Radio Programming – The Heroin Theory

By David A. Barber
Author of Gigging, Everything You Need to Know About Playing Gigs (Except How to Play Your Axe)

the heroin theory of radio programming

OK, I’m not a radio programmer. I’m not a DJ (or on-air talent as they are called today) and I’ve never worked in the radio business at all. But I do listen to the radio and I have attended several radio industry conferences and sat in on some of the programming discussions. At first, I was appalled that they could spend so much time, energy and money and still pump out such crappy programming. But then, I had to stop and ask myself: “What would I do differently?” That’s when I came up with this theory.

Radio programmers spend a considerable amount of time analyzing ratings and polls. They ask regular listeners what they think of particular songs, if they want to hear them more, if they even recognize the song, or if they’ve heard it so much that they can’t stand to ever listen to it again. Everyone knows what that last part means. We’ve all heard a song by Dave Matthews or the Indigo Girls so many times we just can’t stand it anymore. Programmers measure this and call it the “Burn Ratio” They actually use that number and decide what percentage of listeners has to be burned out on a song before they start reducing the number of plays (or rotations) that song will get. That fact astounded me. How could they look at numbers showing that even 10% of their loyal listeners hated a song, just from it being played too much, and still wonder why people were switching to other stations.

I recalled my decades of radio listening and thought about why I had ever changed stations. I realized that I only changed stations when I got bored with the programming, or sometimes because there were too many commercials. I’m sure most radio programmers would love to have the too many commercials problem. It means they have great ratings.

The burn ratio is also why new radio stations, even with a similar format are popular at first. It’s because they have a fresh playlist that people are not sick of, yet. The basis for this kind of programming comes from one misguided principle. The programmers are trying to give the listeners what they want. They look at the polls, ratings and requests and try to figure out what people want to hear. Sounds reasonable, on the surface. Right? So then ask a programmer why he is still playing a song that has a high burn rate and he will tell you something along the lines of “Because lots of people want to hear it.” He has numbers indicating that lots of people aren’t burned out on it and, in fact, are asking that it be played more. He’s just trying to give them what they want.

This is where my theory comes in. If you are a parent and your kids keep asking you for candy, you might give them some. Not too much, though, because you don’t want to spoil them, ruin their appetites for dinner, or make them sick. And we all know, from having been kids ourselves, that if you give them as much candy as they ask for, they will get sick and puke or just tire out on candy altogether and start asking for expensive video games instead.

A better analogy for radio programming is heroin. Every radio programmer wants listeners to become addicted to their station; listening all the time with little chance that they will change to another station. The programmer must be the wise heroin dealer. He/she must know that if you give the addicts as much as they ask for, they will quickly overdose and either die or land in rehab. That’s not good for business. A wise dealer doesn’t want to lose customers, he wants to keep them coming back regularly for another fix. The dealer builds and maintains his customers, providing each one with as much as they can afford, but not more than they can handle. He never wants them to lose their addiction, but he never wants them to overdose either.

The problem with radio programmers today is that they are not being wise about how much the listeners can handle. They are routinely overplaying songs, like they were candy on Halloween. The wise programmer must learn that this is too much. Listen to the old showbiz adage that still rings true: Always leave them wanting more. In other words: Don’t give the listeners as much candy as they ask for, make them beg before you put something into regular rotation and make sure that isn’t gonna play more than once or twice a day. They’ll be listening attentively waiting for you to play their new favorite hit. This also gives you tons of space on your playlist to play cool new music, exceptional local music, and oldies that people are not still sick of.

How do I know this works? Simple. That’s the way it was when KBCO built a huge fanbase and gave rise to a whole new format, back when people used to love that station and they had unprecedented ratings. I remember sitting with friends waiting impatiently for KBCO to play a CSNY song. It wasn’t gonna get played on any other local stations, they were busy overplaying other formats. We had no choice. We listened all the time and called frequently to ask them to play it more often. Did they listen to us? Nope. But we listened anyway and didn’t change the station even once.