How To Unsuck Radio, In 10 Easy Steps


(By Beau Phillips) Is your radio station great, or just good enough? Author Jim Collins insists that “Good is the enemy of great.” Truly great businesses don’t settle. They challenge the status quo, embrace change, and constantly innovate. Good companies fight for the scraps.

Broadcasters tend to like the future just the way it is. We take comfort when Nielsen reports that 92 percent of Americans still tune in. Yes, people may hear radio stations, but are they listening? Do they feel engaged? Is there a passionate, emotional connection? Or has radio become a convenient utility, like a toaster?

Surrounded by competitors, it’s time to look into the mirror and ask, “What will it take for radio to be great?” Here are some suggestions.

  1. Cut the clutter.

Start by reducing your spotload. I know, I know. Your GM needs every dollar to meet sales goals. But long-term, radio is swallowing its own tail. Try listening to your station like the audience does. It’s maddening when every spare second is sold, sponsored, and bartered. Add in promos and sweepers, and it’s like hitting a stop sign at every corner. Listen closely and you’ll hear the roar of people bailing out of those seven-minute breaks. By comparison, Spotify, Pandora, and SiriusXM sound streamlined. They’ve changed the playing field. Now radio must respond

2. Supercharge your entertainment value.

Ever wonder why MTV stopped playing music videos? Because they stopped delivering ratings! Likewise, radio’s “Shut up and play the hits” approach has run its course. “I love how Z94 plays 10 songs in a row!” — said nobody, ever. Now, the secret lies in offering what music services can’t: fun, humor, and spontaneity.

Have an attitude! Loosen the reins on your best personalities. Freshen your imaging with clever writing. Retire cliched countdown shows. Breathe new life into your marketing. Do random acts of kindness, not fixed-time giveaways. Inspire listeners to tell their friends about you

3. Tone down the hype.

What is Google’s slogan? How about Facebook? Spotify? Netflix? Answer: They don’t have one. But they all have amazing products that consumers can’t live

without. Great companies know that branding is the key, not hollow slogans. I get that you’re a Classic Rock station that plays the Stones. Beyond that, what is your USP (unique selling proposition)

4. Invest in personalities.

Sadly, broadcasters have sent most great personalities packing in the interest of cost reduction. Now they’re paying the price, because listeners follow people, not brands. Shakira ranks number two on Facebook while Apple doesn’t crack the top 100. Vin Diesel clobbers Amazon. So replace your liner readers with strong air talent. They will build a fan base and instill loyalty that can last for decades. Without them, your station faces a future of flat-to-down revenue

5. Focus on cume building.

Stop trying to trick PPM, hoping to boost your TSL. Great stations attract new cume and convert casual listeners into loyal fans. You’ve removed weak songs and excess talk — the easy part. Now comes the steep climb, generating tune-in! Retool your strategy to tap into listeners’ passions andD I O I N K • C O M 13 fuel word of mouth. Brainstorm fresh benchmarks, clever social media campaigns, and innovative promotions that create talk. Did you hand out 1,000 pairs of eclipse glasses? Or do a spinoff of Carpool Karaoke

6. Be authentic.

We live in an over-communicated world, numb to hype. It’s hard to cut through the noise. But Howard Stern does. He sounds genuine because he talks to listeners, not at them. Yet radio sticks with phony slogans, dated jingles, ballsy announcers, and Star Wars imaging. In 2017, it sounds out of touch and contrived. Let’s bring back fun and get real. Remember when radio was creative and spontaneous? We haven’t had that spirit here since 1989

7. Bring back gut instinct.

Most stations sound formulaic and predictable. While research can be a valuable tool, use it like a lamppost: Data should illuminate, not be leaned on. For example, millennials are enthralled by music discovery. But most stations cling to rigid song testing. This has created a chasm between music radio and online services like Spotify. For example, singer Joel Adams has 315 million online streams and zero spins on Mediabase. Zero! Follow your gut and take some risks. 

  1. Build a brand.

Branding is an equal mix of art and science. Having a memorable brand is critical to getting great ratings — with your strongest listener benefit as the centerpiece. So what is your station famous for? The more-music crown belongs to Spotify, Pandora, and SiriusXM. Radio can’t compete anymore. What differentiates your station from the rest? If you say “being live and local,” exactly what does that mean? Local sports, traffic, and weather? I’ve got apps for that

9. Promotional innovation.

It’s not what you give away, but how. If you’re flying winners to Vegas, sell the fantasy. Not just text-to-win. Capture listeners’ imagination. Same with cash giveaways: Powerball has rendered them irrelevant. Still, my competitor was doing a $1,000 Thursday contest, so KISW/Seattle launched a $20 Million Giveaway, offering listeners $1 a year for 20 million years. It cost us nothing, created talk, fit our irreverent brand, and made the other stations look foolish. It’s easy to throw money at a campaign. Much harder to innovate

10. Love the music.

One big advantage your station has over music services is the human element. Great personalities can make people laugh, think, or cry. If all your jocks can say is, “Coldplay is coming up next,” replace them with personalities who share your listeners’ love for music. Hire air talent who can tell a story in just a few words. One of my favorite jocks is Steve Slaton, who once introduced “Stairway to Heaven” by simply saying, “Please rise for our national anthem.

Beau Phillips started his radio career as a DJ in Denver and San Francisco. He is best known for the 14 years he spent at KISW/Seattle, where he served as VP/general manager and program director. He now runs Rainmaker Media from Washington, DC and consults on strategic marketing and creative efforts. He can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Great points all! Pt #1 is critical. Pts #2 & #4 go hand n hand and are at the center of powerful, local radio.
    The big question is whether corporate ownership has the stomach along with the focus on listeners/clients to bring it to fruition.

  2. I gotta love this guy, Beau. He’s as delusional as me.
    Still, we ought not to let “real life” get in the way.
    Great points, but really, what are the chances? 🙂


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