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An Insider's Take on Talk Radio
How PR can better understand and tap new trends on the dial.
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 by Marsha Friedman
EMSI Public Relations

Marsha FriedmanI'd like to introduce you to Alex Hinojosa, former full-time radio personality and current Senior Campaign Manager at EMSI.

Alex was working as a talk show host/executive producer in a major market, Atlanta, when I recently lured him away, so he has an up-to-the-minute understanding of the changes radio has undergone.

Marsha: I know radio is going through trials comparable to what the newspaper industry has experienced, with mass layoffs. What do you feel is the impact on AM radio and the talk show format in general?

Alex HinojosaAlex: There aren’t as many shows, Marsha, and the hosts that are left wear a lot of hats. Very rarely is a host just a host. They may also be a producers, which involves booking guests, updating the station Web site, interacting on social media and they might also be in charge of any number of other jobs, like promotions or production. Because they’re really, really busy, if you want to be a guest on their show, you’ve got to grab their attention quickly or you won’t even make a blip on their screen. The way to do that is offer them an angle and a segment they immediately recognize as a perfect fit for their audience.

Marsha: I would imagine it’s overwhelming to some of the hosts who have to do all that and still focus on getting good ratings.

Alex: Seems daunting, huh? Because prep time is cut short with those off-air responsibilities, hosts are really looking for topics and guests that will play to their target audience, be engaging and provide good content. They’re not there to sell someone’s book or product – their goal is to keep their audience listening so their ratings stay up.

If a guest helps them out by giving a great interview, well, they’ll likely return the favor by plugging the person’s book and even linking to it from their blog.

Marsha: On the subject of ratings, we’ve seen big changes in how they’re determined. What do you think of the new PPM ratings system?

Alex: As you know, ratings used to be done through diaries, actually writing down what station or show you listened to over a period of time. Now though, most big markets use PPM – Personal People Meter – which tracks listening in real time with a device those being surveyed actually wear. Ironically, most everyone in radio, except the No. 1-rated station, will tell you those PPMs are inaccurate and that there is no real way to gauge exactly who and how many are listening. But hosts have to pay attention to them because it’s how they’re judged by management.

Marsha: So in the end, no one knows that audience better than the host. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

Alex: Exactly! And no talk show host who is on the hook for ratings will book a guest who’s wrong for his show. Hosts know what their audiences want and they’re not going to invite someone whose topic has no interest for their listeners. If you’re booked, it’s only because that audience is a fit for you and your message.

Marsha: When I first started this business 21+ years ago, the interviews we scheduled for our clients were an hour and sometimes longer. Then we saw the interviews go to twenty to thirty minutes, and now they’re shorter than that. What do you feel the reason is for this change in interview formats?

Alex: The new PPM system is tracking audiences minute to minute, counting the listeners tuning in and listeners tuning out. For radio stations, that means every minute counts. Now the average interview is seven to ten minutes in most cities and if you get more than that, it’s a blessing. But, we’re also seeing as little as three- to five-minute interview segments during morning drive time in the top major markets. Think about it like this: the methodology for gathering radio ratings is a lot closer to how ratings for TV are tallied now. How consistently do you see a 30-45 minute interview on TV? Not often. Expect the same with radio. That doesn’t mean you can’t get your message out. You just have to be more focused and to the point as a guest because hosts are being trained by their bosses to be concise too. So, preparation and media training are a must!

Marsha: You’ve worked in smaller markets like Lubbock, Texas, and Lansing, Mich., and the biggest, like New York, Washington, DC and Atlanta. What differences did you see as a talk show host in smaller markets versus larger markets?

A small but dedicated audience can be even more valuable than an audience that’s five times as big but more likely to channel surf. Because of PPM (Personal People Meter, the ratings system that tracks listener’s minute-to-minute) and the corporate structure of radio now, major markets are overrated.

Trust me. I have many contemporaries in radio who know they were able to do a better show and conduct longer interviews in a smaller market because the ratings system is different. So, as a guest, you’re going to get more time to share your message and it’s going to be with a much more dedicated audience, since listeners have fewer talk shows to choose from.

Marsha: It’s clear when you watch TV or listen to radio, hosts are more intent on having listeners follow them on social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Having just come from the trenches, can you give us the inside scoop on the theory behind that?

Alex: Here’s what’s going on: Most radio stations now are basically Web sites that happen to broadcast. Just last Friday, Clear Channel Radio dropped “radio” entirely from its name! It’s now Clear Channel Media and Entertainment.

Alex HinojosaTalk hosts and DJs are trying to build social media connections with their listeners so they can market to them at any time – tell them about the next great guest, or contest, or whatever. They’re using Twitter, Facebook and Google+ to drive people back to the radio show’s Web site because the more traffic the station can move to the Web site, the more it can potentially charge for online advertising. It also wants those visitors to sign up for its listener club because, like any other business, building your in-house opt-in database is marketing gold.

Getting listeners to the station’s site has become so important the hosts get bonuses for those Web hits.

Marsha: So what are the implications of this trend for talk show guests?

Alex: The bigger the social media following someone has, the more valuable they are becoming to talk show hosts. All of the guest’s followers are potential new listeners and clicks to the station’s Web site.

If you, as a guest, have a good social network, lots of followers on Twitter for instance, the host will use that, which helps him and you. He might tweet to his listeners, “Hey, tune in on Tuesday when we’ve got @MarshaFriedman from EMSI coming in to tell you all about how to become an expert celebrity.” They go to @MarshaFriedman to check you out and before you know it, you’ve got a bunch of new followers. Of course, the host hopes you’ll tweet that you’re going to be on his show so that your followers will tune in or listen online.

Marsha: Another benefit of the online component is that it gives interviews a whole new life.

Alex: Yes! As you know, in the old days as soon as an interview was broadcast, it was over. You had to hope that the audience was listening at that exact moment to hear your message. But now, interviews can live forever. They’re streamed online, sent to people’s phones, captured digitally and turned into podcasts that people can listen to and share at any time. Hosts will use a great interview to drive listeners back to their Web site through social media. They might tweet, “What a terrific chat we had with @MarshaFriedman! If you missed it, go to www.(insert station name here).com and click to listen.”

Marsha: So, Alex, what do we really need to remember about this new age of radio? What’s the takeaway?

Alex: The best guests not only provide great content, they also have a lot of social media connections. What every producer or host considers before booking a guest is what I call the three C’s of radio:

Content. The expertise you’re going to provide has to benefit my listeners.
Credibility. When I Google you, does your name come up and do you have credentials to back up your content?
Connections. Is your social media following large enough to benefit me?

Marsha Friedman is a 21-year veteran of the public relations industry. She is the CEO of EMSI Public Relations, a national firm that provides PR strategy and publicity services to corporations, entertainers, authors and professional firms.

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