Nobody Really Wants Variety

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip August 10, 2005

“Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure,” wrote the Italian poet Petrarch some 700 years ago. And to this day audiences will loudly proclaim their lust for variety and their disdain for its evil twin, sameness.

But do listeners’ actions belie their words? Do they talk one way and act another? What if nobody wants variety? What if more choice is bad? What if the vast majority of the audience’s needs can be met by 30 some-odd stations, not 300? Maybe our industry should ask these questions before we splinter our stations into a zillion HD also-rans.

The Ugly Truth about “Variety”

Walk with Barry Schwartz through a supermarket. As he writes in The Paradox of Choice: “A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That’s a lot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit the shelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure.”

Do you know what consumers do when faced with a dizzying variety of choices? They choose what they know best, they choose what’s familiar, they choose what they’ve chosen before.

Do folks want more variety, more choice? They say they do. But no, they really don’t.

This is why even Satellite Radio listeners tune in only a handful of channels. Yes, my handful may be a little different from yours, but guess what? The most popular channels on Satellite are roughly the same as the most popular ones on the Radio.

Thanks to the drumbeat for “variety” and our neurotic fear of Satellite Radio, our industry is hurtling down a perilous HD road. “It’ll create more format choices,” industry leaders say.

These industry leaders need to study consumer behavior.

What Listeners Really Want

More channels – more “variety” – mean thinner slices. Thinner deeper slices. This isn’t variety, it’s depth.

Just because we can thin-slice a format into skinnier niches doesn’t mean we should and it doesn’t mean listeners want it. Even if we’re lucky enough to find a slice that listeners like, it doesn’t imply that’s all they like. Ask anyone anywhere what kind of music they prefer. Their tastes will never be thin as a slice. The thinner you slice your format, the less you appeal to the breadth of your audience’s taste. And the more you force them to self-program that variety by changing stations, the unhappier they will become.

Listeners want variety – choice – all right, but in as few stations as possible.

Surprise! Most Listeners are Satisfied by Radio!

If you’re a typical radio listener (as opposed to a musicologist, audiophile, or musician), and if you’re listening less to radio now it’s not because you can get more choices elsewhere. It’s because you can get your own perfect mix elsewhere. This is why mp3 players – a personal selection of music – outsell Satellite Radio – a diverse but impersonal selection of music.

By assuming “more stations” is the answer to what ails radio we are saying that Satellite Radio has a formula tastier than ours. We obsess on the Satellite threat and forget why listeners come to us in the first place and why they’re so satisfied with what they hear.

Yes, that’s right. Satisfied with what they hear.

Not the college radio geek in a band, maybe. Not the aesthete who writes for Fortune and listens to NPR. But for Joe and Jane America, for the great “unwashed masses,” Radio is doing a pretty damn good job at appealing to most people most of the time, and it’s about time someone stood up and said it.

[Thanks to Jacobs Media for publishing an abbreviated version of this article here]

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