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Q&A on TRN’s Programming for Viral Growth

Mark Masters, CEO of Talk Radio Network companies outlines (some time ago) what makes great syndicated opinion talk radio shows grow in a viral fashion.

Question #1 What criteria do you think programmers use when determining whether to run a specific syndicated program?

Answer: The criteria, is typically centered around a show that can create massive referral based audiences from a loyal “infected” listenership.  Let me explain; A truly great talent will outperform their home station’s ratings, creating a ratings spike during their daypart that is typically an indication of that “great host’s” ability to create a unique audience, above and beyond that of their lead-in show or station.  

By way of illustration, one of my show’s was averaging a 5 share 12+ when his then home station’s average was around a 2.5 share 12+.   This is what initially caught my attention.  Here’s a guy that outperformed his lead-in show and his station by close to a 3 share, listeners 12+, of unique audience at the time.  Seeing this, I listened for days to him to find out how he did it.  Which leads to the 2nd answer.

Great hosts and those like them generate massive rating spikes because from an audience growth standpoint they are what I call “viral”.  A “viral” host creates audience growth because they are so compelling that their listeners become “infected” with “host talk” – meaning they automatically start telling friends about the show, talking about what the host said over dinner to friends. In this way, you will often hear about a “viral” host from friends before you ever actually hear the host for the first time – creating a true referral based listenership that can turn one “infected” listener into 5 to 10 more referral based listeners over time. This then translates into rating spikes and strong ratings in general, which means a great show should often outperform the station’s previous share in that daypart by 50% or more (over 3 to 9 months).  When this happens, it becomes a good deal for a station to give up 25% to 30% of their inventory in the show in return for a show which will justify the stations sacrifice of one third of their commercial minutes by heavily increasing the value of the station’s remaining local minutes within the show.

Ultimately then I think that stations really look for shows that can create massive unique referral based audience for them, which in turn can greatly increase the audiences of that station’s other programs – especially those shows leading into and out of a great syndicated “Viral” or “tent pole” show.  This principal is easiest to see on TV lineups.  This is why the cast of Friends paid so much at the time it was still on TV.  They were NBC’s “Tent Pole” show for years.  They help bring audience to their lead-in ad lead-out shows and monetized NBC’s entire Thursday night lineup.  The same is true of a great syndicated talent. If a syndicated show can’t out perform the existing daypart by at least 30% or more (over a couple of books) – you may be better off staying local – but the greatest syndicated shows can often double, even triple a stations daypart creating a ratings “tent pole effect” which is something few local hosts can do.  However, it is important to note that a show that can create massive audiences, but is unsaleable both locally and nationally is as useless as a “weak” vanilla show that is saleable but has no audience.  In both cases there is no revenue.  Thus, a great talk show must be compelling, funny, unpredictable, but also have extremely responsible commentary – in such a case you get audience and sales, which is TRN’s talk networks’ primary focus.

Question #2 What do you think radio programmers are looking for from network or syndicator?

Answer:  #1 Salability, #2 Ratings (great programming), #3 A fair economic premise, and #4 Great Engineering and Customer Service.  But I would like to focus on what drives it all; talent.  A great host expresses opinion and analysis in such an effective way that the listener has a bit of an emotional catharsis – a feeling that someone has finally expressed what the listener always intuitively knew but couldn’t put into words themselves.  This is why great hosts can attract 7,000 people to an event.

Also, I think what stations are looking for in a syndicated show is a host that can turn data (A Commodity) into meaning effortlessly.  Station’s GM’s and PD’s also want a host that can build tension and release that tension with humor (in a responsible manner). When it’s really right, it’s as if the host is performing intellectual and emotional “acupuncture” across a full range of emotion that becomes absolutely addicting to listeners – these listeners then tell friends and the station audiences can explode over a 3 to 9 month period all because of one host who understands that his opinion and sense of humor is a monopoly in a world where information alone is a commodity.

Many opinion talk hosts are not truly secure enough in their own belief or knowledge to express original thoughts or opinions.  So they become what I call “information based hosts”.  These hosts spout out facts and figures – then read an op-ed piece and ask for caller’s comments.  Sure it sounds like a talk show.  It even generates callers and debate, yet it will never break out.  Why?  Because talk radio is about the host’s opinion about information and not about information itself.   

Great hosts will tell you what they think about something and why.  A weaker host will simply quote what someone else thinks about information and ask the caller’s opinion.  If you look closely, this difference appears small but is actually huge in its ramifications.  Every talking head can spout information, however, very few can come forth with real analysis and self generated opinion on subjects.  When that rare individual does, such opinion can act to crystallize the feelings of their listeners in a way that validates the listener’s own thinking.  This in turn locks in listener loyalty, which in turn creates referrals to the show by that now happy, validated listener that in turn fuels ratings spikes for that show.  Consistent ratings spikes ultimately turn into a ratings “tent pole” effect and all shows on the station start to reap rewards by being in the orbit of such a show.  The “viral” or “tent pole” show collateralizes all other shows on its stations with audience while simultaneously acting like a monetizing agent for the entire station lineup.

Question #3: Why should a station carry a syndicated program rather than producing it on their own?

Answer: Stations want a show that can generate real unique audiences which in turn can “Float all Boats” across the other dayparts – they don’t care whether it is syndicated or local.  For the most part most shows that generate audience unique to them are often in syndication, while most shows that do not generate unique audience are “ratings echoes.” Let me explain, separate a show that is a “ratings echo” from a show that is a real “unique audience builder.”  For example – 2 shows, both large markets, both shows are tops in their daypart, both shows have a 6 share of listeners listening at a given time of day.  However, upon closer examination, the first show’s “6 share” was with a station that had a lead-in show that had a share of 3.5 – the stations average.  This means that the first show outperformed its lead-in and the station as a whole by a full 2.5 share or 70%.  This show has an infectious quality among its listeners and has created a unique audience to it alone of a 2.5 share above and beyond the station’s average of a 3.5 share.  This is a show that I want to look into further (and most PD’s want).

Show #2 which is also tops in its large market also has a 6 share but – looking at its lead-in show, we find that the show on before it (it’s lead in show) is in fact a 7 share.  In this case the second show, though just as big in its daypart and a 6+ share, in fact probably has no unique audience and only keeps 85% of the prior show’s lead-in audience.  This show may actually be a ratings echo of its lead-in and may have little ability to generate unique audience as it can’t even capture all of the “free” lead in audience that is being delivered to it by the show before it. (The only time this may not be the case is for shows on after 6 p.m. because that’s when TV viewing kicks in and, according to Arbitron (last time I looked), half of radio listeners disappear into TV land).  In fact, a few years back, according to Nielsen and Arbitron, there were twice as many people listening to all radio than there were watching TV up to 6 p.m.

After 6 p.m., it flips drastically to 4 times more people watching TV than listening to radio.  Thus, shows on after 6 p.m. cannot so much be judged by their lead-in show because of the TV impact/drop-off factor.  Rather shows airing after 6 p.m. should more be judged based on what they compete against (Interestingly, from 10 p.m. on, the available audience to radio cuts in half yet again).

Therefore, all large share or top-rated daypart shows are not the same.  The key is in a host’s ability to have such an unpredictably broad range of both intellectual and emotional ability and conviction of personal belief that the host’s audience goes “viral” in their referrals of the program to friends.  This in turn creates referral based rating spikes, which creates ratings well in excess of the station or lead-in shows average, which equals unique audience.  This then justifies the station giving up some inventory inside the syndicated show (about 1/3) in return for the rest of their inventory becoming worth a lot more.  That’s how a breakout show works, whether it is local or syndicated (most such shows happen to be syndicated).

Question #4: Can a station make more money with a syndicated program than with something that is produced in-house?

Answer:  If a syndicated show is weak – No.  If a syndicated show is luke warm – No, if a show is unpredictable highly entertaining, responsible and brilliant – Yes. No in the first two cases because local hosts still give you the ability to do local reads and meet with advertisers.  Yes in the last case because a great syndicated show will generate enough unique audience that it will act like a ratings “Tent Pole” which helps the ratings of all other shows on the stations as well as the monetization of all other dayparts.

To put it another way, good hosts talk to their audiences.  Great hosts talk on behalf of their audiences.  Good hosts have some warmth and some range.  Great hosts have a lot of “magnetic” warmth and intellectual range on a level that can move from humor to sarcasm to high drama effortlessly.  On an intellectual level, great hosts have range that can go from ancient philosophy to a deep understanding of western style capitalism to world political strategy connecting the dots, turning data points into meaning as they go.   This is intellectual range.

Applied to syndication this means:

If a host has warmth but limits in intellectual range, he may succeed locally but he will fail nationally.  If a host is cold and somewhat aloof but has strong intellectual range – he will fail locally and nationally.  If a host has a strong degree of both emotional (warmth, and natural humor) and intellectual range, his show will do extremely well locally and will have staying power and might break even financially nationally.  If a host has full dynamic range emotionally and full dynamic range intellectually, that show will break-out locally becoming a ratings “tent pole” for its local station and then break-out nationally and nothing will stop its ascendance.

Question #5: Why are syndicated talk shows so dominant everywhere?  Where did all the local talent go?

Answer:  In 1988 only a tiny fraction of talk consisted of  long form syndicated personalities.  By 1995, that number had jumped to around 50% and by 2002, the number had jumped to an astounding 75% of all talk programming.  This is due to the fact that the best talent will always be syndicated.  The best talent is so powerful and compelling, that they create massive ratings spikes during their dayparts which most local hosts are unable to rival.  Now consider the benefit to a station of being able to have that caliber of ratings generating talent plus their entire production team, for only the cost to the station of around 1/3 of their commercial inventory within the show.  The result, many talk stations have been able to almost fully automate, saving the out of pocket costs of local talent, air crew and other layers of management, while still staying dominant on the ratings front.  This allows radio stations to put their attention and resources on the recruiting and retention of the true superstars of radio: local salespeople.  Also, it is a “no brainer” in the sense that they are simply converting unsold, perishable commercial (which would probably go unsold in any event) into true value – they are getting “best in breed” programming which they never could have afforded in return for 1/3 of the commercials inside each show.  This then allows them to fire the old air staff and produce in that slot, and save massive costs – a double win.

Because of this logic an overwhelming percentage of talk radio programming is now syndicated, it is now syndicated talent that dictates the ultimate ratings success of many talk stations, both now and for the foreseeable future.  

Questions #6: With the talk format so popular today, is it harder or easier to sell talk than music – and which is more beneficial to advertisers “pound for pound”?

Answer:  Talk being a foreground formats tends to reach “engaged” listeners as opposed to music listeners who often are listening to music to “disengage” from the world.  This is why the talk format is so effective at making the phone ring for advertisers.  Talk show hosts can often “loan” their audience’s loyalty to an advertiser.  This is because when a beloved host reads an ad – and it’s a good sincere read – the result is often less of it being an ad (ads are often cold) and more of it being a referral from a person you’ve grown to trust – in this case, the host.  As any advertiser will tell you, a referral-based lead is many times more likely to turn into a sale of a product or service than a “cold” medium ad.  

The effectiveness of the power of a talk personality to influence his audiences buying patterns can be easily seen by the impact a great host had on Snapple’s sales or the sales growth of Breathright Strips after they advertised with a great host.  Music radio has never had even one story comparable to those success’s experienced by talk advertisers who, when buying a voiced ad, access a warm environment of listener loyalty which is then transferred to them by the host.  I believe in large part because of a great host, Snapple moved from a small regional beverage company to a national company that at one time had a stock value in excess of a billion dollars.

Question #7: You mentioned controversy – what factor does that play in national sales?

Answer:  That’s a good question – but let me use the music analogy again; If we look at purely niched music formats like urban rap or heavy metal – even though the lyrics of the music in either format may be totally reprehensible to you or me, there is absolutely nothing controversial in the lyrics of music within these formats to the loyal listeners of these formats.  Equally so, there is nothing controversial in what a liberal host says to his liberal audience and nothing controversial ever said between a conservative host and his conservative audience (provided it is responsible commentary and has context plus a “pay off” of humor or logic).

Controversy only appears when an “oldies” music listener accidentally tunes into a rap station for a minute and, being out of his niche is thus shocked by the lyrics and complains to an agency.  The same goes for a liberal listener who accidentally listens to a conservative show out of his niche – or a conservative who stumbles across a liberal host and complains to the sponsor.

In every case above, none of the offended listeners will stay and listen to a niche format they hate.  Therefore, controversy only exists when one niche format’s listener accidentally hears and is offended by either the lyrics or the talk of another niche format – be it music or talk.  Within their own format there is not controversy between a host and his audience.  The question is – do advertisers value the huge audiences of spending consumers that rap, country music and conservative talk attract?  The answer is yes – now more than ever.