consider your new format carefully
As simple as this might sound, it's astounding to see how many stations leap into a new format without adequately considering all the available options, or the possible pitfalls. If you decide to go up against the market-leading AC station, ask yourself whether your market can support two ACs. Think about how much money and time it will take to peel off listeners and advertisers from your competitor. Listeners and advertisers can be annoyingly loyal to a heritage station.

Do look for the format hole
The larger the market, the harder it is to find a truly unique format that no other station is covering. All things being equal, a station is better off being the #1 station in its format -- no matter what the format -- than it is to be the #2 or #3 station behind a more successful station in the same format. Although it's slightly easier in smaller markets, the tricky balance is to find a format that attracts a large enough audience which isn't already being done well in your area. From a sales standpoint, it may be better to be the only all-talk station than the second soft AC, even if the AC audience is somewhat larger. If you seek out research or professional advice for NO other aspect of your format change, this may be the one area where an objective outside opinion can be the most valuable.

Beware of falling into the "But my market is unique" trap
Somewhere out there is a station manager who thinks his special blend of Polka and Rap will work because, he's quick to tell you, "My market is unique." You can probably count on one hand the number of radio stations that are totally different from anything being done on the radio anywhere else. The fact is, the vast majority of stations across the U.S. in each individual format are remarkably similar. This has nothing to do with media consolidation or group programmers, but EVERYTHING to do with our mobile society and the increasingly homogenous tastes of mainstream radio listeners.

Here are the three most common mistakes we see broadcasters make when changing format.

1. Don't assume everyone knows you're changing (or have changed) format

A top-rated radio station in a medium to small market might have 10% of the market listening. If you're changing format, it may be safe to assume you DON'T have 10% market share. So for the sake of discussion, let's assume you have 5% of the audience. That means, then, that some 95% of your market is NOT listening to your station. These are the people you need to reach, and just talking about a format change on your own air won't reach these people.

2. Don't skimp

We work with small market owners and operators every day, and we know no operators outside of the top two or three markets with a million bucks to launch a new radio station. Few small market stations can afford even $10,000. But whatever you have, this is not the time to skimp. It's important to the get the word out, and quickly, once you've pulled the trigger. Done well, a reasonable investment in outside advertising (direct mail, e-mail, billboards where available, newspaper, etc) can generate substantial word-of-mouth. Done poorly, a format change drives away the 5% who WERE listening, and misses the 95% who have never listened to your station…and still assume you're doing the same ol', same ol'.

3. Don't forget you have one chance to make a first impression - Be bold!

When you're ready to go, make your format change something everyone will be talking about. Think "spectacle" and think BIG! Some stations stunt before launching their new format, stimulating both curiosity and tune-in. Launching commercial free for the first week -- or month, broadcasting from a highway billboard, or having a masked man hand out dollar bills in public places are all strategies smaller stations have used to get big attention for a new station with a small cash investment. Every dollar you invest, and every hour you spend planning your launch promotion, will be ten times more effective than the same time or money invested three months later.

One bonus "Don't"
Don't assume that listeners to your new format are the same as your old listeners. Oldies listeners have different wants and needs from Rock fans or Country buffs. Working with a format specialist who understands your new audience's likes and dislikes can help avoid the biggest common mistake of all: not getting it right the first time.

To see a complimentary copy of "Share Points" or learn more about JRN services like Bill Cody's Classic Country Weekends, "Lia" and "Danny Wright All Night" daypart programs, email or call 800 426.9082. A&O is proud to consult JRN's country products.

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