Ninety percent of people listen to the radio every day, either at home, on their way to work, at work, or at a restaurant. Radio has become such a common part of our everyday life you may listen to it without even knowing it. Some people even use the radio as white noise to block out other noise. Although radio is all around us, and the technology has been around for over a century, I have absolutely no idea how it works. To unravel this mystery, I asked Lindsay May of Big Dog 92.7 if I could drop by their station to learn about it.
The first thing I learned at the station was how companies advertise on the radio. One form of radio advertising is called a "hot call". Hot calls are when clients come into the station with things they want to talk about - and the station arranges an announcer to chat with them about their product while recording. This form of advertising sounds more natural, like they're having a conversation. Other ads are recorded in studio with clients or announcers, and edited with sound effects or music overtop. Another form of advertising I learned about was pre-recorded advertisements, which is when the radio station gets a recording from the company and plays that instead.
While advertisements aren't everybody's most favorite part of listening to the radio, they are the only way stations can stay up and running. Other countries pay their stations via a "radio tax" to keep the station advertisement free, but this is a trend that never caught on in North America.
I then learned about A, B and C Category music. These music categories separate music by their popularity, and their popularity is measured by "spins" – a throwback to the old record playing days. Songs on the radio aren't played via record anymore, nor are they played by CDs. Instead, their songs are digital and referenced by a computer. The computer picks the songs according to their rating category and fits them into the schedule. A Category songs are played the most, then the B Category songs and so on.
This system also has to keep in mind it only have about a 15 minute window to catch listeners while they are tuning in. In this time period they play 3 – 4 songs, a commercial break and about a 3 minute talk break. If they talk longer than 3 minutes, studies show, they lose their audience. In fact, they have about 7 seconds to capture their audience's attention after a song stops before they flick away.
In the past, one of the easiest ways to get the audience's attention was to have a wild and crazy personality on the radio. This radio personality then took the audience for a wild three minute ride. However, this trend has been dying, and radio personalities are being replaced by real people. Instead of hearing a screaming announcer or a smooth talking jazz man, you'll instead hear an average person you can relate to. This "average person" announcer helps build a relationship between the radio host, the station and their listener.
Lindsay May also taught me how radio stations learn their ratings – something very important but that most people never think about. As radio is an offline resource, tracking its audience is so difficult that it is actually done by hand. Of the population of Regina, only about 890 people are selected to track when they and their family are listening to the radio, and they manually log this in a book. This data can be incorrect if somebody doesn't include that they were shopping for 4 hours and listened to the radio while in a store.
Eventually, ratings will be done via "personal people meters", or PPMs. These devices are carried on a person and can track the radio station being listened within its radius. This can give a minute-by-minute reading of what station is playing, what's playing on it and what time it's being played. One problem with this method is that, when driving, the PPM's radius might go outside of a vehicle and pick up a station in another vehicle. Another concern is that the data could be hacked and the ratings could be manipulated. While the current pen and paper way is old fashioned, it's also hack-proof and much easier to implement.
(For anybody wondering, television ratings are also tracked in a similar way, in which devices on the TVs record what stations are being played. That percentage is then taken and reflected onto the population size to get an estimated rating. Neat!)
Radio is also coming back into popularity with teenagers and Millennials when in previous decades it was falling. With the youth of today not watching TV, and with the decline of local journalism, many young people have no idea what's happening around their city. Radio provides them with an entertaining and informative way to get them this otherwise unattainable information. Five years ago teenagers picking the radio over their limitless iPods seemed unfathomable, but slowly young people are returning to the radio.
This isn't to say the radio isn't changing with the times. It is expected by 2025 all new cars on the road will have built-in Wi-Fi which allows for world-wide radio streaming content. Somebody can turn on their Spotify and listen to their favorite tune or flick through SoundCloud and find their favorite podcast. To meet their changing needs, radio is now moving online and can be streamed from the stations respective website. While there is a 10 – 15 second delay between the radio and the stream, it is expected to catch up and might even move to being completely online.
Big Dog 92.7's coverage is about 44,000km2, spanning from Perkbeg to Grenfell and Raymore to Radville, although coverage is a little spotty out on the edges. Other FM stations in Regina have similar coverage ranges as there isn't much geographical interference in southern Saskatchewan, with the except for the Qu'Appelle Valley. The valley floor has limited coverage because it is hidden from radio waves. Radio waves, unlike satellite waves, travel horizontally and have difficulty going through or around geographical objects. Because of this, coverage in Lumsden, a half hour drive from Regina and which sits in the Qu'Appelle Valley, is similar to Ogema, which is over an hour away.
One of the best things about the radio is the contests, both for the person winning the contest and for the radio host. Lindsay May says she still remembers her favorite contest winner and how the lady on the phone couldn't stop screaming when she won a trip. Contests are great for stations and for building an audience. I know when there's a contest on a specific station, I will listen only to that channel for my chance to win. Have you ever won a contest?
I found my look behind the scenes of Big Dog 92.7 to be fascinating, and I learned a lot about how the radio works. Did you learn anything new? Let me know about it in the comments below!