3 Reasons Listeners Say: What? Sorry, I Stopped Paying Attention

3 Reasons Listeners Say: What? Sorry, I Stopped Paying Attention

by Tracy Johnson

Short attention spans demand clear, simple, worthwhile, short messages. Or, a longer, compelling story that unfolds with miniature payoffs leading toward a suspenseful end. Either way, the key is efficient, focused presentation. The problem is that without disciplined execution, radio stations often leave listeners feeling their time is wasted. And when the audience decides it’s not for them, it’s too much talk. And they’ve stopped paying attention.

There are many examples of this in radio. We could discuss how to manage talk breaks, and that’s certainly an area that needs to be managed. But there’s another area programmers need to work on. And it’s one that has gone overlooked for too long. It’s recorded elements. And that includes promos and commercials.

Shorter, Tighter, More Entertaining

There are three main areas to fix: Promos, Stop Sets and Commercials. All need to be shorter, tighter and provide more entertainment value.

One of the most annoying things to sit through is a 15 second commercial that plays before a You Tube video. Isn’t it maddening? But on You Tube, they let you skip the ad after a few seconds.

Still, it drives us crazy. It’s disruptive because it has nothing to do with the entertainment we’re after.

The public has a severe lack of patience for ads. And yes, radio promos are ads. They’re commercials for the station.

Blair Bartrem, program director of Q107/Toronto says:

If we can’t explain it and invite the audience to take action in 10 seconds or less, it’s a bad idea and we have to think it through some more.

Blair’s right.

Have Listeners Stopped Paying Attention to Promos?

Can’t we tell a story and sell a message in half the time? Or less? Why does it take 30 seconds to tell me when to listen for a contest? Or 20 seconds to promote a morning show feature?

Most radio promos fall into one of two categories:

  1. Promos that go on and on with details and instructions nobody can remember or respond to.
  2. Short promos delivered by a voiceover speaking too quickly, with no call-to-action.

There’s no magic length for promos. Like talk breaks on the air, promos should be as short as they can be, but as long as they need to be.

Promos should do at least one of 3 things, as explained here. But most of all, promos must have entertainment value. They’re intrusions into the listening experience, so they need to deliver value to the listener. That can’t happen with a promo that tries to explain every detail of the campaign. Make a point, add some personality and give the listener something to do (a call to action).

That means each campaign will require more frequent promos, with each message telling part of the story. This gives the campaign focus, momentum and keeps listeners interested. 


Uh oh, another rant on commercials. I know, you’re tempted to skip this, thinking there’s nothing you can do about it. But don’t give up.

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Radio’s commercial problem is in the danger zone.

Commercial copywriters were cut out of the budget years ago, leaving unqualified account executives to pound out ads for clients. Or an over-worked production manager slaps a few lines together, knowing the client will insist on changes. Or, worst of all, the advertiser thinks they can write a commercial. After all, who knows more about how to sell their product or service more than they do?

Another issue is length. Somewhere along the line, a research project indicated that, to a listener, 60 second ads and 10 second ads were the same. Really? Doesn’t anyone question this stuff? Since when is “a unit just a unit”? Four 15 second spots are one minute. Four 60 second spots are four minutes. That’s a big difference, folks.

But it’s not just the amount of time a commercial takes. It’s also about the amount of time it needs to take. Many spots are repetitive, sloppy and lack focus. Messages can be delivered in less time. But that requires clarity and more creativity to entertain and sell.

If you can deliver a message on Twitter, you can do it on the air. And Account Executives can teach clients how to promote their brands in shorter spots if it’s made clear that it’s a priority.

Roy Williams, the “Wizard of Ads,” says:

Clarity is the new creativity.

Shorter messages can be more creative, entertaining and effective. And a series of shorter ads can return more time to programming.

Stop Sets

This is a regular gripe of mine, but radio stations need to stop allowing the ratings services to dictate success. The ratings system is severely flawed, and it’s clear that tune out happens when commercials come on. But that’s mostly because radio has trained the audience that when spots start, it feels like they’ll never end.

And when listeners try to escape endless stop sets, they find every other station is also playing commercials because every programmer places stop sets to sweep across :15 and :45 (bow tie).

Why? Because ratings services only award credit if a listener tunes for at least 5 minutes in a single quarter hour. That means listening that spans :00, :15, :30 and :45 might not count at all. Theoretically, I could tune in from :11 to :19 – eight minutes – and the station would get no listening credit.

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So all the spots come on the radio at the same time. And all the buttons are pushed at once.

It’s maddening to anyone thinking logically, and it prevents listeners from spending more time with stations they like. That in turn prevents them from becoming fans.

How about something new and bold?

How about a balanced clock with more frequent, shorter stop sets that don’t play at the same time everyone else is playing them. Then, promote it with an aggressive and active marketing campaign that communicates the listening benefits.

Shorten commercials to 15-30 seconds. Then limit stop sets to no more than two minutes. And be brave enough to run four stop sets an hour. This can be done without sacrificing results for clients. With great copywriting, results will increase. A well-written :15 will outperform a painfully redundant :60.

And that will lead to increased revenue.

Has The Audience Already Stopped Playing Attention?

These three things will go a long way to improving the sound of most radio stations. But they’re bold steps. It requires confidence and a strategic commitment.

But instead, programmers spend time whittling entertainment out of talk breaks, trimming entertainment value out of produced elements and sterilizing brands.

If the audience has stopped paying attention, don’t get upset with them. It’s not their fault. They just react.

It’s up to us to come up with new ways to engage and excite them. That’s the only way to turn them into raging fans.

That should be the top job description for both air personalities and programmers.


This idea may scare you. That’s okay. Fear is a great motivator, as long as it doesn’t turn into a freak out and you become paralyzed to act.

Analyze the radio station. Talk to every department. How can you:

  1. Get rid of everything that is wasting listener’s time.
  2. Prune messaging that is longer than it needs to be.
  3. Pump excitement and entertainment value into all that remains.

The result will likely be that many things change. Some elements will go away. Others will be reimagined. And some will get longer! This isn’t about editing to make it shorter. It’s editing to make it better.

Photo credit: Freepik.com


Author: Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

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