Radio’s Zigzag Problem

We’ve all heard it, and probably said it, before. ‘When they zig, we gotta zag’. Like most cliches it was created for a reason and, on the surface, it’s often solid radio advice. In general, finding a hole in a market should allow us to carve out enough of an audience to monetize. However, in our pursuit to be different it’s easy to take zagging too far and end up in a listenership wasteland. Here are a few examples of over-zagging, some of the things that drive them and ways to avoid falling into the trap of trying to be too different.

At our core a lot of radio people are contrarians. Meaning if something is popular we are less likely than your average person to also like it. Since it takes a different kind of person to want to be in radio, our desire to be different isn’t that surprising. But, if unchecked contrarians will make a lot of decisions that aren’t in a radio station’s best interest. They will spend way too much time trying to discover that great song that no one else is playing instead of following free, readily available data. They’ll ignore the thing everyone is talking about that day and instead lean heavy into weird news type stories and things that pique their personal interest more than the interest of the masses. Out of a desire to avoid anything someone else is doing they’ll also try so hard to be unique with their features, benchmarks and contests that they end up with creative things that very few people find entertaining and engaging. The solution for all of these is to take that time, passion and creative energy and put it in to doing the best version of a mass appeal station with a compelling spice category (to feature a few of our finds), strategic and purposeful imaging, our unique take on the topics of the day (including hot local topics), and our twist on proven features, benchmarks, and contests while rotating in the occasional unique new one we invent to see if it gets some traction.

Zagging too far also relates to the big programming question we’re always asking ourselves: Should we program at, near or away from our competitor? Do we do the exact same thing they are only better? Have we identified a couple of weaknesses we can exploit to program near them? Or, is our competitor so strong that we should cede ground and program away from them entirely? In my experience, if our goal is to beat our competitor, the answer is rarely to program away from them. Unfortunately, some think zagging and coming up with something completely different from the competition is actually a safer bet. Others, like myself at times in my career, get really excited about that prospect because it allows us the opportunity to get really creative, do a bunch of our own research, and potentially create something no one has ever done before. Don’t get me wrong, there are markets and situations where programming away is actually the right move, but they are few and far between. In most cases we would be better served putting that energy into training our talent to do interactive personality driven shows, turning some of that great on-air content into digital content that’s tailored for specific platforms and giving our stations a presence everywhere our listeners and potential listeners are (online, on social and on-site in the community).

The final area over-zagging has bitten our industry as of late is on the digital front. Although digital content creators, especially podcasters, have been ‘borrowing ideas’ from radio for years. We’re reluctant to do the same in reverse. Our training in brevity and getting to the point quickly lends itself very well to creating bite-size chunks of content for social media that could look and feel very similar to the content successful social media influencers crank out daily. Along those same lines, our years of training behind the mic creating on-air content that appeals to a wide-range of different demos (if we’ve worked in multiple formats) gives us a HUGE leg up when podcasting. Similarly, doing live radio has made us all multi-taskers capable of pulling off some incredibly compelling livestreams. Yet, many radio people are still reluctant to make that jump to digital or try to reinvent the wheel when doing so as opposed to emulating what’s working well for other digital content creators.

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