So, what exactly keeps you glued to a particular radio station during the drivetime show? Joanna Wright finds out from the experts.
“Gareth Cliff and the 5fm team always seem to brighten up my day J.” So tweets someone with the tweet name @bex_friedman. A simple message – but one that sums up so much of what happens on drive time radio: the emotional connection stations seek with the audience and the increasing use of digital platforms to extend that conversation.
If drivetime was ever a monologue, it is no longer and this important slot is more than ever steered, so to speak, by its listeners. Drive time shows are stations’ flagships and the advertisers’ main attraction. It’s when the station is speaking to its biggest audience – and that audience is most likely commuting, presenting unique challenges for advertisers and presenters. It’s crucial to keep people tuned in with a great mix of news, music and entertainment, held together by the personality of the show’s host.
Wits media academic Franz Kruger says radio is a direct and emotional medium – and drivetime especially so. “Radio speaks to you in intimate spaces,” he says, and perhaps the most intimate is your car. This has implications for advertisers, he says, who should tap this intimacy: “The human voice carries so much more meaning than print (ads).”
Kagiso chief operating officer Nick Grubb says that drivetime is also unique in that it targets “very large concentrations of people all doing the same thing”. And the things they are doing – negotiating traffic, going to work – are rather stressful.
That is why Cliff, for one, aims to brighten up the days of the @bex_friedmans of South Africa. People are emotionally vulnerable in the mornings, he says. And they want to know what’s going on. So his job is to present them with information, filtered by what’s relevant – and entertaining. “People don’t need to be depressed by the horrible news,” he says. “We have this onus to take on the world’s issues. Don’t do this to people in the morning!”
For Cliff, it is important to remember that drivetime is not a performance – it’s a conversation with the listener. And social media platforms like Twitter have broadened that conversation. Cliff and his afternoon drive counterpart DJ Fresh are among Twitter’s most followed South Africans, with Cliff having about 283 400 followers at the time of writing this and DJ Fresh at about 213 100. Both actively interact with their followers, constantly responding and retweeting.
So what is the perfect drivetime format? Experts agree: there is no such thing. Formats differ as widely as audiences. 5FM’s drive shows are aimed at young, funky metropolitan commuters; OFM’s drive is shorter and earlier because there isn’t much of a rush hour in the Free State and its listeners aren’t as trigger-happy with the dial (OFM records the highest Time Spent Listening (TSL) of any radio station in the country).
Stations do strive for certain winning formats, though. It is generally normal to have news, talk and current affairs at breakfast, and more entertainment in the afternoon. This is by no means a hard and fast rule, but it seems to work for 5FM, who have Cliff hosting breakfast with current affairs and discussion and DJ Fresh presenting the more music-oriented afternoon drive. Fresh and his team, for instance, instituted the phenomenally popular Ultimix@6, a dance music show mixed by resident and guest DJs. Listenership spikes dramatically during this show.
While content is important, though, what’s really crucial is what happens in between. Amore Bekker, who presents afternoon drive Tjailatyd on Afrikaans station RSG, says: “News, sport and traffic is a given in any drivetime show. It’s what happens in between that makes it special. It’s how you spice it up.” She prepares for her demanding job by keeping up-to-date with lifestyle research so she always has juicy titbits to throw into the mix. “I read that bringing your dog to work may cut your stress levels…I mix info like this with good music and a real-life feel-good story,” she says.
Producing a drivetime show is apparently seat-of-the-pants stuff. Afternoon shows especially are under pressure because the audience has had the whole day to get acquainted with what’s going on in the world, says OFM programme manager Tim Zunckel. It’s a constant race to keep a step ahead of the listener. Crucial is relevance, says Grubb, and what is relevant can change very quickly. “The trick is to be selective and meticulously plan every hour,” he says.
Rivak Bunce of United Stations cites Kaya FM’s Bob Mabena as an example of great drivetime. “He has the benefit of targeting the black middle class in Gauteng, which is going through the most dynamic social transition anywhere. He focuses on the audience’s need to make sense of their rapidly evolving lives, to interact with them in a much more intimate way than you can find on any other station. The result is that the audience wants to come back to feel a part of the community.”
The future of drivetime lies in keeping this sense of community going and thereby attracting advertisers – and doing this in creative ways, says Zunckel. People tend to switch over to other stations during the traditional advertising slots, so it’s important to integrate brand messages into the programming. In 2010, OFM had their drive show host drive a John Deere tractor to a McDonald’s drive-thru.
Listeners were kept up to date with the success of the tractor in going where no tractor had ever gone before, hopefully entertaining them while also hopefully widening consciousness of the brand. Twitter could also help advertisers understand their market over and above the South African Advertising Research Foundation’s Radio Audience Measurement Survey (RAMS) figures, as it offers an immediate interaction with the audience.
Experts predict that drive time will become even more about personality. This will be especially true of the afternoons, says Grubb. Zunckel says “wallpaper presenters” won’t survive. He adds that there is also a trend towards bigger behind-the-scenes teams who will not only have to be skilled in a variety of media – blogging, video, audio – but will also have to work harder to stay ahead of trends. “Radio used to set trends, now the Internet does it. We need to keep ahead, be trendsetting.”
Overseas, where broadband is faster and cheaper, the future of drivetime is digital, and this will surely become a trend here too. At first glance, the likes of Pandora, Spotify and Slacker are a threat to drivetime. These are internet radio platforms that stream music based on the listener’s choice. Pandora recently deliberately targeted the lucrative drivetime ad market in the US. For instance, certain marques of car now come standard with Pandora software. However, what these apps lack is the human element that makes drive time listening such an experience, says Richard Hardiman of KFM in an article on memeburn.
And digital offers new hope for drivetime too. Cridland says that in the UK, “Radio stations are focusing on the multi-platform nature of modern radio. Now, less than two-thirds of all radio listening in the UK is done on an AM/FM radio.” New formats like Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) allow users to choose the music they listen to on a particular station and can transmit information like traffic news to the DAB device. These formats don’t mean fewer listeners; rather, it means more choice for everyone, from audiences to advertisers, says Cridland. “Most listeners will treble the amount of stations they listen to (with these platforms).”
And drivetime should become ever more important, not less, as radio becomes more accessible from in-car devices. Hardiman says that internet radio has more targeted advertising, creating a more pleasant listening experience. It’s harder to change the station on a digital device than on an AM/FM car radio. So internet radio “comes with a much stronger sense of loyalty”. Radio is arguably the only multi-tasking medium there is, so it’s the one most likely to be consumed by the captive audience of the rush hour. It’s up to stations to evolve with the technology.
As Bunce says: “These developments are in fact expanding our interaction with the audience …The opportunity is to target where the listener is seeking out that experience and to continuously repurpose and deliver our product on a superior level.”
But whatever iterations drive time assumes, it will stick around because, as Bekker says, “Nothing can beat a kind, funny companion in your car.”
PHOTO: OFM’S Breakfast Club host, Tim Thabethe.
This story was first published in the June 2012 issue of The Media magazine.