What The Radio Audience Wants
( Originally Published 1932 )
WHAT does the listener want in the way of programs? The answers to that question are almost as many and varied as the types of listeners. During the past three years broadcasters have been making a serious effort to determine just what type of entertainment the public is most anxious to hear. The result—an amazing mass of opposing and contradictory tastes and preferences. New York and some other metropolitan districts clamor genteelly for opera, for little theaters of the air, for entertainment of high artistic merit. But entertainment of that type gets short shrift in the hinterlands, and regardless of intrinsic merit the hinterlands is as deserving of the entertainment that pleases it most as is Fifty-seventh Street. Nor should it be forgotten that within the large cities themselves there are hinterlands constituting a tremendous listener group whose taste parallels closely the tastes of their brothers and sisters dwelling in less en-lightened and less sophisticated areas.
Yet amid all this welter of conflicting tastes in the matter of what the listener wants to hear, one common preference preserves its lead—that preference is music. Among the types of music there is again a tremendous division of taste, and it is here that the astute broadcast advertiser has the greatest opportunity to apply to his medium the principles which have guided campaign appeal in printed advertising. As an illustration, an agency recently decided to recommend radio for one of its clients. The market for the product was exclusively masculine. It was essential that the program appeal be strongly masculine, yet since the woman is an equally important factor in determining what program the dials will be turned to, she had to be carefully considered in the construction of the program. Music, because of its universal popularity, was indicated as the background of the pro-gram but—what kind of music? Nobody knew, so a survey was launched in an effort to find out.
From this survey several extremely interesting facts were brought to light. One was the intense loyalty of certain groups to favorite dance bands, the equal loyalty of other groups to other orchestras or programs which, though not essentially dance bands, came under the heading of jazz music. But most interesting of all was the universal interest in old-time music. Not "Mighty Lak a Rose" and "Old Black Joe" but the popular music of other days, the music that ten, fifteen and twenty years ago held the place that such pieces as "Good-Night, Sweetheart," "I'm Through with Love," and "Time on My Hands" hold today.
It was found that the majority of people interviewed had an intense desire to hear this type of music. Even those groups which expressed a primary preference for dance and jazz music listed old-time music second.
But the preferences indicated by that survey have broader implications than those contained in that particular client's problem and its solution. It seems to indicate that listeners as a mass show a strong preference for entertainment they can personalize. Wherein is the tremendous appeal of old-time music? In the music itself? Perhaps, but more certainly in the associations, the memories it conjures up for each individual listener. And does not the phenomenal success of that pair inevitable in any discussion of radio, Amos 'n' Andy, lend strength to this contention? Consider the vast humanity of their daily performance. True, they are comedians, but their comedy is based on human inadequacies common to every one—inertia in the face of economic necessity, the tortuous windings of Amos' love affair, the vicissitudes of the Freshair Taxicab Corpulation, their lodge with its illustration of the great American penchant for "joining" and the nuisances and inconveniences which "joining" results in. Almost every dilemma in which they become involved is the result of the very natural human tendency to do the wrong thing and to make the wrong answer. Every listener realizes from this pair, either consciously or unconsciously, some experience out of his own life or that of his friends.
Consider the sustained popularity of such a venerable success as Real Folks. True, the setting is a small country town, but it requires no Titanic mental effort to transpose the fundamental traits and characteristics of the residents of Main Street to residents of your own Main Street or your apartment house.
And consider again, Clara, Em and Lou with their unending old wives' tale, their gossip. And remember when you are considering this decidedly successful trio that they rose to popularity and network caliber in the second Iargest metropolis in the United States—Chicago.
This, then, indicates one very definite desire on the part of the listening public, a desire for entertainment which they can personalize. For, remember—the reactions of the radio audience are motivated in a far different fashion from those of the theater or movie audiences. They do not receive the promptings to laughter or to tears that the individual among the many in the theater receives from his fellows seated about him. The radio listener preserves his individuality much more intact, and those who would appeal for his favor must appeal in terms which he, personally, can apply to himself with a minimum of effort either consciously or subconsciously. It should be remembered, however, that though the listening audience has demonstrated a very definite desire for entertainment with an appeal which has something in common with the listener's own life experience, it does not want entertainment of this type to the exclusion of all other types. It also wants entertainment modeled along far less personal lines. To return for a moment to music, there is a definite demand for popular music, for pro-grams devoting their entire period on the air to this type of entertainment unsupplemented by appeals of other kinds. There is no question but that music of a peppy type, the sort that sets your toes a-tapping to the strains of the latest hits, gets a hearty welcome from a vast army of listeners. There is something exciting about music of this sort, something that stimulates, that takes the mind off worries and cares, something that has a tendency to make us gay if only for a brief span of moments. It is obvious that any program that can produce this result will be providing entertainment of a sort that people want. Witness the proved popularity of such tried and true groups as the Clicquot Club Eskimoes, Guy Lombardo's orchestra and others. Here too, however, the listening audience has definite specific wants within general program types. The specific ingredient which the audience demands in programs of this type is something whose name they probably do not in most cases know. That something is showmanship and involves pace and change of pace, light and shade. One of the most popular programs now on the air is a dance band adhering rigidly to a prescribed formula in its manner of presenting its music. Yet, within that pre-scribed formula, how infinite are the variations, the changes of tempo, the balancing of one orchestra unit against another, the utilization of every tool that results in giving this program pace, and change of pace and showmanship. A sufficient number of programs now contain this priceless ingredient to make it essential that others who would compete for the ear of the listening audience must contain it too. No doubt a large portion of the potential audience is not consciously aware that showmanship is what they want, but want it they do.
It matters not a whit that the actual material you are incorporating in your program may seem simple, light, airy stuff or an obvious appeal to the emotional or sentimental side of your audience's natures; what does matter is that your program be carefully staged, adequately rehearsed, and smoothly presented if it is to command the attention of enough of that potential audience to make that program pay in sales or in good will realized at the point of sale.
There is little doubt, too, that people are extremely interested in programs that tell them about themselves, particularly if they are able to write to the broadcaster and receive personal comments on their problems. The amazing response to programs giving horoscopes and analyses of handwriting are ample proof of this. The deside to lift the veil of the future, to double cross destiny by obtaining information not normally available to the average individual is a very human one. Newspaper and magazine features of this type have been prospering for years and have demonstrated that people do want this specialized form of entertainment.
And here again we find from a somewhat different angle a species of entertainment whose success lies largely in the opportunity for the listener to make a close personal application of what he is listening to. Up to this point we have considered what the public wants purely from the standpoint of the evening radio audience, an audience that gathers about its sets for relaxation and entertainment.
The daytime audience offers the broadcaster a some-what wider latitude in the type of program he must provide to meet his audience's wants. During the daytime hours people are more receptive to programs containing an educational or instructive element. The housewife, particularly during the morning hours, is receptive to programs which provide her with information which is helpful to her in the running of her home, the planning and preparation of her daily menus, or her card parties, and the care of her family. But here, too, the listener prefers her instruction well spiced with entertainment. The advertiser who wishes to deliver an educational message regarding his product and the best ways of using it will find his audience much greater if he presents his story in a form calculated to entertain as well as instruct. And again, entertainment which poses a problem familiar to the average housewife has proved a bigger response-getter than other forms, demonstrating again that entertainment which provides the listener with something which is common to his or her experience is most likely to get that listener's attention and elicit definite response from him.
No discussion of what the radio audience wants would be complete without some comment on what that audience does and does not want in the way of advertising. The question of entertainment versus advertising is fast reaching the state of a perennial bugaboo in connection with commercial radio broadcasts. From the production side of the program, most clients and the lay advertising men, as distinguished from the ones who are specializing in radio broadcasting, insist on as much direct selling talk as they can crowd in. Showmen, actors, script and continuity writers insist on cutting the selling talk to the minimum. On the horns of this dilemma the radio advertising men balance themselves as best they can, aware that the prime consideration governing the amount of advertising to be included is not the wishes of either of the above groups, but the wishes of the audience who will hear the program. Does that audience want advertising? And, if it does, how much does it want? Printed advertising has proved that the reading public is interested in the story that advertisers have to tell. They are interested in knowing how that merchandise can increase their comfort or their enjoyment of life; how it can lighten their uncongenial tasks. But they are not interested in these matters to the extent of reading five or six magazines or newspaper pages to find these things out. Consider the relatively small space in any magazine or newspaper devoted to any one advertiser. Similarly, a proportionately small portion of any one half-hour, or whatever the period may be, should be devoted to any one advertiser's advertising story. Assuming that the listener wants to hear an interesting fact about your product, he does not want to hear the history of your company or the history of the researches or the efforts which are responsible for that product's interest for him. What he does want, and what is more important, all he will probably be able to remember are one or two facts about that product which will strike so hard against his consciousness that he will go to your nearest outlet, if not definitely to buy, at least to inquire further.
Practically every product has some one feature which distinguishes it from its competitors in the field, one selling point which it calls its own. And generally speaking, it seems better to take this point and put it over effectively rather than to endeavor to establish a number of points in the course of three brief announcements. The latter method results in such a scattering of ammunition that none of it is apt to be very effective. Better to take one gun, aim it well and score a direct hit, than to take a battery of sales talk and turn it loose on your audience in the hope that because you're firing so much and so often, you're sure to score somehow.
One more thing the radio audience does not like, and that is to be fooled. They do not like their advertising delivered by sleight-of-hand methods. They expect a certain amount of advertising, and if the commercial continuity containing this advertising is skillfully conceived they will react to it. As long as they do expect it, it seems absurd to try and slip the advertising over on them by means of trick tie-ins with the names of songs on your program, or similar devices which are both strained and amateurish.
The radio audience has passed the stage where they will tolerate this sort of thing. The very obvious falling over backward in order to get in the selling talk in a fashion that will make it sound unlike selling talk, until you are well into your story, lessens the effectiveness of your sales message. The creaking of the machinery is so audible that it drowns out the selling point your continuity is endeavoring to make.
It is obvious that all of the listener's preferences and wants outlined in the foregoing pages are applicable to the radio audience as a whole. In addition to these general preferences of the radio audience, considered in its entirety, there are the preferences of individual groups. The problem here is for the advertiser to determine just which of these groups is his market and then to determine in turn what the preferences of that particular group may be.
It must also be borne in mind that the hour of the broadcast and the day are considerations of extreme importance in determining what the listener wants. He does not always want the same thing, and at special times during the day and evening he does want special things. The wants and preferences of a Sunday night audience are not the same as those of a Saturday night audience. Saturday night, for example, is a time when almost every one wishes to relax completely; to put behind him the worries and activities which fill his week days. It is an evening consecrated almost universally to the pursuit of pleasure, light pleasure, gayety, a complete recess from seriousness.
The broadcaster whose program comes on a Saturday night must pattern his entertainment to the tastes of the Saturday night audience. It is significant that one of radio's outstanding dance bands rose to prominence on a Saturday night period using a type of music which dovetailed perfectly with the festive mood which Saturday provokes in most of our population.
It is equally significant that another program which depends for its appeal on the broadest kind of slapstick comedy also achieved fame during a Saturday night period. This last program is an utterly mad burlesque of the programs which fill the balance of the week. It is in the last analysis sheer nonsense, but entertaining, amusing nonsense, and it found a readily receptive audience since it again is strictly in step with the type of light frothy amusement which the Saturday night pleasure seeker is looking or.
Sunday brings an abrupt reversal of the listener's wants. Perhaps it is due to having given such free rein to his hedonistic impulses, perhaps it is the traditional tinge of religiosity which still surrounds Sunday for most of us, but whatever the reason, Sunday finds the listener receptive to programs of a high order of artistic talent, programs suggestive of the better things of life-symphony orchestras, famous singers, brief talks by men and women of national reputation on the subjects which are their especial fortes.
The night on which the program is broadcast is an important factor in determining what form that program will take.
Of no less importance is the hour. There is now apparent an increasing tendency to utilize more extensively the fifteen-minute period. It is interesting to note that most programs using periods of this length are on the air relatively early in the evening and that they are on the air usually not less than twice a week.
The fifteen-minute program scheduled early in the evening before eight o'clock enables the listener to catch the complete program before setting out for the movies or starting a bridge game or going over to the neighbors or embarking on whatever social activity he may be planning. Also most of these programs demand a continuity of listening which is more easily attainable if the listener may tune in before his attention is subject to the distractions attendant upon the activities noted above.
The frequency of fifteen-minute programs is again an intelligent catering to the listener's wants. Most of these programs are serial in nature. They follow the adventures of one or two characters from episode to episode. If a listener is sufficiently interested to follow the character at all, he wishes to -follow him frequently, particularly since the period during which he may follow him is but fifteen minutes. If an entire week elapses between each fifteen-minute episode, the listener is too apt to forget the events of the previous episode and transfer his allegiance to a program which offers him the type of entertainment he is seeking more frequently.
Even the fifteen-minute program which is strictly musical gains appreciably by frequent periods on the air. If its appeal to its audience is the individuality of its performance, it must appear frequently to preserve that individuality in the listener's consciousness. Many an author, actor, and showman has learned that the public's memory is conspicuous chiefly for its brevity, its loyalty chiefly conspicuous for its ability to waver. The listener who has developed an enthusiasm for a program wishes to hear that program frequently. If the length of the time he may listen is. decreased, the frequency of periods at which he may listen should be increased proportionately. Thus and thus only, are loyal audiences created and large audiences made larger.
The daytime hours, like those of the evening, present specific trends in the listener's wants.
Early in the morning, around the breakfast hour, the great mass of listeners seem to want and to welcome the spirit of Pollyanna in their radio programs. Even though your day is foreordained to be one of misery and petty annoyances, it is reassuring to be told that "all's for the best in this best of all possible worlds." One broadcaster using an adroit mixture of Pollyanna and Dr. Pangloss has become one of radio's most popular features, his audience numbering millions. The majority of early morning programs which have achieved noteworthy success have been built on similar principles. They are sprightly, light-hearted, peppy, endeavoring to generate in the listener some of that vitality and spirit of clear-eyed squaring away to face the world which will later carry him or her over the fateful "hill of four o'clock," at that time a pleasant remote unreality.
Later in the morning comes the hour when the house-wife has her radio practically to herself. Her wants were noted earlier in this chapter. Suffice it to reiterate that she does want information on the lightening of her daily tasks, she is eager to receive helpful hints on making her meals more attractive, her parties more festive—and she responds much more readily to the programs which provide this information if these programs entertain as well as instruct.
Regarding the afternoon hours there is yet insufficient data to make any definite statement regarding the audience's definite wants and positive tastes during that period.
In addition to the wants of the very general groups discussed in this chapter there are a number of special listener groups of particular interest to certain advertisers.
There has been no effort here to discuss these particularized groups, as they are so diverse that the subject would require a whole book itself if it were to be treated adequately. This chapter has endeavored rather to indicate along broad lines some of the general preferences of the listening audience as a mass. It is hoped that the broadcast advertising man striving to meet the wants of a specific listener group will find the general tendencies outlined here a helpful guide in his tortuous task of program building.