Imaging: The Ear Candy Tastes Stale

By John Pellegrini

A while back I was reading through an interview with a rock radio program director on an industry website, and I found some comments that I thought were very strange. The guy was disparaging what he called, “ear candy imaging”. Apparently he was not a fan of anything creative for imaging other than the standard ‘big voice’ reading station identifiers.

Surprisingly, I agree with him on this singular point: if we’re talking about the standard funny-line/movie-drop/stinger-effect/call-letters imaging, then yeah, I’m kind of tired of that as well. One of the great problems with radio is that most production folk have to produce for multiple stations in their corporate cluster. It’s hard to find inspiration for new ideas, and sometimes falling back on the old standard formula is easier. But is it interesting?

What exactly is the purpose of imaging? For a long time the answer was “station branding”. But what do you mean by station branding? Most programmers will answer with concepts relating to the sound of the station. This is what our station is all about. This is what we do. This is our music. This is our sound. This is our life. All about the station. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.

But the one question you must answer is, “What’s in all that for the listener?”

We all know that advertisers who spend the entire commercial using the same old clichés of ‘courteous, professional, friendly, knowledgeable, staff and convenient hours, free parking, and big sales won’t get much response, right? Clichéd commercial copy is a turn off, right?

The same holds true for station imaging.

If all your imaging does is reinforce what you’ve already said dozens of times before, then you have just as surely turned off your audience as with the most boring commercial your station airs. Maybe ever more so because your station imaging runs more frequently than most of your commercials.

We hear from advertising wizards who resell “secret advertising wisdom” that’s been common knowledge for decades, that the key to successful commercial campaigns is to make the customer the focus of the advertising. Instead of the business owner bragging about how great he and his store is, advertisers should spend time talking about how great their customers are. How smart they are, how satisfied they are when they patronize their business.

Shouldn’t that also be the focus of your imaging?

 Who is more important to a radio station’s success - the music director, the morning show, or the listener? If you answered anything other than the listener, you’re looking at the wrong side of the business. The only people who fill out those ratings surveys and wear those meters, that mean everything to the station’s future and the advertising revenues, are the listeners. In the entertainment industry the audience is the ONLY thing you should be focused on 24/7/365. They should absolutely be the entire focus of your station imaging.

Let’s look at it from a competitive standpoint. If you’re in a market where there is more than one choice for the format your station has, the winner will be the station that makes its listeners feel good about choosing to listen. Now that doesn’t mean break out the butterflies and happy music. It simply means don’t take your listeners for granted. Don’t make them feel stupid for listening. Make them proud to be fans. Make them want to listen to your station. The way you do that is to make them the focus of your imaging.

That could be something as easy as taking a portable recorder with you to station events and recording people talking about the station. Then edit them into quick endorsement liners. Or go more complex and, as I’ve mentioned before, use comments from your station’s Facebook page, fan site, or elsewhere. Dive into the lifestyle of your listeners and find out what makes them tick. Who is your ideal listener? Who is the definition of your station’s biggest fan?

Realize that you won’t come up with that answer sitting inside your prod studio or in the program director’s office, or in the station conference room. This requires a field trip. Go out to station events and meet people who listen to the station and ask them why they like it. But don’t look for positive comments only, listen to their complaints too. Not just for funny negative liner ideas, but also find out why they care enough to complain about something. Nothing will cause you to lose listeners faster than not paying attention to your audience’s complaints. And nothing will help you win listeners faster than making them feel like you’re interested in their ideas.

Here’s the best way you can think about your station imaging: you work there, but it’s really the listener’s station. They’re really the only ones that matter when it comes to the sound of the station, and they should be the focus of everything if you intend to keep them listening for any amount of time.

I can remember when radio measured their TSL in terms of hours, days, weeks, months, and even years. I can remember when some stations had 50, 60, even 70 percent of a given day-part’s total audience. People talk now like that kind of thing could never happen again. My reply to that is, it won’t as long as you think it won’t. Experts say that there are too many distractions for today’s listener. My reply is there were plenty of distractions back then too. The difference is, stations had that kind of dominance because they kept their listeners riveted to their radios with the kind of creativity that none of their competitors offered.

Huge station dominance can happen again, if the decision is made to ignore the standard cliché and create interesting radio that listeners can’t get anywhere else. Your imaging is the first step in achieving that goal, and in many cases will make all the difference between you and your format competitors in the market.

As the cliché goes, just do it.

John Pellegrini is an independent writer and audio producer, www.johnpellegrini.com. He welcomes your correspondence at pellegrinijohn@gmail.com.

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