Less is Less

By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

The most famous phrase of radio in the new millennium has nothing to do with “more music” or “more money” or even “better radio.” No, radio is now immersed in a movement and controversy that has been self-titled as “Less is More.”

It’s hard to figure out where to start in assessing this campaign. Perhaps the first thing to point out is that, grammatically, the correct phrase should be “Fewer is More” when it comes to commercials. But that too would be misleading in that radio is not so much about running fewer commercials as it is about running shorter commercials. That would make the most accurate phrase “Shorter is More.” Certainly it leaves something to be desired in the way of being catchy or inspiring.

First, we should acknowledge that radio became so greedy, so undisciplined and so unresponsive to listeners that the “Less is More” concept was an inevitable signpost on the road of life. And yet reading it has come so slowly. It’s as if radio executives woke up one day and discovered that a deadly virus had forced 20 minutes of commercials per hour onto their airwaves.

“Gee, you’ve got to be kidding me. Twenty minutes of commercials on one of our stations? How could that happen? Who allowed it?” Yes, incredulous radio execs were stunned that their bottom lines were being jacked up significantly by some parasite called “clutter.” Even more amazing was the many years of research showing listeners hated this commercial deluge with a passion.

And thus, a movement was born. As radio’s behemoth, Clear Channel was left to absorb most of the blame. But their competitors climbed aboard the same bus and, in some cases, actually exceeded CC’s commercial limits. To its credit, Clear Channel did assemble a crew that includes some very gifted people to clean up the clutter graveyard.

Harris Nesbitt’s February radio-airtime index, which claims a high degree of accuracy, reported that Clear Channel stations averaged 11 commercial minutes an hour in February. Less commercial minutes per hour during the month were found on the following group owners: Radio One (9.1), Cox (9.9) and Entercom and Beasley (10.7). Group owners with more commercial minutes included Emmis (11.5), ABC (11.6) and Infinity (12.3).

While these numbers indicate reduced spotloads for radio stations in terms of minutes, shorter commercials allow for more units in less time. Most disturbing is that radio has based its slogans and marketing not on better content, but on a business model.

“I’m so tired of hearing all this crap about innovating. Better formats, more compelling personalities, taking chances. We sell tacos. And now we have to sell more of them in less time. That is innovation.” The radio business is killing the radio star. It isn’t satellite or iPods or video games. It isn’t bad music or censorship or DVDs.

No, this is what happens when you languish in the backwash of neglect, finding a reason not to pursue every original thought that comes down the pike. Radio would never consider developing the equivalent of reality shows or Desperate Housewives or 24. No industry in America could thrive with the nonexistent budgets that radio has allotted to new programming concepts.

When confronted with Armageddon, radio has held to its mantra of rhetoric over action. Executives will do anything not to build a better car. So this is it. The one best chance that radio has going for it is “Less is More.” Damn the naysayers. Full speed ahead.

Perhaps radio can humanize the message of this campaign. To that end, here is a sample promo. It is, of course, free of charge, and worth every penny of it.

“We love you, gentle listener. We truly do care about your life, your problems, your feelings. Imagine our surprise when one day we found out that you thought we were airing too many commercials. And then we discovered that they weren’t even entertaining. Gosh, that’s not the way we like to do business. So we cut back on those long, boring commercials. We’re replacing them with shorter, more thrilling commercials. But life isn’t all about change. You’ll get to hear the same slogans, the same contests and, yes, the same music you’ve heard year after year. We will never tamper with the sonic quality you’ve come to expect, and we will never insult your intelligence. To us, you’re more than a listener. You’re a potential shareholder.”

And herein lies the real opportunity for radio in the months and years ahead – turning listeners into stockholders. Now radio can really advertise itself. This will give the RAB something to do.

 And like all good radio promotions, it could feature discounts. “Buy Viacom stock before noon from the following brokers and get a 15% discount. Tell them Joel sent you.” New slogans jump vigorously to mind. “Get a stake in the break.” Or, “You have to like it. You own it.” Yet another possibility: “It’s not clutter. It’s your bread and butter.”

On second thought, maybe creativity in radio hasn’t vanished. It just needed to be re-focused on the more important things. Maybe less is less and fewer and more at the same time.