When Radio Stations Underperform Their Images

In the course of our research, we sometimes encounter brands that are experiencing a lack of balance. For example, a station will have what looks like a strong brand—it’s known for being “the Rock station” or “the Oldies station” or “the Old School station,” whatever its Base Music Position might be. Its music images—that is, the styles listeners associate with the station—might even be dominant, meaning that no other station in the market competes. Based on these measures alone, the station is doing really well.

But listenership shows a different story. Ratings are stagnant or even down. The station fights for recognition. It’s not top-of-mind. Listeners don’t think of it for much beyond its music, and they aren’t really listening, even if they’re fans of the music the station is primarily known for playing.

Weird, right?

Well, not exactly. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, but it’s not completely rare, either. This imbalance is an indication that something might be up with a station’s execution. A station might, for example, be…

  • Playing the “wrong” Rock music on “the Rock station”—maybe you’ve gone too new or too hard, away from what your core audience loves
  • Running too many contests and giveaways, especially ones that don’t directly connect with your music—the “Old School station” can absolutely give away tickets to the Teddy Riley Tour featuring Keith Sweat and Guy (note: this does not exist but it should), but should be wary of giveaways with confusing brand messages or no connection to its Base Music Position
  • Airing a morning show that doesn’t connect with the Base Music Position or its fans—maybe the hosts are much older than the audience of “the Hits station” and they talk about things the audience doesn’t care about, or perhaps the morning show on a Classic Rock station plays next to no music when that’s what its listeners have told us in the past that they want

Imagine a Starbucks that had so much success with non-coffee drinks that it stopped serving coffee altogether. While it’s true that many Starbucks customers go there for the green tea and the Unicorn Frappuccinos, Starbucks is, at its heart—its “base”—a coffee shop. A Starbucks without Pike Place would likely alienate its core audience; they would probably still associate Starbucks with coffee, but they would go elsewhere for their basic brew.

That’s what happens to a radio station that underperforms its music images. Too much misalignment of the brand and its expectations and the audience will drift away.

What’s the remedy? While it’s different for every station that experiences this discrepancy, there are a few approaches, and they all involve getting back to basics:

  1. Focus on the music mix. Are you playing the right titles? Too much new music, not enough Gold? Vice versa? Are you playing too much of a style that doesn’t appeal to fans of the music you’re most associated with? Perceptual research can help guide the strategy, while music testing can ensure you’re playing the right songs based on that strategy.
  2. Focus on the music—period. Don’t get caught up in too many contests. Or, bring the music back into the contests.
  3. Make sure your morning show is hitting the right notes with your listeners—are the hosts working with your core audience, talking to them on their level? Is there too much music during the show, or maybe too little?
  4. Once your music position is solid, you can focus more on building your brand. Look to the Coleman Insights Image Pyramid. Become known first for your music, then you can add on, but remember that your Base Music Position is the core of your brand, and everything else should be built upon it.

A Frappuccino is really nice and all, but your core listeners see a Frappuccino as just a way to add stuff to what they ultimately want—a good cup of coffee.

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