Sunday, September 02, 2007

Another Angle for the CNR - Block Programming

The Hook's article about WCNR (and it's impact on WNRN) has sparked a lively debate. The discussion's spilled over into the (who were kind enough to site my recent post on the subject).

Something mentioned in their comments needs some clarification, I think. Lonnie said:
My big issue with WTJU is that you basically need a program guide to find what you want to listen to. It has it’s place and I’m glad its there, but it’s way to diverse and eclectic for me. Sometimes it’s nice to just turn on the radio and know it’ll be something you will probably want to hear.
A station with more than one format can be confusing to potential listeners.
WNRN calls out the weakness of WTJU's eclectic format on the WNRN site
Stations like WNRN & WVTF ("public radio") offer variety not found with commercial radio, but enough consistency so that real, defined audiences develop for their programming. Some so-called "college" stations have underwriting programs so that businesses or individuals can express their support for a particular kind of eccentric programming for a couple of hours a week.
While this was true years ago, WTJU has (mostly) moved to block programming -- something that's fairly standard in non-commercial radio. With block programming, the format changes at certain times, creating "blocks" of uniform programming across the week.

Most public radio stations (such as WMRA and WVTF locally) follow the news/classical block programming format. "Morning Edition" in the morning; classical music middays; "All Things Considered" in the late afternoon. Evenings can be more of a grab bag, and weekends usually bring in completely different programming ("This American Life" Prairie Home Companion"), but that's OK. Listening habits are different for nights and weekends.

As long as consistency is maintained throughout the work week, the audience -- which can change from one format to another -- can tune in at the same time as part of their weekday routine and get the programming they expect to hear.

WNRN's oblique criticism of WTJU is little disingenuous as they too use block programming for somewhat eclectic programming. "Acoustic Sunrise" which runs from 5:30-10 Monday through Friday has markedly different music than what's aired throughout the day. And the urban programming of the Beatbox (10PM-Midnight) shares virtually no music with WNRN's morning show (and I suspect little of the same audience).

WTJU used to divide everything into one-hour blocks and fit it all together like a giant puzzle. A decade ago you could have heard an hour of folk music followed by an hour of alt-rock followed by an hour of jazz. The volunteer staff naively believed the listener would memorize the specific time slots their programs were on and tune in accordingly. This ignored the way people listen to the radio, and the station suffered as a result.

Currently, the station uses programming blocks for most of its weekday schedule. Every Monday through Friday, from 6-10 in the morning, we air classical music and from 10-12 jazz.

Of course, the key to block programming is consistency. Weekends can be different, but most folks expect if they turn on a station at a certain time throughout the week, they'll hear the same kind of programming.

Where WTJU current falls down is in the latter part of the week. Ideally, the folk department programming (blues/folk/world) should run from noon-2PM, and rock from 2-4PM every weekday. It starts out that way, but on Friday the rock and folk blocks are reversed -- and that makes for bad radio, as listeners are forced to remember an exception to the rule.

The schedule isn't perfect, but it's far better than it was. And the evenings are finally arranged in blocks (mostly) as well.

But those few weekday anomalies -- legacies from a bygone era -- aren't quite the "particular kind of eccentric programming for a couple of hours a week" some would have us believe.

As with other stations using block programming for their weekdays, the majority of WTJU programming you like will be there at that same time period, Monday through Friday. So, Lonnie, same time tomorrow?

- Ralph

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