Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Program Director is a Rat (neuron)

I was reading the other day about researchers in Florida who have gotten a bunch or rat neurons in a Petri dish to simulate flying an F-22 fighter airplane in conditions that are almost impossible for us humans, and the little radio homunculus on my shoulder kept asking “if a bunch of rat neurons can perform this highly complex task, how long before some radio executive somewhere gets the bright idea to apply the concept to radio?”

Now, I want to state for the record that just because some stations sound like they’re programmed by a Petri dish full of rat neurons, this has not been accomplished yet (to my knowledge). And I don’t think it’s all that likely to define market-winning behavior, even in the dark futures I tend to dream up.

Why? Flying an F-22 simulator is effectively a “closed” feedback system – the rat neurons get a set of inputs that are limited to conform to airplane physics, which is unlikely to change quickly. Plus, the rat neurons are not expected to influence the source of their input as a result of their behavior.

Now imagine a completely automated radio station – let’s pick an extreme and use WWV, whose sole function in life is to broadcast the time kept by an atomic clock. This is a prime candidate for programming by PDRN, since its listeners only ever tune in to get the correct time. Can you listen to WWV for an entire quarter hour? Only if your Thorazine has kicked in.

Let’s move up a notch. Consider a completely automated station running music and advertising. Except that it’s not completely automated – the sales staff tunes the spot load and schedule to its advertisers’ requirements. Could the music format be replaced by PDRN? Probably. Can you listen for an entire quarter hour? Probably. Can you listen for an hour? Maybe – but only if there aren’t other options, like a more engaging station, or a CD or an iPod. Is this station likely to develop intense listener loyalty? Doubtful. Now let’s make a small change – instead of a pre-programmed music format, let the listeners weigh in with a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” on the music they hear and have that affect the music programming – this probably defines the limit of PDRN. A station like this should deliver better results, but it can still be beaten by adding (human) talent – if the talent is allowed more range we can get from PDRN.

Why? Radio at its best is the most dynamic broadcast medium – it can adjust its format and content almost instantly in response to changing audience interests, tastes and needs (and note the “can” – how many stations can you think of that exploit this unique attribute?). People are the only way (today at least) to detect and react to changes in audience behavior and interest, both behind the scenes and on the air.

And even good radio creates the most powerful and lasting relationship with its audience of any mass medium – think about it: how many people identify with a TV Station, movie studio, record label or book publisher the way they do with a radio station?

My new pet radio programming benchmark is the Petri dish of rat neurons. Can your station beat it?

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