The Care and Feeding of Callout

By Steve Rivers

(originally published at MusicBiz and reprinted with permission)

There have been a number of complaints regarding the use of callout research in radio and how it has managed to make the music across America insipid, killing the necessary local flavor that is critical to success. But that is only one of the problems. There are many radio stations (including those in major markets) whose callout budgets have been eliminated, causing program directors to resort to using MediaBase or BDS to “construct” weekly callout. This creates a system that feeds back on itself; if the numbers of people doing this are large enough, we’re basically reporting the same results. That’s great if you want everyone to use a national playlist, but where’s the local flavor–the home town or regional hits that give a station its unique fingerprint?

I believe you need as many reporting systems as possible (record sales, Internet research and requests, in addition to callout) then cross-tabbing, looking for songs that rise to the top across the board when building your rotational categories. These should be your “powers”. When using callout, it is essential to find songs that appeal to both your P1s and P2s (core and cume), and to look at the “love-it” scores for these songs, so you’re playing tunes that have the most passion with these groups.

Using Spin Charts As Callout Correctly

With MediaBase and BDS, it is possible to create a micro-universe of reporting stations doing (weekly or bi-weekly) callout that you absolutely trust. This still creates a national “safe list”, but one that is probably more on target that just looking at all stations in your format.

To do that successfully, however, you need to know the individual PD’s ability to generate ratings, as well as data of market conditions, to discover why their stations continue to generate ratings. Is it the music? Do they have weak competitors? Have they become so entrenched in the market for so long that they enjoy the benefit of previous TV advertising, raising their consumer awareness to the point where they have automatic recall in Arbitron? You must take all of this into consideration when considering stations to put under your monitor microscope.

Reacting To Callout Correctly

The thing that drives most program directors mad is the dramatic swings in callout, from report to report. It also frustrates record companies. A song is added, and then dropped a week or two later because of “poor callout”…then re-added. There is such a thing as moving music too quickly through the system. While those in radio and records are sensitive to “burn out”, the average listeners could care less–if they love the song. Just when your jocks and hyper-P1s tire of a hit, the overall audience is probably just catching on. However, there comes a time when a hit becomes so super-saturated in a market that it must either be backed down in rotation or “rested” and placed in your hold category for a while…but that timeline is longer than most program and music directors believe.

In order avoiding reacting to a one week’s sample of callout where the results are vastly different than last week’s report, I used to look at two weeks. In today’s environment, I might even suggest looking at three weeks or more. It provides a larger sample and more stability in the numbers, and slows the process down enough so that the bulk of your audience can catch up. There’s nothing worse for your Arbitron numbers than being too hip for the room with your music.

Listeners don’t listen that intently, especially the 25+ audience. Teens and sub-teens react faster than other groups, and today they’re hearing new music long before it even hits the air, thanks to the Internet sites and iTunes. Those kinds of sites have become the new request lines, and your music director should be monitoring the most-trusted sites for download hits and giving those songs that have huge hit numbers a listen in your music meetings.

Using The Net As Callout

Yahoo! is breaking new ground in doing searches for TV shows using a Google-ese approach described in the September issue of Wired Magazine. Drawing a graph and power law curve on a whiteboard, Yahoo’s Director of Technology of Development Group, Bradley Horotwitz explains how it works: Starting on the high side of the graph on the left-hand vertical axis and plunging downward before curving and straightening out above the horizontal axis to the right, the video content that most everyone has seen or heard sits at the high end of the curve. These are the blockbusters that represent the bulk of what people look for on Yahoo’s search engines.

Further down the curve, well-funded and marketed programs generally leave a trail of “buzz hits”, even if they don’t break through. This information on the “long tail” of the graph can be helpful to TV and cable networks when it comes to deciding to renew or drop a show if it’s showing signs of early success. This “long tail” technique can also be used on those Internet music sites and if used properly, can be used to pinpoint early activity of a potential hit. Critical information for both radio and records is available on the Net, if you know how to search and where to look.

There are a few Internet music research providers that are quite good and can provide hundreds of listeners in your weekly report. You must remember that these are your hyper-P1s, the trendsetters and predictors of things to come. All the analysis I’ve seen concludes that Internet research is about two weeks ahead of traditional callout. Again, it’s just another camera angle to consider; be sure to realize what you’re looking at when viewing results and consider it for what it is.

Estimating Hits, Not Guaranteeing Them

With music research, it is important to keep in mind that these are merely estimates. There is no “right” answer. All we’re looking for is a consensus opinion. The majority opinion is what develops the hits, and monitoring the lifecycle to determine when to give a song more or less rotation is extremely important. But so are those regional hits that don’t appear on BDS or MediaBase–unless you start them. Those are the records you have to really believe in and give them a shot… and enough time to build. You don’t want to take too many shots at one time, and you won’t always be right. Otherwise, you’ll have a fabulous career working with Clive Davis.

Doing Callout In-house

If you’re doing callout in-house, may God have mercy on you. It certainly is a pain in the ass. First, you must have someone supervising every step of your operation that you positively trust. That someone will oversee the endless trail of hourly wage earners so they don’t cheat – and not just phone friends in order to meet quotas, which would contaminate your data. Good luck. Unless you’re really interested in making sausage, stay out of the kitchen and leave it to professionals who have the time and resources to do it right.

I’ve seen stations succeed because of the morning show, or a huge contesting or advertising budget. I’ve also seen stations win with nothing but the music as their weapon—because they were plugged into a place where the music is born in their market. Be it a club, a local mom-and-pop record store, or just listening to the listeners and having their radar up for the next new hit. I believe in playing hits and trust me, I’ve also played my fair share of stiffs. There are only three to five hits you simply can’t kill at any point in time. The rest are filler material that you need to balance your sound, and out of that collection, hopefully, the next five hits will appear. As long as you don’t violate your sound current and you protect any questionable songs with proven smashes on either side, your station will survive. Doing this properly is still only the basic foundation for a sound radio station. Then, what goes between the songs becomes equally, if not more so, vital in today’s exceedingly competitive landscape.

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