Radio: focus on audience research: In search of a successful format

If, as restaurateurs argue, the health of their business depends on location, location, location, then radio station operators can claim format, format, format is the key to success.And the pursuit of the right format, particularly in this economy, is driving both...

If, as restaurateurs argue, the health of their business depends on location, location, location, then radio station operators can claim format, format, format is the key to success.

And the pursuit of the right format, particularly in this economy, is driving both station change and its corollary, audience research.


Prominent among the recent changes are the switch by Toronto’s cftr-am to all-news format 680 News from contemporary hits.

Similarly, cjcl, in Toronto, switched formats a couple of times from easy listening music to all-sports radio, popularly known as The Fan.

Elsewhere, Vancouver’s first all-inspirational music station known as The Bridge has just signed on the air, and, apparently, cjca-am in Edmonton is planning to travel down the same righteous path.

Won’t stop

These format changes will not stop. Changing demographics and changing tastes will see to that, although the jury is still out on what shape those changes will take.

Brian Jones, president of the Radio Marketing Bureau, does not know what the future holds for format change, but suggests more inspirational music stations could be one of them and ‘country oldies’ could be another.

As it is, Jones says urban country stations are No. 1 in the u.s., where 10,000 radio stations compete for listeners in a multitude of markets.

David Bray, national media manager at Harrison, Young Pesonen & Newell in Toronto, is certain more niche formats on am stations is the wave of the future, citing all-news and all-sports as examples of fairly new format change.

However, Bray says what is sometimes overlooked is whether a format is ‘saleable.’

He says in his own work he sees cases where there is a ‘good deal of wishful thinking’ by radio operators because the niche they have uncovered or want to carve out for themselves is too narrow.

Pat Bohn, president of consultants Pat Bohn & Associates Media in Vancouver, points to the success in the u.s. of what could be called the ‘shock radio’ format.

Bohn, who worked with cftr-am when it changed formats, mentions New York’s Howard Stern, conservative favorite Rush Limbaugh and Watergate conspirator and fall guy G. Gordon Liddy as practitioners of this singular genre.

And, he says, elsewhere on the American dial, children’s radio is experiencing ‘big growth.

‘Researching these people, and then figuring out how to sell these specialty formats and not broad formats is what we’ve got to figure out how to do, and there’s no question the Americans are way ahead of us,’ Bohn says.

It appears they have to be.

As examples of the u.s. radio scene – where Canadian radio draws some research and format ideas – consider the case of Lincoln, Neb.

That Midwest city of 175,000 has 16 competing radio signals.

Metropolitan Detroit, about the same size as Metropolitan Toronto, has 45 or more competing radio signals compared with the Canadian city’s 20 or so.

Bohn says what brings format change is listenership, since it is clear radio is an audience-driven medium and ‘revenues flow where audiences go.’

However, he says changing formats is not as easy in Canada as it is in the u.s.

According to Bohn, there are two interrelated reasons for this.

The first is cost.

Bohn says a radio operator could make a format change south of the border for as little as $800,000.

Second, he says the American market has been deregulated, whereas the Canadian market has not, and that drives up costs.

Yet despite the attraction of – and the occasional necessity for – a format change, anecdotal evidence suggests the process is not as research-dependent as a casual observer might expect.

In fact, Bohn suggests format changes are determined half by research and half by instinct, or what he calls ‘industry IQ.’

‘It’s very difficult to research something the audience cannot see, hear, touch or smell, so you have to design something and take a shot that you’ve done it right and begin researching after listeners can hear it and feel it,’ he says.

‘It’s [a case of] constantly tracking to see that you’re on course and that you’re improving. Research helps a lot. But it’s 50% that and 50% the broadcaster’s gut.

‘You have the numbers, and you can read the research six different ways, but there’s got to be enough of that industry IQ.’

David Oakes, president of media specialists Oakes Research in Toronto, says he has no idea if this 50-50 research/instinct split is correct, although he somehow doubts it.

‘I would say more and more people are looking at research as the thing that will guide them in making a decision,’ Oakes says.

‘There are still a lot of people who change format based on the seat of their pants, and just looking at what’s available in the way of formats in the market,’ he says.

‘There’s also a lot of stations that will do three focus groups and hear a couple of people say, `Yeah, there should be a new hard rock station’ and change based on that.’

Still, Oakes says compared with the situation 15 years ago when he entered the business, research is more sophisticated now than it was then.

He says when he is researching a change, what he does is give the radio station clearly defined boundaries, but tells the broadcaster the ‘creative stuff’ that fits within those boundaries is clearly the station’s responsibility.

‘The way I approach it is, I’m part of a team with the radio station, and I do very customized work for their problem,’ Oakes says.

‘So, I’ll come back to them and I’ll say, `Your goals are whatever,’ he says.

‘You want to be No. 1 males 18 to 34 years of age. Okay. Here are three possible formats for you. Here are the good and bad points about each one of them. And then we sit down and talk.’

He finds increasingly that other researchers are working in similar fashion.

Bray says if niche formats are the way of the future, then stations assembling ‘box cars’ full of numbers will not be enough and product usage research and lifestyle research will become vitally important to the health of the medium.

Appropriate skew

Oakes says, in the past, the big breweries, for example, have felt their heavy beer buyers are 18 to 24 year old males. (In Ontario, at least, that would be 19 to 24. The legal age to buy beer in the province is 19.)

So, they would look at the ratings of radio stations and find out where the 18 to 24 year old males were and buy time accordingly.

Says Oakes:

‘What they’re doing more and more at radio stations, and at agencies, I might add, they’re trying to make the buy more efficient, so, instead of going in and saying, `You’ve got 50,000 males 18 to 24 and we want to buy them,’ what they’ll do is say, `Look, we want to advertise to people that use Labatt’s Blue.’

‘So, then they’ll go and see among, let’s say, [Toronto fm station] Q107′s audience, how many 18 to 24 year old males they have, and, in addition, they’ll see what percentage of those males drink Labatt’s Blue,’ he says.

Research undertaken by PMB Print Measurement Bureau and Goldfarb Consultants in 1993 shows figuring out among radio listeners who buys what can be done quite handily.

For example, PMB 93 shows persons aged 12+ who listen to a country music format most often are more likely to drive a pickup, more likely to be hunters and anglers, more likely to have taken a vacation by camper in the last 12 months, and more likely to buy lottery tickets more than twice a month.

Also, country music listeners were a little more likely to have a snowblower or electric drill in their households, but showed a marked indifference to drinking imported beer.

However, PMB 93 says those persons aged 12+ who listened to classical music most often had – not surprisingly – different tastes.


They showed a preference for cognac or sherry, for example, and were highly likely to have attended the ballet or opera more than twice in the last six months.

As well, females in this group were much more likely to have spent more than $2,500 on clothing in the last year.

Another instance of this kind of research comes from the BBM Bureau of Measurement’s Radio Product Measurement study released last fall.

In an extensive project, bbm surveyed almost 3,500 adults 12+ in Toronto in 1993.

The $150,000 cost of the project was paid by the city’s commercial stations.

The study found, for example, 33% of Toronto adults had bought a cd player in the last 18 months, and 30% of them had bought a home computer.

It also found that in those same 18 months, 12% of Torontonians had bought a cellular phone, 30% equipped themselves with a cordless phone, and a further 19% bought a video camera.

Elsewhere in the study, the characteristics of customers of The Brick, Ikea and Idomo – all furniture stores – were revealed, as were details of automotive, beer, grocery, leisure and financial services customers.

Oakes says most major radio stations in Canada have some sort of database that links or tries to link what products their listeners buy.


‘It’s really an important part of [radio's] pitch now to go into an advertiser and say, `Look, if you really want to go after your customers, we’ve got them here, and here’s the information to prove it,’ he says.

Bob Harris, president of Harris Media in Toronto, says audience research will go even beyond this level of enquiry into something he calls ‘radio lifestyles.

‘Stage one for radio might be considered standard tuning data,’ Harris says.

‘Stage two might be considered the product data, what is generally called qualitative data, but it really is product usage data,’ he says.

‘Stage three might be an extension into lifestyles where you link right down where the respondents live in terms of their postal codes and their lifestyle patterns.’

And if that is the case, the niche marketing promise of radio will have reached its zenith.