One of the key challenges facing any radio station is how to determine what is going to appeal to listeners. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that stations are trying to build radio audiences in an environment where listeners are not growing in numbers.

Most stations don’t use RAM research as a programming tool, because the data is too old by the time it reaches them. Instead, they invest significantly in their own research.  

Discussing programming trends and development at the Liberty Radio Conference in Sandton recently, Neil Johnson, Kaya FM programme manager, said the station used its marketing efforts to drive programming.

“We try not to compete directly with other stations,” he said, adding that Kaya FM’s Afropolitan approach formed the essence of its programming strategy.  “We develop content around SA’s black middle class and segment, and specialise our content much more than we used to. Our line-ups have become much more fluid and we invest heavily in research and development, in particular on focus groups and influencers. The information we get from this research shapes and informs our programming.”

Johnson said digital was not as lucrative as analogue for the station, admitting that Kaya was battling to monetise digital.

Jacaranda FM also invested significantly in research to get a sense of what people liked, and then tailored its content accordingly, said general manager Kevin Fine. He said social media – and Twitter in particular – was a great influencing tool, but he did not believe it drove people to the station.

Social media came with its own challenges, conceded Fine. Towards the end of 2017 the station had to deal with a backlash on social media as a result of comments made by one of its presenters, Tumi Morake. The problem, said Fine, was that comments could be interpreted in a particular way, especially by people who had an agenda, and in an anonymous world, “people can say terrible things”.

The big take-out

One of the biggest challenges facing radio station programmers is how to create an environment that keeps the medium relevant.

Jacaranda, he said, took a value stance and supported its presenter. “You have to expect such fallouts in radio and manage the narrative in a values-based way. We supported [Morake] and never planned to take her off air.” The bottom line, he said, was that some people just didn’t agree with her.

Having grown its digital audience to bigger than its RAM audience, 5FM co-creates content with its community (“we don’t call them listeners anymore,” said station manager, Justine Cullinan). Digital, said Cullinan, allowed its community to interact with the station on a one-to-one basis.

Digital was becoming a profitable arm for the station, she said, adding that the station was the first to offer an integrated rate card. “However, we do have particular ways of engaging with brands on digital, and [presenters] are not allowed to promote themselves or their own handles at any time on air.”

Discussing how much of a threat music streaming services such as Spotify represented, Cullinan said she did not believe music radio would ever disappear as a result of music streaming services. “Music radio is carefully curated, with the result that there will always be an element of discovery.

“At the end of the day we will be competing for people’s time.”

What radio programmers should never forget, she added, is that radio created and distributed content. “The mistake is thinking that radio is a box in the corner of the kitchen.”

Responding to criticism that some stations don’t employ presenters unless they have a social media following, Cullinan said she had never rejected people for this reason. “Your following tends to grow as your profile grows on radio,” she said.