The Art & Science of Programming

The Art & Science of Programming

by Tracy Johnson

Personality radio is both art and science. And it should be in relatively equal parts. Often, programmers place so much emphasis on science, they miss the art. Or vice-versa. Personalities tend to disregard the science and be all about art. Yes, the audience is loyal because of your personality and charm, but  the science of programming a radio break provides a foundation for your art to be appreciated.

Science is measurable, objective and can be compared and tested. Albert Einstein would have loved the science of programming.

How many songs did you play? How long was the break? Did you step on the vocals of the song? Did you talk about the station’s contest just before a promo ran that said the same thing? Were you in and out of the break at the right times? Did you pay off a tease when it was promised?

These can all be measured, evaluated objectively and improved.

Art, on the other hand, is subjective, abstract and debatable. How did your break make the audience feel? Does your content cause listeners to understand more about your personality? Does your performance allow them to “get to know” you better? Is the topic relevant to the target audience?

Art is hard to critique because there are so many variables.

But the science of programming is easy. Measure and compare.

Programming to the science of PPM measurement is tangible. Lock yourself in the board room and manipulate the clocks, music rotations. Make sure stop sets fall across quarter hours.

Then monitor amount of talk relative to your competition. This is easier than to manage, coach and massage the art of performance.

A Winning Formula: Art + Science

What does that mean to radio stations? If winning radio lies at the intersection of content (science) and style (art), both are important.

Science may be absolute, but it has to take art into account or it’s useless.

Think of the formula as:

P=C+S (Personality = Content + Style)

Both are essential ingredients permanently linked to your success.

Content is everything that goes into your show, including commercials, news, traffic, time checks, promos, contests, games, features, music, topic selection, execution and of course the construction of your talk breaks. All of these are elements that come from science.

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These elements are the foundation of every station, and every show. They are essential parts of the overall presentation. It’s like the concrete slab and frame on which a house is built. Programmers tend to over-emphasize these elements, while personalities often discount anything that doesn’t include their talk breaks.

That newscast that doesn’t interest you? It’s on your show, so figure out how to embrace it and sell it like Larry Lujack. You don’t think it’s promotable? It doesn’t matter. Either talk the PD into getting it off or promote it.

The weather and traffic are built into your clock four times an hour? It may be the 16th time you’ve heard it, but it’s not the same for your listener. Treat it like the first time, every time. Are you selling a promotion or event? Sell it. Don’t just say it.

Is there a commercial on the air during your show that is outdated? It’s Wednesday morning and they’re promoting a sale that ends on Tuesday? Fix it. It reflects on your station, show, personality and your brand. It may be part of the science you can’t control, but it affects your art.

Applying Art To The Science

Just as damaging is the programmer that is only worried about the science. They think that if everything is perfect, the personalities can’t possibly screw it up. If a programmer is too focused on science, it’s like asking a carpenter to design and decorate the interior of your home. It’ll probably be stiff, stale and boring.

A great programmer starts with the basics, the science. Then adjust, manipulates and massages the format to get the most value from the artists. A truly great personality can transcend the format. That doesn’t change the rules or the structure, but may cause a programmer to rethink how to apply those rules more effectively.

You may have great competitive reasons for a stop set to land at a very specific time. Or why you have to keep a balanced hour, with at least two songs in each quarter hour. Or why the contest announcement must happen at 8:05, and not a minute later. That’s great, but if you don’t explain the importance to talent, and get them to understand why it’s important to the station and to them, they won’t respect the science.

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It’s also important to realize that the rules that apply to the science of programming evolve. Einstein was once asked why he gave the same test to students year after year. Didn’t the students cheat? He said:

Yes, of course. It’s true the questions are the same. But the answers are always changing.

A creative scientist always challenges the accepted argument, seeking a better way. Einstein would have been a great programmer.


Think of building a radio show like building a house.

It needs a foundation, which is based on the expertise of engineers, contractors and carpenters. But the house becomes a home when you add your stye. That’s where the interior designers come in. That’s the fun part.

The artist can’t do anything they want. They must observe the laws of science, or risk the consequences. But an architect can work with the artist to create a strategic plan so the art and science work together.

The result of C=P+S personality. And personality wins.

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