The Programming Model


(By Mike McVay) The spring rating results are about to start returning. In a recent conversation, the question arose as to how a radio station can go off-track so easily and what needs to be done to get it back on track and keep it on track. I always relapse to the basics of how to program a radio station. If you use the basics to build a strong foundation for your programming structure and constantly focus on the listening experience, you have a platform from which to expand and get fancy. The basics have to be right first.

To program a great radio station you must have many different components working together harmoniously. I believe in this formula given my experience as a major market Program Director and Air-Talent, my many years of consulting around the world, and my recent experiences working for nearly 9 years working inside a major broadcast company. My experience – regardless of the market size or format – starts with the basics as a platform.


Music is the most important part of a music-driven radio station. Music selected for the station should be made with the sound and brand of your station in mind. Your music choices should be based on local callout (if you have it), the National Research that comes from a variety of sources and trades, and using monitoring services to track stations that are similar to your station. Music should be on-point and should be scheduled so that each quarter-hour is representative of the format. Apply the theory of instant gratification. That is playing people’s favorite songs frequently.  No one ever complains that you’re playing their favorite song too much. They complain about the songs that they do not like.

Radio is still a point for music discovery, albeit considerably less than in the days of no competition. When you play new music, identify the artist and mention the song title, as well as note on-air that the song or the artist are new. I’ve always been a fan of using a tactic called “box-car” when you segue two songs together. That is that you speak over the intro of the next song, and not over the outro of the last song and the intro of the next. Talk over an outro when you are going into a commercial break. That’s how the audience has been trained for years. When a listener hears an air-talent speak over an outro, it means “commercials are coming” and they may punch out. Speaking over the intro only is an unspoken message to the audience, that you’re not stopping down for commercials. 

Music Specials are aired for two reasons; to either move an audience to a specific time/day or to remind the audience that you’re still on-air in the fringe timeslots. You may not believe that it is worthy to promote a special or a weekend show by using valuable promo time, but great radio stations do exactly that. It makes them multi-dimensional. The station may target At-Work listening Monday-Friday. All the more reason to promote what happens during the weekend.

Music Quantity is important. Long music sweeps. Fewer Stop-Sets. The objective is to build time spent listening, but being known for long music sweeps can build your cume numbers, too. If a listener knows that you play the most music day-in-and-day-out, they’ll come back more frequently. We know that TSL (Time Spent Listening) is built by repeat tune-in. Sidenote; playing fewer commercials is a successful rating strategy that should build revenue through ratings. The decrease in spot-load would need to be dramatic and noticeable. No one disagrees with the statement that radio plays too many commercials.

Where and when to schedule a long music sweep should be based on when you have the most listeners. If you are in a diary market, then research shows us that the first and third quarter hours have the most diary entries. That’s a function of the methodology used by the diary rating system. People start their activities at :00 and :30. In a diary market, the best place for a commercial break to start is :18 and :48. That ensures that you receive five (5) continuous minutes in a quarter-hour. You want to cover the biggest two quarter-hours with music.

PPM markets are treated a little differently. You need only to have five (5) individual minutes of listening inside a quarter-hour in a PPM market. That’s why we stop across the quarter hour in PPM markets. Preferably :12-18 and :42-48. Although one can argue that being “the other guy” and moving across the top of the hour has value. PPM Markets have tools to search which hours have the most meters in use.


Developing an emotional connection between your on-air personalities and listeners (without increasing the amount of talk) is an effective way of ingraining the station’s brand into the listener’s memory.  On-air personalities need to be disciplined hosts who are providing relatable content to the target audience while keeping the music (or News/Talk – Sports/Talk conversation) moving. The more real you are, the better connection you’ll have with your audience. You’ll want to have on-air personalities that the listener can identify with, or be greatly entertained by, when they listen.

The very best talents are efficient in how much they talk. Efficiency is an important word. Efficiency is different than brevity. Brevity is “Weather today … Nice.” It doesn’t tell the listener anything. Efficiency is using only the number of words necessary to completely explain the thought in question. Encourage your air-talent to be efficient. If it takes me 60 seconds to tell a story, and it couldn’t be done any more quickly, then I was efficient. However, if I could’ve told that story in 30 seconds, then I wasn’t efficient. Encourage your air-talent to be efficient.

Great talent are amazing storytellers. They tell strong descriptive stories using visual words as they paint a picture. They look for common experiences that they and their listeners have had, which makes them relatable and should engage the listener’s interest. To tell a story efficiently, the talent needs to understand where they’re going to go with their story and how does it end? Meaning, before you start the journey, you need to plug the destination into your GPS. If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there. I’m not suggesting that you write out your story. I am suggesting that you have to think about it before you open your microphone.

We recommend that our client stations use a show prep system that we named Key Area. The acronym is E/I/A/A/A. The letters stand for Emotion, Image, Area, Activity, and Artist.  Emotion is what’s going on in the listener’s world. Image is about the image of the radio station. Area is for what’s happening in your listening area. Activity is about the station’s activities. Artists is an element of artist information. For spoken word stations that element is about a newsmaker.


Great promotions are like life. Expectation, Realization, and Memory. Tell the audience what you are giving away. Paint-a-picture. Give the prize away and let us all share in the winning experience. Remind the audience what you gave away and allow the winner to share their experience. Expectation/Realization/Memory. Sidenote; experiences are more memorable than a prize. Experiences change lives.

When it comes to events … it’s all about signage. I shouldn’t be able to look in any direction without seeing your station’s presence. I should hear it on the air. You absolutely must own every event you do.

Promotions are one of the most important parts of station awareness. A station needs to be highly visible around town to be as successful as possible. Top of Mind Awareness (TOMA) is what leads to reported listening.

When it is time for listeners to fill out their Nielsen diary, they won’t go to the radio and see what station is on, they will recall it from memory. If you’re in a PPM market, then you want to develop contests and content that create repeat tune-in. This is why I feel it is so important to always be on the streets, be everywhere, and be seen everywhere. Do things in your community that makes you a talked about radio station. That is what keeps a good radio station on the mind of the listener.  

Promote where and how one can find your radio station. Online, on Smart Speakers, on the App, on the Audio Aggregators (like iHeart, Audacy, and Tune-In), on Social Media & YouTube, and on your radio at FREQUENCY. Wherever a listener can find Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, etc. you should want to be there, too.

You will need more than on-air promotions and contesting, though, if you plan to grow your cume. You will need external marketing to do that. That means online marketing via website ads, social media, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as well as the more traditional platform of transit and billboards. I’m not a big fan of TV for marketing as it isn’t cost-effective. If you can advertise on Cable or one of the Digital TV platforms, then maybe, but as far as local TV … Local TV News is the only thing worth investing in and that’s best for marketing spoken word stations or those that target an older audience. Targeted marketing is the most cost-effective form of marketing that there is available to us today.


Getting a station with organizations like St. Jude Children’s Hospital or Children’s Miracle Network, Salvation Army, The United Way, local food banks, and Toys for Tots are great ways to tug at the emotions of listeners, and it makes the on-air personalities “human” and clearly local. A station that takes every opportunity to celebrate the community in which they live will accomplish much more than a station that is syndicated or voiced tracked.  If you are using syndicated programming, network programming, or are voice-tracked, then work hard to be local sounding and really focus on what is important to your market.


The biggest problem that I see with syndication and voice-tracked programming … Lazy or passive-aggressive Program Directors. They don’t want the show on their station, or they’re too lazy to focus on the show, and they plug it in and ignore it. Do NOT “flip the switch and walk away.” The number one reason that a network or syndicated program loses the rating game is that the local broadcast programmer doesn’t update the liners and promos for the show, they don’t request how to localize the show, they never reach out to the talent or the show’s producer and they never inform the national talent what’s going on locally.

This weakness is magnified when PDs take a “Brown Bag” version of a show. A Brown Bag show is delivered as voice-tracks and the station adds in their own music. If you’re going to take a brown bag version of a show, then run all the tracks and in the order, that they are scheduled to run. I have heard tracks air out of order or not at all. Example; I have heard a break that promotes an interview is “coming up next.” Then the interview never airs. I have heard an interview air and the wrong song air out of the interview. I have heard local air talent voice promos within a syndicated show, where the promo should have been voiced by the national air talent. 


Great sports talk stations have on-air talent that understand that they are really Men Talk stations, without alienating women, and the focus is on sports. The collegial atmosphere of friends, men, and women, sitting in a bar. Talking sports, making fun of, and teasing each other.  Stay away from politics. Don’t focus on heavy news stories. You cannot ignore the world or your local market, but the listeners who come to Sports/Talk stations are there for an escape.


This format, when executed properly, treats news stories as if they’re the biggest current hits on a Top-40 Station. Play the biggest hits as frequently as possible. View the aforementioned paragraph on Music and think of using the theory of Instant Gratification on topics that are hot and perishable for the day. What’s the audience talking about? What are the newsmakers doing daily? What are the opinions of your commentators/personalities? Make no mistake that the personalities on a news/talk station are commentators and are offering their opinions. It isn’t news. It is commentary.


This element is News. News on a News/Talk station or News in targeted dayparts on Music stations. Content, in no particular order, should focus on Heart, Purse, Health, Relaxation, Safety, Local and National stories.  Heart stories pull on your heartstrings. They’re the stories that move you emotionally. Purse is all about the pocketbook. What’s costing you more? How can you save money? Health stories tell us about new illnesses that are hitting us, how to stay healthy, how to be in better shape, and what you should avoid as it may be harmful. Relaxation stories tell me where to go with my free time, how to manage the stress in my life, and play to the fantasy of wishful thinking. Safety is the most important thing to us all. Safety for us and safety for our families. Tell me how to remain safe and how to avoid being in danger. Local and National stories should be rewritten to answer the question “What does it mean to me?” Explain that and then the story will connect with me and I will connect with the story. News anchors and reporters NEVER speculate or offer an opinion. Be credible.


This is where and how you create a station’s personality. Known by some as Stationality. This is where you create fantasy, develop a “station sound”, make the image of your station bigger than life and at the same time connect to the community and an individual listener.  The best messaging is benefit based. “What’s in it for me?” The best imaging can create an aspirational feeling. “If I listen, I’ll know what’s happening in my area.” The best imaging catches my attention. The best imaging is direct and to the point. It’s easy to understand. It paints a picture that an announcer speaking is incapable of painting. If the air-talent can say it and paint the picture without sound effects and music imaging, then you should have the air-talent say it. Imaging should take advantage of the sense of hearing and paint a visualization that employs the brain’s eyes for the sense of sight. 


One of the things that I have noticed, many times over the years, is that whenever a new program director arrives at a radio station, they want to change the Voice-Over imaging voice of the station. If you are changing the station’s format, updating or changing its programming, or have a rating failure that needs a reboot – then change your voice talent. If you’re not failing – then think long and hard before changing the VO talent. One of the reasons your station is successful is consistency. A station that has a successful rating track record should view its imaging as a part of how listeners identify your station and how they remember it.  Instead, coach the VO talent to update their sound, without changing the dynamics of the fantasy that their voice creates. 


If you keep harmony with both, then the reward is increased ratings and increased revenue. When your station is on the air, it should be the one that listeners and advertisers say is their favorite radio station. This is because it not only satisfies their radio listening needs but also properly reflects the community. It meets their needs as a person searching for audio. 


A program director needs to know the strengths and weaknesses of every one of their staff members and use them accordingly. The program director must see to it that the air staff has the coaching and direction it needs to be the best in town. All too often I talk to talent who have NEVER been coached. Successful talents want to improve and perfect their craft. By working with and knowing the goals, personalities, and skills of each on-air personality, you will send the message that you not only care about the product but most importantly that you care about their individual careers.


When coaching talent … make them a priority. Turn off your phone, don’t look at your E-mail, be prompt and don’t cancel your talent meetings, and be sure to listen to what your talent is saying to you. The objective is to have a conversation with the talent. Explain to them why you want them to do certain things. Understand why they want to do what they want to do on the air. Define the parameters for their show with positives and not negatives.  Telling them what you like and what you want the talent to do is better than telling them what they cannot do. Do not define parameters with negatives. 


Maybe the biggest and most important thing for a Program Director to do is to keep it fun to work at the station!  Without fun, morale slips and on-air personalities move on. If you’re having fun, it is reflected on the air. Never forget … a radio station’s “personality” is that of the Program Director. Show me a FUN program director and I’ll show you a station that sounds fun to listen to.

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]. Read Mike’s Radio Ink archives here.



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