By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
Among the things I like about WCBS-FM New York and KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles is that they both represent the Classic Hits formats well, and in very different ways. K-Earth plays its powers 21x a week and has about 225 songs getting two spins a week or more this week. WCBS-FM spins powers 11x a week and is just over 400 songs. This month, WCBS is #2 in the market and K-Earth is #3. Together, they’re a lesson on why you shouldn’t be didactic about how to do Classic Hits, or any other format.
So a few weeks ago, when I wanted to educate myself on how stations were structuring their talk breaks within the hour, I listened to both stations. Again, there were differences — but more in execution than in intent. And there were lessons from both for stations looking to structure their own hours.
When I listened to K-Earth the first time in mid-April, middayer Lara Scott was doing four jock breaks an hour. At the time, K-Earth was running a contest where listeners win for saying the call letters most often in a certain amount of time. Most of the breaks (and many of the promos and sweepers) were geared to that contest, although Scott was also promoting her “ticket window” concert-ticket giveaways. One break an hour was a more-traditional listener shout-out (or “thank you for listening”).
That doesn’t mean there was nothing else happening on the station. A number of the contest teasers involved listener audio (such as previous winners or would-be winners saying the calls). There was a mention of the April 15 tax deadline looming — so wouldn’t you like to win some extra money? The ticket giveaway, when it came, was for a show in November. That gave Scott and her winner a chance to comment on how the year was flying by. The other personality elements were in service to the contesting, but they were there.
That was about five weeks ago. Last Friday, I listened to Scott doing a remote from Knott’s Berry Farm to promote a new roller coaster. Amusement park remotes can be painful for the listener. One break is 90 seconds on funnel cake. The next is the host doing his or her best to interview the park mascot in character. And like other things that have a buy attached to them, remotes have sometimes resisted the tighter controls of the PPM era.
This time, there were actually six jock breaks over the course of the hour. All but one were related to the remote. One was for the station’s ongoing Flight 101 flyaway series. (This time it was for an ‘80s concert in the Dominican Republic.) One break was combined with a tease for the station Facebook page. (“See a video of me riding the coaster between two grown men who are crying.”) Four were listener interviews; most were over intros, but one ran about a minute and went into a stopset. (Scott and the listener agreed that in that moment before the coaster went into its first big drop, “You have time to contemplate your life.”)
Then I listened to the same hour on CBS-FM, Randy Davis was filling in for middayer Dan Taylor, but I’ve heard a similar structure when Taylor himself was on. The hour began with a weather forecast over a jingle bed, leading into the :00 ID. There were two plugs for morning host Scott Shannon’s upcoming “Summer Blast-off” in Coney Island. There were two mentions for the current “Song of the Day” contest. (One was a back-sell of the artist Shannon: “’Let the Music Play!’ Let the money flow. Those things really do go together.”) There was a general plug for the contest page on the station site. There was also a combination stager/jock front-sell for that hour’s “Hall of Fame” song (today’s theme, ‘80s one-hit-wonders, including Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy”). Davis was heard, even if briefly, roughly every other song.
Most of the breaks on CBS-FM were in service of the contesting as well. I’ve heard more traditional topical bits on CBS-FM in the recent past, but on Friday, I didn’t hear any “did you hear about the scientists in the UK who say that …?”-type breaks on either station. There were also none of the “in four minutes” teasers that littered the first years of PPM, perhaps because the contesting outweighed the teaser value of anything else. And both stations had major and station-exclusive contesting to talk about.
It reminded me of a period of intense listening to Australian radio a few years ago. Australian radio makes an art out of contesting and promotion, and stations were almost always promoting. Even without PPM measurement, it was typical to hear stations use every break in the hour to try to carry listeners over to a contest execution around :45-:50 past the hour. Then there was a winner payoff and a teaser for your chance to win again next hour. A year later, an Australian radio friend ended up programming elsewhere in the world. I listened to his station and immediately recognized the structure.
I didn’t listen to either station day-in/day-out for multiple hours to figure out whether there was a “talk clock.” Ideally, there would be no need for one. As with the difference between writing a liner card and giving bullet points for a promotion (now both pre-PPM relics anyway), jocks would rotate between station business, including contesting, and breaks that showcased localism, occasional topicals, etc. They would base that hour’s content on the needs of the station and the moods of their listener. They would move those breaks around based on the available intros, as opposed to stopping the sweep for 65 seconds to read a sales liner at great length.
Ideally, even those hosts who were voice-tracking would sound like they were “in the moment.” Not like they were reading the same piece of non-time-sensitive station business that they read yesterday.
Ideally, even those jocks who were disciplined enough to stick to the “one-thought-per-break” rule would, like KRTH’s Scott, find other ways to add subtext. The issue is never the tight break that accomplishes multiple things. It’s the loose “laundry list” of discretionary topics that wastes time and opportunity. (I should add that I recently heard a morning man who was doing just that type of “hey, it’s Monday”-type jocking. His breaks were peppered with asides of the sort that often sound like rambling, but they were genuinely funny, almost as if he was trying to be his own morning co-host.)
Some Classic Hits stations spend a lot of time teasing upcoming music. Besides the “listen to win” songs, CBS-FM and K-Earth didn’t do any of that, and I didn’t miss it. In fact, if you’re about to play an artist who’s usually represented by one song at radio now, I’d rather you let it be a surprise that Eddy Grant or the Cutting Crew are on the way. But if you have something to say about the song you’re playing now, I’d be open to hearing it, because I don’t hear that much these days, and liking music is one of the things that you and the listener have in common.
Ultimately, the goal is finding the balance between letting listeners have “the radio experience” and preserving the music experience. The best ratio of content to time spent dispensing it has always been the essence of great personality, but it’s more important now in a world of other (mostly) unhosted audio choices. And then, broadcasters have to make choices in terms of spotload and the overall tightness of their own radio stations that support the best programming decisions.