The best audience research - ever
How great it would be to know how listeners actually respond minute-by-minute to the careful offering we’ve sweated to create.
Not how we think they might respond – or how Rajar audience figures suggest they did – but how they really do.
Streaming data now offers this – and it’s the most powerful tool I’ve ever used as a programmer. I know that other time-served programmers feel the same.
Online listening used to comprise but a very small part of ‘live’ radio, and it was dangerous to presume that the audience at large from broadcast radio behaved in the way that the streamed audience alone did. Indeed, the listening curves of the day were very dissimilar – with daytime-heavy streaming habits compared with the familiar breakfast peak from the broadcast audience.
Now, online listening accounts for 18% of all ‘live’ radio - and for some stations a considerably higher proportion. The smart speaker has helped to transform online listening volume. (Note to readers: You'd be surprised how many listeners don't know what you mean by the phrase 'smart speaker', according to my other research). Changing lifestyle habits have also generated more in-home listening (now accounts for 65% of all listening (Rajar W3 2021); was 59% (W3 2019)) – and lesser listening on the commute.
It now seems odd not to use streaming data as a programming tool – for, whatever its limitations, it tells you in real-time what listeners like and what they don’t. It provides some salutary lessons and brings into question familiar assumptions.
As an industry, we have always been focused on our own output – and its radio rivals - and never really known how audiences respond to the outside world. Since February’s Boom Radio launch, I’ve had first-hand experience, given a huge proportion of our listening is online.
As the Downing Street press conference began last Wednesday, our audience decided they wanted to turn on the telly. That was always going to happen – and my most compelling programming was not going to change the appeal of the latest Covid drama. Just like key football fixtures.
Similarly, when the Duke of Edinburgh died, media habits shifted. The hunger for news and pictures was huge – and for a few moments, however brilliantly we reflected the mood of the nation (and I hope we did), we were not going to win. The streaming graphs showed that. But – in the ensuing days, we could also see when people wanted to escape the blanket coverage and come back to us for respite.
For a station as musically adventurous as Boom, drawing on a crazy variety of music from the last 70 years, it also tells us when we’ve ventured a little too far. There are three tracks we’ll never play again. Sorry, Lori Anderson. Even though I love that one. It’s a pretty risky approach to music testing though, I’ll admit!
How can we change listener behaviour?
For years, programmers have obsessed about great ‘teasing’. I’ve always been a cynic. There are the times when we can rightly know we have the listeners on the edge of their seats and can tempt them across the next junction. Most routine teasing on radio, however, is lame and to little effect. It can help brand comprehension: ‘these are the things we do’, but let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking we’ll genuinely eke out another chunk of listening from a listener who has better things to do.
Keeping listeners listening is about being great in all you are actually doing - now. If a listener is enjoying it/finding it interesting, then you’ve likely got them as long as they can be with you. LBC does not deliver average weekly listening hours of 10.6 by great teasing – it’s because its content is highly engaging.
Whole programme mechanics and habitual, appointments-to-listen do work. And - in broad terms, many things which indicate ‘change’ rather than progression can lose audience.
It tells you what not to do. Whilst many of us rather like some special off-piste programmes to enrich our overall offering for all manner of reasons, it’s easy to see what happens to a music radio station when you ditch your regular offering for something which is highly distinctive and much more talky. When one can be deceived by the social media buzz about a programme, streaming gives the truth of whether the programme has found its audience. And whether the audience attracted has exceeded the audience deterred.
I receive many, many offers of hugely attractive programme properties which instinctively feel right for us. I know some of our listeners would love them – and maybe a few new listeners. But – I know from streaming experience that the bulk of our regular audience will not take to them as they are interruptive. Podcasting/on-demand is better than linear radio for much of this destination programming. Not a second-rate place – but the perfect place, in today’s audio world.
One can see too just how long a talk-piece on a music/talk-music station can be before a proportion of the audience considers going elsewhere - and that behaviour confirms other research I’ve seen in this area.
One can see the natural listening curve as the day progresses – and when one is thwarting it. As our Beatles Chart reached its climax, we could see the audience were going nowhere. We had genuinely changed what human beings were choosing to do with their lives for those moments that evening – and that is eerie. The right event radio can drive audience – and, more generally, you can witness too how on and off-air activity and marketing fuels - or fails to fuel - listening.
Bank holidays are usually times when stations empty - and the B team is on-air. When stations did something special, no-one knew whether it worked or not. With streaming, we do – and for us at Boom, bank holidays are absolutely huge. They probably have always been for many formats – we just never knew.
We can, at last, see how rivals fare. When Ken’s Pop Master comes on, we can see that a small proportion of Boom listeners go back to their Radio 2 home for a brief visit. We can see what happens at Radio 2 programme junctions and how some of our listeners value the key Radio 4 news bulletins. Whilst your own streaming does not tell you the destination of those listeners explicitly, decent programmers know what other stations are doing and can make intelligent assumptions.
Streaming data provides sanity too. For the overnight presenter who wants to talk about their Rajar figures, delighted that they’ve tripled, one can now say ‘well, actually, that’s probably not what’s really happened’. Rajar is a great thing – a solid and trusted trading currency. The headline figures and trends do tell you, as a programmer, over time, whether your station is making its mark in its market – but sub-data from a single survey assembled some months ago does not really give too much useful granular detail for a programmer.
A healthy approach to the streaming graphs is key, of course. The weather, mood, time of year, a great TV show - whatever - can impact on your performance – and you can navel gaze when you should be doing better things. And, as ever, there are things to share with talent - and things which are unhelpful to share with them if they are to continue to have the confidence any broadcaster needs. And there are many areas where alternative research insight is still necessary to illuminate a matter.
But. A programmer who does not look at their streaming data as one source of invaluable insight is not doing an awfully good job. And they may be labouring over some programming which their audience cares about not one jot.
Radio Secrets is a comprehensive guide to contemporary presentation and production techniques in all formats, from writing to delivery, across radio and podcasting.
Read this book and gain insights into:
Tight contemporary music presentation-
Generating engaging talk content- Developing authenticity and likeability-
Handling double-acts, callers and contests-
Understanding the audience and keeping them listening
Whether you are a newcomer or a seasoned performer, Radio Secrets is essential reading.