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Wanna buy a format?

Consultants to radio (and researchers too, sometimes) come in two flavors: The kind that invents and sells a format and the kind that wants to help you win in the format you’re in, whatever it takes.

This post is about the first kind.

God knows there’s nothing wrong with inventing and selling a format. Frankly, I’m glad there’s an incentive for forces in the radio industry to drive innovation and benefit in the process. And I think more innovation comes from these new formats and their entrepreneurial fathers and mothers than from the average broadcaster or group.

Now most consultants (and researchers alike) are rightly obsessed with the specifics of a market and a station, tailoring the broad format to the specific needs of the situation. But the “pot of gold” is to invent a new format, brand it, erect sizable legal barriers to protect it, and then to sell it like crazy to stations like yours.

Unfortunately, when you’re pitching a format which is predominantly music, it takes no time at all for broadcasters nationwide to monitor your playlist and decode your DNA. It’s as if you created Coca-Cola and proceeded to post its formula on Internet.

Thus, the proprietors of these new formats must bonus the music with packaging and secret and exclusive tactics, general truths which become – more than the format or music itself – the central reason why you pay for the format and its various bits and pieces rather than whipping it up yourself.

Will these branded formats help you “do it better”? Quite possibly. Depending on your level of sophistication this assistance could be a tremendous bargain. What’s more, the branded format you buy is one your competitor is precluded from buying, hence the value of the brand.

But understand this: In a world where the “formula” is available for all to see and copy, the value of the format resides in its name, its production, and the unyielding rules you must live by as you execute the format. That name, that production, and those guiding rules ARE what you buy. From the perspective of the seller, these aspects must be magnified in importance in order to establish any value FOR THE SELLER OF THE FORMAT at all. And the establishment of that value is the reward for convincing a recalcitrant industry to take a chance in the first place.

But what does this mean for the station that buys the format?

It means that there are certain “rules to live by,” and those rules are what makes the format sellable to stations like yours. Those rules may be tried and tested, but more likely they’re things that worked here or there or ideas which seemed good primarily because they seemed both unique and sellable, not because they are essentially more effective than whatever you might cook up on your own.

These “rules” could, for example, be exactly wrong for your market, your audience, and your competitive context. A smart PD knows this intuitively or based on their own proprietary research, and he or she will modify the formula accordingly, usually to the great consternation of the consultant who originated it.

You see, the more the formula is modified in one market after another, the less the consultant has a “format” he or she can effectively pitch nationwide. Your incentive is to tailor a formula to your market, but a consultant’s incentive is to minimize deviation from the formula (if the formula, rather than the tailoring, is why you hire that consultant). Because when one thing becomes many things it ceases to be proprietary and it enters the public domain, like Country or CHR.

That doesn’t mean you don’t need advice – you probably do, and consultants are great at providing it. But the advice should be about YOUR market, YOUR competitive context, and YOUR audience.

This is why there are so very few formats sold by consultants in America, and why virtually none are more than a few years old.

When the exceptions to the rule outnumber the rules themselves, there’s nothing left to sell.

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