Processing and Listener FatigueThe art of audio processing involves tradeoffs. One of the most critical is between loudness and listener fatigue. Making your signal stand out from the noise and other stations on the dial is key to success.
Pushing the processing hard increases modulation density and can make a station literally jump off the dial. But this increased loudness comes with a price. All processors introduce artifacts into the audio as a byproduct of their work. The closer a processor is pushed to its maximum limits, the more noticeable the artifacts. These sonic anomalies range from subtle to obvious. It is the subtle artifacts that can be the most troublesome in the long run.
Listener fatigue occurs when these subtle artifacts disturb listeners to the point that they tune out the offending station in search of another. One of the most annoying is distortion of the high frequencies.
While there is little in the way of quantitative data to document the effects of listener fatigue, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. One truism seems to be that women are more sensitive to subtle forms of high-frequency distortion than men.
Stations targeting a more female audience in middays may take advantage of the dayparting feature of their processors so the high end is dialed down a bit. During overnights and/or drive time when being loud is more important, a daypart-capable processor can switch settings automatically for a more aggressive sound.Tools for Differentiating Your Dayparts May Be Available Throughout Your Air Chain
The increased workload that comes with consolidation seems to have taken its toll on creative applications of dayparting, and this is one area where stations can differentiate themselves in a market.
(click thumbnail)Many on-air processors have a daypart function that allows your station’s sound to be tailored to different dayparts. This is the schedule modification page from an Omnia unit.
While some argue there is less competition thanks to consolidation, radio as a medium competes for listeners with the Internet, satellite radio and iPod devices. Maintaining the largest audience possible remains a key factor for success.
No matter what type of format a station has, the needs of listeners are in a regular state of flux. Listeners usually have different needs for music and news throughout the day, and varying expectations for what they want to hear on weekdays and weekends. The art and science of dayparting is how a station tailors its sound in order to maximize its audience and meet their expectations 24/7/365.
How a manager dayparts a station’s programming depends primarily on the format and the competitive situation in the market.
“When creating a station’s sound, it’s important to make it match the listener’s lifestyle,” programming consultant Mike McVay, president of McVay Media, said. “For example, a CHR/top 40 station might want to make mention of school letting out in late afternoon, and pitch itself more to the teen/college audience during evening hours.”
Regardless of the format, McVay notes that dayparting music should be a creative process.
“In many instances, programming is no longer an art. When a PD is programming several stations, selecting the music often becomes one more thing to check off a to-do list, and it is reduced to putting song A into slot B.”
Creative dayparting can begin with something as simple as looking out the window.
“After several days of rain,” McVay said, “I scheduled Billy Joel’s ‘River of Dreams’ and ‘Black Water’ by the Doobie Brothers for morning drive in a Charleston, W.Va., station. It gave the morning team one more thing to talk about.”
Another creative activity for drive time involves electronically removing the lyrics from songs, and making up your own locally-relevant replacements. Adding a new intro or bridge also can make a unique product, he said. At one time, several stations in a market often had their own versions of hit songs, although the practice is not as common now.
Music rotation was once a tedious and time-consuming task. Software such as Selector from RCS has made the task of dayparting songs easier for PDs, said Tom Zarecki, head of PR for Selector and RCS products.
“Back in the 1970s and ’80s, most stations used a system with index cards for each record. Cards were marked up with information such as the name of the song picker, best play times such as ‘night play only’ or ‘Twofer Tuesday use only,’ along with the date last played.”
(click thumbnail)Daypart grids in Selector allow users to fine-tune song plays into specific days and hours. This is the Modify Schedule page.
He said Selector eliminates confusing code marks on index card along with manual record-keeping, and reduces song scheduling to a logical set of codes and grids including dayparting. The PD’s rotation rules are honored consistently, and the scheduling process takes a fraction of the time of the file card method. The music log can be further customized by a person once the schedule was generated on the computer.
Zarecki said scheduling software is flexible enough to accommodate a virtually unlimited number of daypart grids, but the real advantage is the impact on the bottom line.
“A station’s music schedule, with the best balance and variety, provides the audience with an optimal listening experience, which leads to better ratings.”
Parts of the chain
Although dayparting usually is accomplished in the music scheduler, it can be done in automation software.
For example, Dave Scott, president of Scott Studios Corp., said, “A live jock normally can make any addition, deletion or substitution he chooses. However, automation can either prohibit or require a password for any of the above.”
Other automation options noted by Scott include locking in power songs so no changes are possible, but allowing swaps in lesser categories.
Dayparting the station’s audio processor is a practice that had its origins in the early 1980s, when a few pioneering engineers connected their stations’ audio processors to computers or relay boxes to change the settings by daypart. As microcontrollers with clock/memory chips became more available, most processor manufacturers made dayparting a built-in function of the box.
The intent of many early efforts was to sound softer and reduce listener fatigue during midday hours when there were more women listening, and be loud and aggressive during drive time and overnights.
While the technology to daypart processors has been available for years, it does not appear to be widely used, at least not domestically.
“About 15 to 20 percent of our U.S. customers use the dayparting function of their Omnia processors,” said Frank Foti, president of Omnia Systems. He adds it is more readily used by state-run broadcasters in Europe. Foti said many of these operations run different types of programming to different transmitters at different times, so it is advantageous to change the technical side of the sound along with the programming.
In the United States, interest in processor dayparting seems to have peaked about 10 years ago, and slowly gone into decline.
“Some of the motivation may have fallen off with consolidation, fewer stations are in direct competition with each other now,” Foti speculated. It may also be that this knowledge wasn’t passed along from a previous generation of programmers and engineers.
Bob Orban, vice president and chief engineer for CRL/Orban, listed some instances when dayparting the processor is important.
“Public radio stations that program classical, jazz and news/talk during different parts of the day could definitely benefit from this practice.” He added, “AM stations may want to push the processing harder during the evening hours to compensate for nighttime propagation conditions.”
Case by case
When it comes to dayparting processors at stations with the same format all day, Orban feels that the situation becomes murky.
“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, but no hard research data to support whether the practice really works.” He speculates that if a station’s ratings suggest a drop in female listeners at some part of the day, however, it might be worth dialing down the high end a bit to try to reduce listener fatigue.
Orban too has seen a decline in the practice of dayparting processors. This lack of interest may just be a function of the increased workload typical at many consolidated stations.
“If I had 12 hours of work to do in an 8-hour day, tweaking the processor for different dayparts probably wouldn’t be at the top of my list,” Orban said.
Another dayparting practice is to boost average loudness during morning-drive variety talk shows on music stations. One major-market engineer said he uses this approach on three of his FMs.
“With lots of phone calls, maintaining a higher average modulation for the talk segments makes these shows easier to listen to in cars during the noisy morning drive time.
“After 10 a.m., music reigns and processing is backed off, then cranked back up a bit 7 p.m. to midnight for CHR and alternative.”
At Infinity’s WBCN(FM) in Boston, Chief Engineer Bill Bracken uses the dayparting feature of his Omnia processor to create three distinct sounds for the station.
Throughout most of the day, WBCN has a modern rock format, and the processor is set in a fairly typical fashion for this type of music. From 6 to 11 a.m., the station broadcasts “The Howard Stern Show.”
“On the processor’s rock setting, the satellite hiss was unbearable,” Bracken said. “We tried a talk setting, and there was still too much hiss, so we dialed down the extreme high end a bit, and that worked.”
WBCN also carries New England Patriots football, and uses one of the Omnia talk presets with a bit more bass when the games are broadcast.