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John Frost

The Discipline Of Programming
Part 1-4





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 your goals.   

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 movie.  

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, part three

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 listeners.

(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 1999.