“Research only tells you what is, not what could be. That’s why we used to refer to it as research and destroy. If you wait for audiences to tell you to change, you will never get change.”
This quote from the brilliant Jane Caro is about the most refreshing and exciting comment I’ve ever read in regards to market research. Just imagine the programming possibilities for commercial radio if a program director took a similar stance.
Commercial radio is screaming out for more diversity and what better way to get more diversity in radio than to have more diverse people making it?
To any current program director who might see this as a personal attack – don’t do a Chet Faker and make it all about you.
Yes it’s true that slow signs of progress have been made towards addressing the gender imbalance within the programming ranks (thank god for women like Irene Hulme and Sam Thompson, to name but two), however we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t admit there’s still a long way to go.
For instance, ask yourself how many years you think it will be until an Indigenous woman is calling the shots at a station like 2GB? If you just arrogantly scoffed into your coffee mug and possibly choked a little bit (karma), then the situation is worse than I thought.
Since commercial radio is still very much a white man’s world within the programming ranks, it makes perfect sense that programming has become stagnant. Why would white (mostly straight) men want to shake up the status quo or challenge the system?
Let’s look at the current state of music stations, for example. There’s no denying an increased focus on narrow, repetitive playlists. Now that is absolutely fabulous news if you’re Pink, Justin Bieber or whichever European DJ has decided to remix Tracy Chapman this week. However, it’s not such fabulous news for almost everybody else.
So what’s it going to take to see change? Do we need a fresh off-the-bench female PD to grab this industry by the ovaries and give it a good shakeup?
“For the most part, music radio has lost its edge as one of the leading cultural outlets for the impact of music on society,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of RadioInfo.com. “A lot of it comes from corporate consolidation. Programming music requires as much guts and taste as it does research. They try to play it safe.”
Is overly safe programming a direct result of men being in charge? Or does it also reflect an old-fashioned ideal of radio formats? How many industries can you name which are still being regulated by gender, race and class?
Let’s shift our focus to market research then and the type of data which can often play a huge role in creating a station’s playlist. To me, relying solely or even mostly on market research to create any kind of programming seems absurd, especially when I consider the type of people willing and able to take part in said research (they’re hardly a good cross section of society.) Will the single mum working 4 jobs have time to sit in a large room full of people and listen to hook after hook after hook of the latest songs? Is the transgender teen who got bullied today going to answer the phone when you ring to test the new Coldplay single? Will the lawyer who works 60+ hours a a week, but never misses the 6– 7 hour of breakfast radio, be able to contribute her views? Will a straight, white man in charge of programming even think to ask these questions?
In some cases the role of PD seems to have evolved into that of a corporate businessman, with more focus on figures than formats. I’d love to know how much programming these days is based on market research compared to gut instinct, and how much is simply stolen from overseas. R&B Fridays sounded exciting and innovative for a second, until I read that in 2014 many US stations lured listeners back by using an old school rap format.
Where is the gutsy PD trying an original idea to suit a diverse Australian audience?
Australia has a unique cultural landscape which could benefit greatly from original programming concepts, and vice-versa. Or is anything with a focus on “multicultural” still seen by commercial radio as something that belongs on one of the community stations?
In the 1970s you could probably hear the collective sigh of relief from commercial stations when the job of delivering ethnic programming was no longer theirs to worry about (that “obligation” falling instead to community broadcasters.) These days a similar attitude might be considered racist, or at the very least backward and naive. The idea that white men own commercial radio is an embarrassingly absurd one to even suggest, yet the rich diversity of voices that reflect the real Australia are yet to find their rightful space on the airwaves. This isn’t about fulfilling some left-leaning PC pipe-dream, but rather about broadening our listener profile, redefining the relevance of radio in every Australian person’s life and embracing the very strong business case for diversity in radio.
So given all these pros for diversity, why are so many research-loving radio programmers so reluctant to try anything new? As Michael Harrison points out, ironically, it’s the one answer for which you can’t rely on research.
“As for more far-reaching programming, you cannot say it can’t work because most people are afraid to try it. ”Back in the golden days of music radio, the things that worked were things that were arrived at by accident. You have to take chances.
“I’m a very strong advocate of radio retaking ownership of the music culture, as it has done in sports and political talk. That means diversity, DJs actively involved in finding new music and taking a chance on formats not currently being done. ”
Amen to that Michael! What’s that old saying? Nothing changes if nothing changes?
(Since writing this article, the BBC has pledged that by the year 2020, women will fill half of all broadcast roles, 15% of all staff will come from black, Indian or minority ethnic backgrounds, while disabled people will make up 8% and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people also 8%.
Bravo BBC. Once again your forward thinking has reiterated the need for similar self- reflection down under. Can you still see us in your rearview mirror as you speed away on that road to diversity? Wait! Come back! I might need a ride.
Beth Rep is the Drive Announcer at Star 102.7 in Cairns.