I recently spent a few days in Dublin and I am convinced that most local stations I listened to in that fair city must be hugely successful. Each station was full of high quality adverts; their presenters sounded great and boy, some of the promotions they ran must have cost a fortune to get to air. Not only that but the actual ‘sound’ of the stations was so much better than anywhere in the UK which means that large wads of cash must have been spent on the audio processing to get a sound that is so much better than the next station on the dial.
You can imagine the surprise I got when I went to visit an old friend who is the Managing Director of one of those stations. The station is located in a small side street and the entire radio complex (if you could call it that) fitted into no more than three large rooms. Two studios, one doubling for news and production work and the other as the main broadcast studio took up one room. Sales and administration took up another and the management team all mucked in together in room three. There was a kitchen and other facilities; however, they were shared by other companies both above and below the rooms occupied by the radio station.
A tiny space
It struck me that the image of the station I got from just listening to the station over a few days bore no relation whatsoever to what I saw when I entered the building. I was greeted by my old friend. We got to know each other while presented shows on a number of different radio stations around Ireland in the pirate days of the eighties and our paths crossed many times since then as our radio careers progressed!
“You create a station like that” I said, pointing to a radio in the corner “from this tiny space...? You have got to be kidding!” He smiled and said nothing. He knew me well enough to know that I had my tongue placed firmly in my cheek when I asked that question. Why? Well, we both had realised a long time ago that it was not the physical size of the station premises that mattered but the size of the radio station in the listeners head that was important.
Small stations must sound big
This is a strategy worth pursuing and sticking to rigidly. It is especially relevant to community radio across the UK. The Dublin radio market is a very competitive one with lots of stations competing with each other for the same listeners. The fact is that the audience is concentrated into a small geographical area and easily covered by a single frequency. This is a great position to be in because nothing stands in the way of the listener getting to the station. However, they will not come on their own. They need lots of reasons to listen...
This is the exact position community radio stations finds themselves in the UK If you broadcast to a city like Leicester or Nottingham or Edinburgh or Cardiff using a low
powered single transmitter. It is enough to reach the entire area you broadcast too. The same goes for smaller towns like Northampton too. I am not a technically minded but I know when a station sounds good and how high quality ‘audio processing’ can, in itself, help you win listeners from your competition.
It is important that your sound processing is right. It is really, really worth getting a good engineer who can set up your station ‘sound’ properly. There is nothing better than a distinctive high quality ‘sound’ to improve listener perception of your station. The reason I mention this is that there are some community radio stations that do this very well. I can site Harborough FM in Leicestershire as one of those. However, there are some who have a problem. A community radio station in Northampton pays no attention to how they sound at all. It seems to me that presenters are permanently off mic and levels are so poor you cannot hear some output clearly but then suddenly deafened by others without warning. No sound processing is placed between the studio and transmitter. This is really irritating and does nothing to attract listeners and the perceptions of those who listen for the first time are dismissive of the station simply because technically, it sounds so poor.
Listener perception of your station is something you must try to control. While you might perceive yourself as a small station with a small geographical area to broadcast to using a low wattage transmitter, your listener does not perceive you that way at all. Their perception is based entirely on what they hear. If your station sounds ‘small’ then that is what listeners will perceive. If your station sounds big then that is what your listeners will perceive. The fact is community radio does sounds ‘small’
This manifests itself in many ways. For example, I understand that most operate like charities (that in itself promotes the ‘small’ perception) I don’t think it is necessary to trade on that status when there are much better perceptions available for you to create. I believe a perception of a ‘not for profit community radio’ being the catalyst for other local charities is a far better position to achieve and would create a better listener perception of your station. Also room to manoeuvre within more relaxed OFCOM rules makes it easier for stations to grow revenue and listeners.
Music is another way that stations sound small. Let’s be clear on this. Most community station programmers say that they like to play a variety of music. They say that is what listeners want. I don’t believe these managers when they say that. What they actually mean is they haven’t the skills or resources to manage their music output properly. They hide behind what is virtual ‘free for all’ music policy on the station which reinforces a poor listener perception... Listeners are not stupid and if you have a ‘free for all’ music policy which plays Dean Martin followed by Taylor Swift means you alienate both the Dean Martin fan and the Taylor Swift fan.
Running competitions can make your station sound small too. How many times do you hear stations having a raffle with an 80’s compilation CD as a prize on a particular show? My reaction to that is... SO WHAT! Instead hold off for something bigger. Something the listener will percieve as big. Why not give away ten 80’s CD’s over a weekend and have an ‘all 80’s weekend’ instead. The first process makes you sound small but the 80’s weekend idea makes you sound big. Get a local music shop or entertainment venue to supply the CDs in return for some sponsorship airtime across the weekend. The result is a much better listener perception of your station than you might get just by giving away a very small prize like a CD.
Listeners like to feel special, the like to listen to things that are big. Good music, great sound, local, topical and entertaining output is a concept that you need to create on air. Listeners will love you for it and they will listen longer. So, sound big and have fun creating big ideas. It’s the big station you create in your listeners head that matters.
By the way, there is nothing in your key commitments to stop you ‘sounding bigger’ than you actually are!