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Bar chart showing only two out of 19 programs got much repetition
Hypothetical station WXXX promotes 19 programs in a week. Two receive heavier exposure, (indicated by height of bars above), others only a few airings. None airs often enough for listeners to remember it.

What radio tune-in promos need: reduction and repetition

Originally published in Current, Dec. 1, 2003
Commentary by Eric Nuzum

Chances are, your radio station promotes too much of its programming. You may wonder how that can be true. Isn’t promoting a radio program, or any product, like loving a child — there’s no such thing as too much? Our broadcast logs have space for dozens if not hundreds of programming promos during the week, and we fill them from a vast mixed bag of program promos.

The intentions are admirable: We’re proud of the programming we offer. We believe our listeners would enjoy it, and we want them to be aware of it.

We’re also drawn to airing promos out of a sense of fairness. Just like a parent with children, we claim no favorites and want to give every program a chance to be noticed and succeed.

All these promos add up, but we justify them by thinking that the more program promos we air, the better.

It isn’t. The problem is that we assault listeners with a smorgasbord of promotional messages. These spots air so infrequently, and are often so information-heavy, that they don’t resonate with listeners or create lasting impressions.

The good news is that the solution is simple. Two principles can give radio stations a framework for effective program awareness campaigns: Reduction and Repetition.
Simply put, the fewer programs you promote, the better. Fewer, more often, is even better.

Reduction

Reduction has two meanings: On the macro level, it means talking about fewer things; on the micro level, it means simplifying the message.

According to a survey conducted as part of the CPB-sponsored On-air Programming Promotion Insight Study, the average public radio station airs promos for 10 different programs or dayparts every week. This is about three times more than the ideal.

Some stations promote as few as two programs or dayparts, others as many as 27. The number varies dramatically from station to station with—literally—no two stations promoting their programming the same way. But the tendency is clear. On the average day, more than 95 percent of public radio stations promote too many programs.

This is inefficient for two reasons: First, it prevents the listener from hearing the message often enough to remember it (more on this in the “Repetition” section). Second, a multitude of promos just adds to the shower of noise we dump on our listeners.

Take the station WXXX. Data in the chart on page 16 come from an actual station that typically airs 19 different promos. Two programs are promoted 15 times a week, while the remaining 17 are promoted an average of three and a half times a week.

While the program director obviously targeted two programs for heavier exposure, promos for the other 17 get in the way, taking up most of the station’s remaining available slots. As a result of promoting so many programs, the station promotes none effectively.

It’s almost a cliché to discuss today’s message-soaked culture — where people are confronted with hundreds, even thousands, of messages a day. We air some as parts of station breaks or talk sets and others in weather and traffic reports, underwriting credits, public service announcements and the like.

This alone makes the case for reducing the number of messages we put in front of a listener—just to clear the air. Complicating matters further, research indicates that when we confront listeners with multiple, unconnected, info-packed messages, they simply tune us out. At that point, listening to the radio requires too much attention, so they exile us to their mental periphery.

Reducing the noise level is essential, but so is presenting a promo with a clear and concise message. The most effective messages—the ones listeners mentally process, retain and can recall most easily—are those that contain the clearest ideas, fewest words, and no unnecessary details or tangents. Research into message recall and retention has proven repeatedly that the impact of a message on listeners is proportionally reduced by the amount of “information bits” that surround it. The fewer information bits packed in a promotional spot, the more likely it will make an impression.

Take for example, the following text from an actual promo:

This week A Prairie Home Companion comes to you from Ames, Iowa — Iowa State. With blues man Dave Moore, pianist Radoslav Lorkovich, The Barn Owl Band, the news from Lake Wobegon, and much more.

Without looking back on the text, can you recall the names of all the performers? Of course not. If you remember anything, you might recall that A Prairie Home Companion will feature a variety of music and the news from Lake Wobegon. So if there’s little chance we’ll remember the extraneous information, why include it?

While you’re looking at how your station promotes programming, it may be a good time to take a fresh look at all the different kinds of information presented on your station. Are there tangential details or information bits that aren’t necessary? Removing these can help clear some of the static and give those well-constructed promo messages a chance to resonate. A great way to clear some of the unnecessary clutter is to perform a little feng shui on your radio station (see the box for a full explanation).

Repetition

According to researchers, an average listener must hear a message three times within a week to retain and recall the information it contains.

Look again at the WXXX chart. The average listener tunes into the station six times a week for an average of one hour each time. With more than one-third of the promos airing fewer than three times, what are the chances that a listener will hear three airings of any particular promo?
Practically none.

In fact, less than 1 percent of WXXX’s weekly cume audience will hear any promo enough times to remember it—even the two programs most heavily promoted by the station. Even for those two programs, WXXX would have to quadruple the number of airings to effectively reach its audience. (How many promos are enough and not too much? In a future article, we’ll take a look at Optimum Effective Scheduling, or O.E.S., a versatile tool that can help you tailor programming promotion to your station and its audience.)

If you don’t put a message in listeners’ ears often enough for them to retain or recall it, there is no point in airing it at all.
The answer for WXXX, and for most public radio stations, is to jettison the less-aired promos so that the station can focus on its two or three promotional priorities. Of course, those priorities can change periodically — but the key to success is picking a small number of programs to promote and airing them often enough that most listeners will be able to recall the message.

The Zen-like simplicity of Reduction and Repetition goes against our very nature as broadcasters. We are information professionals, trained to hunt down, vet and present information to our listeners. Our instinct is to provide more — to link quantity with quality. But if our promos are to resonate with meaning, we must think more like a listener. They do value our stations and programming, yet we compete for their attention with hundreds of other messages, concerns and stimuli. Instead of trying to overwhelm with detail, minutiae and variety, we can make our best impression with selective, precise and well-targeted ideas.

Eric Nuzum is program director of WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio. This article is based on his research for the CPB-sponsored On-air Programming Promotion Insight Study. For more information on the study and its results, visit ericnuzum.com/oppis.

Web page posted Feb. 2, 2004
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.

RELATED ARTICLE

Nuzum describes Optimum Effective Scheduling, a technique for calculating how much repetition is enough.

OUTSIDE LINKS

Nuzum's On-air Programming Promotion Insight Study.

Feng shui for promos

Clear, well-constructed messages resonate with listeners and make them aware of what your station offers. One way to help those messages register is by removing unnecessary information put in front of listeners. It’s time for some feng shui.

If you read a book about the ancient Chinese discipline of feng shui, it’s likely to start by advising you to throw out or give away things you don’t need. In other words, before you arrange or rearrange anything, eliminate the clutter.

As applied to your radio station, it’s a two-step process.

1. Make a list of 10 things you say on air that you can do without.

2. Pledge to get them off your air within 10 days.

The editing can be as simple as trimming tangential detail from copy, eliminating the “www” from web addresses and dropping the word “degrees” from weather updates. Or the changes can be as significant as removing the community calendar from the air or talking with your underwriting reps about removing phone numbers from underwriting announcements. Whatever the list items are, they are clutter — information bits that accomplish nothing. Getting them out of the way makes the remaining messages more likely to be heard. —Eric Nuzum

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