For promos that work, do some (simple) math
When stations decide to air programming promos, most station staffers agree it’s a good idea. But there’s usually far less consensus about how often those messages should air. The solution to this quandary is called OES.
If you work with radio programming or on-air promotion, even tangentially, you’ve probably heard of OES — Optimum Effective Scheduling, a radio scheduling strategy developed in the late 1980s.
Radio professionals using OES make calculations, unique to their stations, that help them air messages often enough for listeners to recall and retain the information.
How often is that? Sixty times a week, for the average public radio station. Far more often than you’d imagine and far less than you probably do.
You’ve probably heard of OES before because it’s been considered a “best practice” in public radio for more than 15 years. During that time there have been more than half a dozen sessions at public radio conferences about the benefits of OES. Networks and program producers have invoked OES as a benchmark for on-air promo campaigns. The Development Exchange suggests OES as a component of its “year-round fundraising” strategies. OES even has its own sidebar in the PRPD Program Director’s Handbook. As a way of figuring the best reach and frequency of on-air promotion, it’s our gold standard.
Yet, despite this universal agreement on the system’s benefits, practically no one uses it.
In a survey conducted as part of the CPB-sponsored On-air Program Promotion Insight Study, 83 leading public radio stations (accounting for more than half of pubradio’s national cume) gave detailed information on how they use their air to promote programming. Responding stations aired an average of 10 different program promos.
Of those 83 radio stations, only three aired any promo at a level approaching the OES standard. The average program promo airs on a station eight times, which is about one-seventh of what an average OES schedule recommends.
If OES suggests a number of times we must air a promo for listeners to recall and retain the message, and stations air only a small fraction of that, what is the point of airing promos at all?
Before addressing this question, let’s consider where the OES number comes from and what it can do for your station. The system was developed in the late 1980s by two of commercial radio’s top strategists, Pierre Bouvard, now president of Arbitron, and Steve Marx.
To determine your station’s OES number, just insert a few numbers in the formula (below), do some simple division and multiplication, and bam, you have it. [Or go to the online calculator on my website.]
Your number tells you how often your station must air a message so that half its audience will hear a message three times.
This raises two fairly obvious questions:
When most programmers or promoters calculate OES for the first time, they usually experience a version of sticker shock. OES is a big number. When I discuss OES with colleagues at stations, they often dismiss the idea of committing to so many messages: “This number of promos is too aggressive,” they say. Or “airing this many promos will burn out my audience.”
OES definitely overexposes one well-connected listener group: station staff members themselves. Many radio station staffers listen to their station 10, 20, 40 or more hours per week. If a promo airs 60 times, they probably will hear it way more than three times. In commercial radio there is a term for this reaction — the Hit Record Syndrome: Staff members come close to revolting over the number of times they play “Free Bird” or the new Britney single. However, the station is programmed for thousands of listeners who hear much less of the promo, not a dozen oversaturated staff members.
At many stations, an average listener tunes in about half a dozen times, for a total of five to eight hours of listening a week. With that limited amount of exposure, what is the chance that an average listener will hear more than three of those 60 aired promos? Very, very small.
According to the statistics that form the basis for OES, only half of them will encounter a third airing, let alone any number above that. Even core listeners, who may tune in twice as often for longer periods of time, have an insignificant chance of encountering excessive repeats of the promo.
The OES number really isn’t as big and intimidating as it appears. You can accept it if you make a simple paradigm shift. In my earlier article on paring down promo schedules, I pointed out OES won’t exhaust your promo inventory. Most public radio stations have so many promotional avails on their broadcast logs they could air two or three OES schedules simultaneously. The problem at most stations is that they are promoting too many programs at once, thereby restricting the airings per promo. Think of it this way: Try being the same, but a little bit different. For example, if your station airs promos for nine different programs, each receiving a roughly equal number of airings each week, try an OES schedule for just three of those programs. Run those for two months, then switch to three others. Two months later, switch to the remaining three programs. Over the course of six months, you will have run the same number of promos per program but with much more effect.
This returns us to an earlier question: If the point of airing program promos is to raise awareness and listening but stations aren’t running enough to achieve that, what’s the point of running promos at all?
There really isn’t any.
Here is what we know: Well-constructed messages, presented to listeners often enough for them to remember them, increase awareness of the station and its programming.
There are more sophisticated ways to offer an OES-style promo schedule to a specific subgroup of your listeners, thus using fewer promos (I’ll describe the procedure on my website in case you’re interested), but most stations fail to achieve those levels, too. In short, airing a handful of promos for a program each week is a literal and figurative waste of time.
Another important element of using OES is managing it well — not simply scheduling that number of promos, but introducing staff members to the concept and the unfamiliar methodology. Acknowledge to them that it will seem like a lot of exposure, but assure your staff that from a listener’s perspective it’s just right. They won’t tune out the message. It will resonate more clearly with them. It will help them appreciate the station and its offerings even more than they do now.
It also helps to have a sense of humor about it.
One day one of my reporters stopped me in the hallway and said if he heard another promo for one of our weekend shows, he might burst a blood vessel. We’d been airing them several times a day for several weeks and he had heard enough. I asked the reporter what time the show aired.
“Saturday afternoons at 4,” he answered.
“See,” I responded with a smile. “It’s working.”
Eric Nuzum is program director of WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio. His research into promo effectiveness is part of the CPB-sponsored On-air Programming Promotions Insight Study. For more information on the study and its results, go to the website ericnuzum.com/oppis.
A little bit of math
Calculating a station’s OES (Optimum Effective Scheduling) number
is very simple. You’ll need two numbers from the station’s
latest Arbitron audience report. (If these numbers aren’t handy,
they’re available on the Radio Research Consortium website at
|Station's weekly cume||195,200||_________|
|Divided by AQH||9,900||_________|
|Station's OES number||65||_________|
Web page posted Feb. 2, 2004
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