Consultant advises radio stations to step up promotion, keep eye on morning talent

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AUSTIN, Texas — A consultant chosen by NPR to review best practices within public radio has some advice for stations: Match your stellar content with equally stellar promotion and a streamlined, modern sound.

Speaking to attendees Wednesday at the annual Public Radio Program Directors conference, Jeff Rowe said that promoting flagship shows more aggressively, making better use of music and prodding Morning Edition hosts to arrive at work earlier would help public radio reinforce its growing preeminence as a leading source of news in a shifting media landscape.

NPR’s Jarl Mohn hired Rowe shortly after becoming CEO in 2014 as part of the network’s Spark campaign, which encouraged stations to increase on-air promotion of NPR newsmagazines.

Rowe was VP for new media/programming at NBCUniversal from 1990–96 and worked for AOL from 2002–06. He co-founded the consulting firm Okanjo in 2010.

NPR asked Rowe “to connect the dots” between national and local, he said. He spent three to six weeks at 38 stations over the past two years studying best practices.

“At public radio, the best times are ahead of us,” Rowe said, whereas print journalism is languishing and consolidation is roiling commercial broadcasting. But “you need to have urgency,” Rowe said.

“The product is fabulous,” he said. But quality “is like the air we breathe, so we take it for granted,” he told. Attention to the three Ps of presentation, promotion and packaging is key, he said.

To drive home the point, Rowe compared local newscasts and NPR’s flagship newsmagazines to valuable Hollywood superhero franchises. “Marvel is a beloved brand. [But] when Disney has a new Marvel movie, it doesn’t assume you know about it,” he said. “Think about how hard it is to have hit products. Companies that do have a hit product promote the hell out of it.”

Adopting such an approach is about “modernizing” public radio, not “commercializing” it, he said.

“During drive time, if you can communicate that you are live and doing things locally, you will stand out,” he told station reps.

Rowe’s advice to specific stations is confidential, but some of the general ideas he discussed will be incorporated into a new PRPD Handbook coming out this fall to replace the current decade-old version.

He advises stations to focus promotion on their best-known shows, recommending 75 to 100 promos per week. That amounts to 10 to 14 a day, with at least a minute every half-hour devoted to promos.

“When I worked at NBC, we picked four or five shows from our Thursday-night prime time” — led then by Seinfeld and Friends — for heavy promotion, Rowe said. “You can hit your big four or big five, then rotate the other ones,” he said. “Many of you have big local shows and maybe something new you want to launch, so promo that.”

He urged stations to review procedures and chains of command for deciding what to promote, to review decisions daily and to be able to insert live as well as prerecorded promos. Tell listeners what’s coming up in the next five to 15 minutes versus “later this hour” and be specific, he said.

For IDs, stations should standardize how they announce call letters and dial positions. Is it “ninety-one seven” or “ninety-one point seven,” he asked. “Winning brands are very, very consistent,” he said.

“Are any one of these things going to make or break it for the ratings? No. But it’s the totality,” Rowe said.

Using music in interstitials is “the most underutilized and efficient way to create and image and a mood,” Rowe said. And he wagged his finger at local Morning Edition hosts who he said sounded “harried and rushed, stumbling and bumbling.”

“Make sure that talent is there early,” he said. “Hold their feet to the fire. They have to be prepared.”

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