How To Tell a Good Complaint From a Bad One

It seemed like a never-ending battle with the audience. Our morning show was the legendary Jeff & Jer, who were pretty good at what they did as evidenced by their induction into the Radio Hall of Fame. But barely a day passed without a complaint. It drove us crazy.

Until we revised the station’s audience persona. This exercise was a catalyst that allowed us to transform a radio brand.

I’ll tell you the story, but if you expect the happy ending to be that complaints stop, you’ll be disappointed. The complaints never stopped. However, it did change the way I responded to complaints. And it helped me understand our audience much more intimately.

On Star 100.7/San Diego, our station’s values were to be a bright, fun, positive choice for adult women to escape from the real world. We did it with a sense of humor, larger-than-life personalities, high profile promotions and an overall station personality of goodness. It translated into tremendous success.

Jeff & Jer were the morning show, the engine that pulled the train. Our philosophy was to be Disneyland on the radio dial: a happy place where there are no problems, no worries and nothing bad ever happens. There are no bad days at Disneyland, and moms don’t have to worry about children being exposed to something that would embarrass the parents.

That didn’t mean we were prudes, but at it’s edgiest, the station was PG-13. We were sensitive to the role we played in listeners lives. We were far safer than most radio stations in the market, and more family-friendly than popular prime time television sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld.

But listeners still complain.

Overcoming a Listener Complaint

We also had a policy to respond to every communication from every listener. Each phone call is returned and each email got a personal response.

So when I got an email, letter or phone call complaining that “I can’t listen to your station with my kids in the car”, a conversation followed. For a long time, I engaged the listener, challenging them on their position.

That’s always a mistake, by the way. The customer (listener) is always right in their opinion. And nothing you say can change that opinion.

Most of the time, their beef would be over something that we considered silly. For instance, the show had a recurring feature where they’d pick a letter from the alphabet, and Jerry would list the names for boobs that start with that letter. Here’s an example:

Okay, I guess it’s a little edgy to say “boobs” on the air, but in the context of how it’s presented, it’s really not something that would qualify as “dirty” or salacious.

So using sound programming judgement, we learned to tolerate complaints but didn’t take them seriously.

But everything changed when we conducted a research project using the OAR method (Observe, Ask, Research) of audience evaluation to better understand our listener. This is a fundamental step in the process of identifying traits when building an audience persona.

How We Transformed a Radio Brand

As we gathered more insight, we gained insight into the lives of our listener, and it revealed hidden values that we couldn’t (or at least hadn’t) recognized.

We knew that the women we targeted had kids and lived in the suburbs, but among the deeper things we learned in the project:

  • They worked full time because they had to, not because they wanted to.
  • Their family needed two incomes to pay their mortgage in San Diego’s expensive housing market.
  • Their kids were very involved in activities around school and the community.
  • They felt guilty for not spending enough time with their kids/family.
  • Most of them felt they had very little time for themselves.
  • They had a nagging feeling that someone else was raising their children and life was out of control.
  • Their #1 worry was that their kids would grow up with a strong morale background.
  • They trusted our station, and Jeff & Jer were a safe place for their kids-like Disneyland.

When we understood this about them, the reason for complaints became much clearer. When they’re rushing out the door in the morning, loading the kids in the SUV and going over homework in the car on the way to school, we were their soundtrack, friend, and to an extent, escape.

So no matter how fun or harmless the “boobs” feature was, it set off alarms in our listener’s heads. It was like a villain was on the loose at Disneyland. Even if it wasn’t “dirty”, it suddenly wasn’t as safe.

Armed with this insight, we made adjustments, but didn’t change programming or eliminate the feature. However, we were sensitive to the audience values that were violated from time to time. We changed in two ways.

Responding to Complaints

First, I learned to stop arguing with listeners when they complained, because it was clear what inspired their comments.

It wasn’t their fault! They trusted us, and we had to respect that trust. I realized that when listeners complained, their greatest concern was to make sure the relationship they trusted wasn’t changing. That their favorite radio station was still there for them. They really wanted to be heard. And it was my job to listen.

So the first remedy was to change how I responded to the audience. The second was to adjust how we presented content.

On-Air Sensitivity

When I shared the information with Jeff & Jer, the light came on, and they immediately said,

We have to stop doing things like that.

But that wasn’t the point. The content actually fit well with their character brand profiles. Changing the show’s content by eliminating material because of complaint would remove some traits that made up the rich and diverse personality mix.

They came up with a brilliant solution, demonstrating another reason they’re in the radio Hall of Fame.

Playing on the Disney theme, they reasoned that not every ride was for all kids.

So they started framing edgier segments differently. Instead of just presenting “Names for Boobs”, they set it up with an audio version of a “You Must Be This Tall to Ride” sign.

Here’s an example of what they might say:

Jeff: “Okay, we know you’re probably on your way to work or driving your kids to school, so if you have young kids in the car…you probably will need to turn the radio to another station in about 3 minutes, because Jerry is at it again…and some of you probably don’t want your kids to hear what he’s going to be doing next.”

In the background, Jerry’s complaining, “Come on, it’s not that bad. It’s nothing. It’s fun. They love it when we do this.”

The effect? Tune in. Suspense. Expectation. Mystery. Who’s going to tune out after a tease like this?

They had to hear what’s coming up.

The Lesson

This is a great example of how to use an audience persona. The information gathered doesn’t always lead to an immediate change in your brand or product, but the understanding that comes from the process has a profound impact on everything you do.

It affects how you write promos, create posts on social media, choose content and present material. It causes broadcasters to think through promotions differently and adjust communication with listeners through text messages and emails.

And, it may even alter how you relate to annoying complaints.

By the way, the adjustments didn’t stop, or even reduce, complaints. That wasn’t the goal. In fact, we want complaints. It means we’re creating emotional reactions and provoking a strong response. Listeners don’t complain about things taht don’t matter to them.

It did help us understand why they complained, though. And knowing that allowed us to respond appropriately.

Get An Audience Persona

If you haven’t built an audience persona yet, get started by watching this webinar on demand and downloading the templates to help build a deep persona profile.

If you need help, let me know and we can arrange to guide you through the process.

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By Tracy Johnson

Recognized as one of America’s most innovative radio programmers and managers, Tracy Johnson’s broad background in traditional and digital media spans more than 25 years and has influenced hundreds of radio stations, programmers and personalities. 

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