Play to Win: Avoid Not-To-Lose Tactics

Play to Win: Avoid Not-To-Lose Tactics

by Tracy Johnson

To win any game, players need a strategy. Or be incredibly lucky. And relying on luck is not a reliable path to success. In most cases, winning strategies include a plan to attack the opponent. When a player chooses to try not to lose, it usually doesn’t work out. The game is eventually lost because the plan lacks a strategy to actually win.

Today, radio stations are playing not to lose. Broadcasters are:

  • Clinging to a dated model of competing only against other stations for market share. Meanwhile, listeners are finding other ways to spend their entertainment capital.
  • Continuing to emphasize a music position as a primary listener benefit. Meanwhile, listeners yawn and migrate to pureplay streaming options.
  • Refusing to address bloated commercial loads in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, listeners have less tolerance for interruptions than ever, quickly tuning out long stop sets.
  • Slashing budgets and eliminating resources for the creative team. Reducing costs is understandable in this environment. But without investment in talent, the radio’s future is bleak.

This is playing not to lose. As the public recovers from the past few months, now is the time to take steps to win the game.

Stop Playing Not To Lose

Here’s something that is happening for sure: Radio’s TSL is going down.

Other stations are not the competition. That’s just playing The Ratings Game. It’s playing not to lose to a radio competitor. This internal focus is causing every station to lose the bigger battle for audience attention.

Here’s are some signs a station may be in a pattern of programming not to lose and start playing to win.

  • Investing time and resources fine-tuning the playlist to find a perfect music flow. Improving the music log is important, of course. But it isn’t going to reverse the trend of listeners spending less time with radio. Researching the music library ensures the right songs are on the radio and placing the most popular songs at the right spots in clocks is a solid programming tactic. But is that creating more fans?
  • Positioning for music quantity. 45 minutes of continuous music sounds like a competitive music position, but eventually, commercials come on. Is any music station winning the most music position against streamers?
  • Tactical contests to manipulate radio ratings. Promotion and contesting can cause rating respondents to take action. Yes, promotion is important, but does a cue to call or tickets to a backstage meet and greet make the station more important or cause talk?
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And then there’s the biggest issue: Developing radio personalities.

Talk Breaks

Stop worrying about coaching talent to shave a few seconds of talk time or editing a few words out of a segment. I know a programmer that instructed personalities to edit phone calls to remove pauses and breaths. A 40-second phone call is tightened to 38 seconds. Wow.

It’s important to maintain forward momentum and avoid the needless talk. But shorter talk breaks are not a competitive advantage. Effective, personal breaks filled with personality and the human connection should be the goal. Sometimes that can happen over the intro of a song. But sometimes it takes longer to make a connection.

I’ve heard many 2 minute breaks that are 1:50 too long. And just as many 7 minute breaks that were too short. In creative, winning programming, the length of a break is secondary to effectiveness.

Personalities are a primary reason listeners become fans of a station. Not just choose a station as their favorite, but become true fans. But until programming emphasis is to create unique reasons for tuning in (and come back), stations will continue to lose influence.

Programmers are hung up on avoiding negatives. Rules for a maximum length of breaks are imposed. Management issues orders that certain topics are off-limits to avoid listener complaints. The list grows because the public is hypersensitive about anything that doesn’t fit their worldview.

So programmers make rules instead of coaching talent to manage content within guidelines that support the station’s brand values.

We’ve mastered managing details but miss the bigger picture: How are we inspiring listeners?

Obsessing About Details

Safe programmers focus on removing potential irritants. The research comes in and management scrambles to get rid of anything listeners dislike. That would mean there’s no reason to tune out. Remove the off-ramps and the car stays on the freeway, right?

Holding on to existing listeners longer is a good thing. But that’s playing not to lose. It’s not playing to win.

Simply removing negatives can leave a station or show in the Zone of Mediocrity. We get rid of reasons to tune out but create no reason to tune in. Many stations have polished the entertainment value from the air.

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Relax and have fun, or at least act like you’re relaxed and having fun. This is the entertainment business and personalities can’t attract larger audiences if they’re worried about another station stealing shares. Or worried about the next round of layoffs.


Winning programmers create can’t-miss entertainment that leaps through the speakers and compels listeners to pay attention. That comes from personalities that attract and lead a passionate fan base.

Programming is both art and science. Science is important, of course. But programming to win requires art. Otherwise, the radio will continue to become less important each day.

We can win if we play to win. Take risks. Don’t be reckless. Be creative, bold, and progressive. Try something different. It may not be perfect and may even run off a meter or two (shudder).

But it may keep you off the path to extinction.


Open Letter to Radio: It’s Time To Develop Personalities

6 Secrets To Cause Talk

3 Things To Do Now To Prepare For The Recovery

Do You Get Enough Complaints? Probably Not. Here’s How To Fix It

Music Flow and TSL

Lucky? Here Are 5 Ways to Make Your Luck

Programming Is Both Art And Science

The Real Competition

How Long Talk Breaks Should Be

It’s Time To Rethink Programming Clocks

Do You Polish Entertainment Out Of Your Show?

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