Programming tip #36-The discipline of programming, part one
Programming a successful radio station is both science and art.
The science part is the structure, flow, research, and mechanics
by which the station’s message and purpose are communicated. The
art is what gives it feeling, passion, and an emotional connection
to your listener. One person put it this way, “Every science begins
as an art. We come upon it intuitively, study it to find the
recurrent patterns, then create charts and systems to give us
control over it.”
Over the next few weeks I’ll be delving into some practical tips to
help you better understand the discipline of programming.
First, understand that programming is, in fact, a discipline. You
may know from your daily workouts at the gym that disciplines are
often not much fun but they are necessary to helping you achieve
At the most basic level successful program directors develop the
discipline of listening to the station. While this may seem a no
brainer, too many times I’m inside Christian radio stations where no
one was actually listening to it. I’ve gone as far as to go to a
store, buy a bunch of radios and bring them back to the station, put
them the hallways and turn them on. (Obviously, this is indicative
of a far more important factor—the radio station wasn’t very
interesting to listen to in the first place or people would be).
It is too easy for a program director to be distracted by the latest
emergency, meetings, phone calls, and other people’s priorities that
he or she doesn’t spend enough time simply listening and evaluating
the radio station. In his book “The One Minute Manager Meets the
Monkey”, Ken Blanchard says, “An effective leader must step back,
look at the big picture, and make sure the important things are not
pushed out of the way by the urgent needs of the moment.”
Here is a suggestion:
Schedule at least one hour per week to listen to each of your
station’s major dayparts (mornings, middays, afternoons, nights)
UNINTERRUPTED. Please note that I’m suggesting one hour per daypart
per week. Write down on a piece of paper everything you hear in
that hour---songs, liners, promos, commercials/underwriting, content
breaks by the talent, and promotions. Everything! At the end of
that hour, write down some notes on what you can do to improve that
one hour. While it may not practical to get twenty four hours of
programming a day perfect, it is reasonable to make one hour a day
better. The more frequently you exercise this discipline the
better the station will become over time.
Programming tip #37-The discipline of programming, part two
Foundationally we must understand that programming a successful
radio station is both science and art. The science part is the
structure, flow, research, and mechanics by which the station’s
message and purpose are communicated. The art is what gives it
feeling, passion, and an emotional connection to your listener.
A strong case could be made that the most important part of any
music station is the music. (I’ll be making a case for something
else being even more important, but you’ll have to wait a few weeks.
That’s called a “tease”). Applying the “science” to your music
formatting is fairly intuitive—play the songs your listeners love,
and out of all of those songs that they love, play the ones they
love the most the most. (I’ve read that sentence several times and
I think that really is what I mean to say). But “science” is not
all there is to programming. Just because you have a bunch of
different colors on a canvas doesn’t make it the Mona Lisa.
The “art” of programming music is more subjective, but there are
some applicable concepts. Think of a music experience you’ve had
that was enthralling. Maybe it was a concert. Maybe it was in
church. Maybe it was a play, a ballet, or a television show or
Chances are that if that music experience was compelling it involved
CHANGE. Change is important because the Broca portion of your brain
anticipates patterns and dismisses the ordinary. That’s why a you
no longer notice a billboard on the highway after you’ve seen it a
few times. Only when the Broca is surprised does your brain take
note. We’ve all had the experience of feeling chill bumps when a
beautiful piece of music changed keys. It's because you don't
EXPECT it to change keys. A key change is surprising and uplifting,
like watching a butterfly take off into the air. It could be argued
that the whole point of the song WAS the key change.
As you design your station’s music flow design change into it. Fast
to slow, guitar to piano, slow to fast, acoustic to rock, male
vocalist to female. Take the breadth of the style of songs that
your listeners love and create a pattern of flow that changes from
song to song and uses the entire spectrum of sounds. Your station’s
imaging elements and jingles they can play an important part of
surprising the Broca, as well. Any niche music format will tend to
have music that sounds similar so you have to be purposeful to
create changes. How effectively you design the changes in your
radio station--song to song, talk to music, imaging to talent--will
help determine how compelling your radio station is!
(Special thanks to my friend and talent coach Tommy Kramer for his
inspiration and contribution).
Programming tip #38-The discipline of programming,
In case you’re just joining us these
programming missives the last two weeks have focused on two basic
programming disciplines---learning to listen with intention and
purpose, and understanding that both art and science are components
of successful programming.
This week I’m retracing my steps a bit to bring up a subject to
which most Christian radio stations pay far too little attention.
It’s called BRANDING. Every strong brand delivers experiences
that transcend the individual attributes such as, in our case, the
music, disc jockeys, programs, and promotions.
Last week I stated, “a strong case could be made that the most
important part of any music station is the music. I’ll be making a
case for something else being even more important.” (Note: It makes
me feel oh so very snazzy when I quote myself. :)
Yes, the music on your station is important, but that’s the price of
admission for listener loyalty and success. Where stations can
make the greatest impact, particularly in a competitive format
situation, is by distinctly branding the station in a way that your
listeners find meaningful.
Here’s a little story to illustrate what I mean. Let’s say that
every Christmas season you see good ole’ Fred standing out in front
of the hardware store ringing the bell for the Salvation Army.
Because you’re a noble human being and good citizen of your
community you smile at him, have a brief conversation about the
weather and toss a few coins in his bucket. Let’s say that the next
year you go down to the hardware store and Fred is nowhere to be
found. Instead, you see Ted. What are the chances that you’ll
refuse to throw money in the Salvation Army bucket because Ted has
replaced Fred? That’s silly, of course, because you weren’t
donating your money because of Fred or Ted; you were donating
because you know what the Salvation Army stands for. You know that
they help feed and educate the homeless, often finding them places
to live and a job. You know this because that’s the Salvation
Army’s brand. The brand is an overarching theme that gives a
product, a charity, or a radio station its more significant meaning.
There is no music format that has the potential of being as strong a
brand because this format’s core message is something your listeners
care deeply about, and they’d care deeply about it even if your
station went off the air tomorrow. No other format, other than
sports radio, has an audience that gathers on a regular basis, can
reflect their perspective, relationships and activities, and is
about the most important things in their lives.
Your station’s music, while important and you have to get it right,
is your Fred and Ted. Your listeners aren’t going to love you more
or less based upon whether you play a particular song from Casting
Crowns, Mercy Me, or Hercules and the Chicken Fat People. If
you’ve ever gotten a call from a listener that tells you that
they’ll never listen or donate to you again because of a song, or a
disc jockey, or a program changing, that’s a sign that your station
has a weak brand.
In absence of a strong brand people will have to look for other
things to define your brand. If all they have left are Fred and Ted
your station will a difficult time being meaningful to your
(Special thanks to Fred and Ted for taking a short break from my
daughters’ children’s book for their cameo in this programming tip).
Programming tip #39-The
discipline of programming, part four
This four week review of programming basics is intended to be a
helpful foundation for those who are relatively new to programming,
for station managers without a programming background to help give a
frame of reference by which to appreciate a program director’s
decisions, or just a good ole fashioned review for the rest of us
old dogs. As I’ve shared previously, Hall of Fame football coach
Vince Lombardi began the first training camp each year with the
words, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
I was asked recently about whether it was wise to move songs to a
slower rotation based upon the programmer’s judgment that the song
sounds dated. To answer that question appropriately it is
important to restate that programming is both art and science. The
science tells us which songs your listeners love and their
relationship to other songs. Categories are then comprised of songs
with a similar value based upon their appeal to the target audience
determined through music research. The more popular songs,
obviously, rotate more frequently that others because they have
greater value to your station.
The art is the sound, style, flow, instrumentation, vocal treatment,
etc. We instinctively know that even if our listeners loved a
certain five very slow songs it would not be very compelling
programming if we were to play them one after another after. This
would create a sameness in sound and dynamic range. Last week’
programming tip discussed how a radio station is made more
interesting by the program director creatively managing the change
from one element to another.
It is always the programmer’s prerogative to move songs from
category to category based upon his/her artistic vision (or hearing)
of what would make the station most compelling. Or as an old
consultant of mine used to say, just because “White Christmas” tests
as one of your listeners’ favorite Christmas songs doesn’t mean that
you should play it every three and a half hours in the middle of
July. However, if a programmer frequently makes artistic judgments
in moving songs out of the category the research dictates then the
categories become a mish-mash of songs with different research
parameters. You will end up with one category consisting of some
songs that research one way and another group of song that research
another way. Since the very definition of a category is a grouping
of songs with similar appeal and since your music software is
designed to give fairly equal exposure to all songs in a category,
this subjective moving of songs may result in basically losing
control of a category I will occasionally encounter this when a
medium current category is comprised of both songs going up the
charts and those going down.
A caution. If we subjectively move songs to slower rotations
because we think they sound “dated” then, to a degree, we’ll be left
with songs that aren’t, resulting in a more homogenized sound. I
don’t have to tell you that the Contemporary Christian format, like
any niche format, already has a fairly narrow spectrum of styles.
Adjusting rotations based upon a subjective judgment on style can
result in not taking advantage of whatever variety of sounds are
available to you from songs the listeners love. A “new” sound or
an “old” sound is not necessarily wrong. In fact, every sound type
was at some point in time a “new” sound. You may remember that it
was not too long ago that some stations were uncomfortable playing
Toby Mac because his music style was so different. Now, of course,
he is considered to be one of the key artists of the format.
My suggestion is to play the music that your listeners love and
expect to hear from your station. Most adjustments off of that
philosophy simply make your station less appealing. After all,
don’t we all love “White Christmas” in July?
John is a partner in Goodratings
Strategic Services, and has been a successful major market disc
jockey and program director for such companies as CBS, Cap Cities,
Westinghouse, Sandusky, Gannett, and Alliance during his 38 year
broadcast career. John joined Goodratings’ partner Alan Mason in