Playing Not To Lose Is Not Playing To Win

To win a game, players must have a strategy. Or be incredibly lucky. And relying on luck is not a reliable path to success. When a player chooses to play not to lose, it doesn’t work out. Today, radio stations are in that situation.

Investing resources on music flow is important. But a perfect music flow isn’t going to reverse the trend of listeners spending less time with radio.

Researching the music library ensures the right songs are on the radio and placing the most popular songs at the right spots in clocks is a solid programming tactic.  But is that creating more fans?

45 minutes of continuous music sounds like a competitive music position, but eventually, commercials come on. And those stop sets fall at the same time as every other station in the market. Yes, stop set placement is important. But is any music station winning the most music position against streamers and pure plays?

Promotion and contesting can cause rating respondents to take action. Promotion is important, but does a cue to call or tickets to a backstage meet and greet move the needle?

Avoiding needless talk is important, but shaving a few seconds from talk breaks or tightly controlling break length doesn’t make personalities more appealing.

None of these tactics impacts TSL. It makes programmers feel better because they’re doing something. But it’s a defensive strategy. Radio is playing not to lose.

Play To Win, Not To Lose

Here’s something that is happening almost for sure: Radio’s TSL is going down. And each station’s Time Spent Listening is going down, too. Yet broadcasters obsess about share gain or loss.

Programmers: Other stations are not the competition. That’s just playing The Ratings Game, hoping to lose less than a radio competitor. This internal focus is killing the industry.

Turn it around by aggressively competing to earn more attention.

That’s playing to win.

Here’s how to break the pattern of programming not to lose and start playing to win.

Talk Breaks

Stop worrying about coaching talent to shave 2 seconds of talk time or editing a few words out of a segment. I know one programmer that instructed personalities to edit phone calls to remove pauses and breaths.

A few seconds here and there add up. It’s important to maintain forward momentum, but shorter talk breaks are not a competitive advantage. Effective, personal breaks filled with personality and human connection should be the goal.

I’ve heard many 2 minute breaks that are 1:50 too long. And just as many 7 minute breaks that were too short. In creative, winning programming, the length of a break is secondary to effectiveness.


The most obvious sign a station is playing not to lose is repeating the same promotions and programming over and over.

Bringing back a successful idea is a good programming strategy, but simply doing the same things over and over results in a boring station. Listeners respond to fresh ideas. But many stations are in a creative rut. They segue from one group contest to the next, each sounding like the last. And each day of programming makes listeners feel they’re listening to a radio version of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Consistency is good. Predictable is not. Try new things. Experiment. Surprise and delight listeners with new ideas.

Clock Management

Programmers construct elaborate programming clocks, designed to minimize tune out by placing commercials at times dictated by PPM wisdom.

But so is everyone else. So when a listener tunes out to escape commercials, they run into more commercials. And each of those stop sets is endless because PPM analysis proves fewer long stop sets outperforms a balanced clock with fewer commercials.

That’s programming to a rating service. It may work in playing to win The Ratings Game, but it’s slowly making radio less competitive against the real dangers.

Dare to be different. Be less predictable. Try something new.

Strict Talk Policies

Programmers are hung up avoiding negatives. Management issues orders that certain topics are off-limits to avoid listener complaints. The list continues to grow because the public is hypersensitive about anything that doesn’t fit their worldview.

So programmers make rules when they should be coaching talent to creatively manage content that falls within guidelines that support brand values.

Radio has mastered managing details but misses the bigger picture: How does it sound and are we inspiring listeners?

Misapplying Research

Safe programmers focus on removing potential irritants. Research comes in and the management team scrambles to get rid of anything listeners dislike. That would mean there’s no reason to tune out. Remove the off-ramps and the car stays on the freeway, right?

Holding on to existing listeners longer is a good thing. But that’s playing not to lose. It’s not playing to win.

Simply removing negatives can leave a station in the Zone of Mediocrity. There are fewer reasons to tune out, but it also removes reasons to tune in. Many stations have polished the entertainment value from the air.

Obsess About Everything

Hand-wringing and hall-pacing communicates tension and fear. It makes everyone anxious. And that stifles creativity.

Relax and have fun, or at least act like you’re relaxed and having fun. This is the entertainment business and personalities can’t attract larger audiences if they’re worried about another station stealing shares. Or worried about the next round of layoffs.


Winning programmers create can’t-miss entertainment that leaps through the speakers and compels listeners to pay attention. That comes from personalities that attract and lead a passionate fan base.

Programming science is important, of course. But programming not to lose produces disposable stations. Radio is less important each day. We’re losing traction quarter-hour by quarter-hour.

Play to win. Take risks. Don’t be reckless, but be creative, bold and progressive. Try something different. It may not be perfect and may even run off a meter or two (shudder).

But it may save you from your path to extinction.


Music Flow and TSL

Lucky? Here Are 5 Ways to Make Your Luck

How To Build Clocks

Improve Music Research Results

The Real Competition

How Long Talk Breaks Should Be

It’s Time To Rethink Programming Clocks

Do You Polish Entertainment Out Of Your Show?

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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