Music Scheduling & Commercial Breaks: From Bow Tie To Hourglass

by Thomas Giger of

Music stations can enhance their strategy for stop sets with thoughtful scheduling. Ideas for PPM markets as well as diary markets.

No matter how your station’s ratings are measured, you can let your music scheduling support your programming strategy regarding commercial break placement to boost your Time Spent Listening and Average Quarter Hour. We’ll first cover ideas & insights that you can use in a PPM world, and then some for a diary environment. After looking at the ground rules for programming for each, we’ll dive into the music scheduling part of it.

‘Improving your odds of getting full credit’

This PPM market format clock for Modern AC radio stations could increase your 15-minute scores in essential quarter-hour segments (format & image: Thomas Giger)

This PPM market format clock for Modern AC radio stations could increase your 15-minute scores in essential quarter-hour segments (format & image: Thomas Giger)

Maximise your content flow

Looking at the example format clock above, you’ll notice two stop sets, placed at 25’ and 50’ past the hour, which we’ve done with Portable People Meter in mind. Most music stations in American PPM markets stop the music only twice an hour; often around 15’ and 45’ (known as ‘bow tie’), a programming strategy based on Nielsen Audio’s methodology. A Guide to Understanding and Using PPM Data, published by Arbitron in 2010, defines a quarter-hour as:

‘The basic unit and smallest time period for which listening is credited (the use of the quarter-hour as a standard in broadcast advertising research dates back to early days of radio when programs were typically 15 minutes long). Stations receive credit for a quarter-hour of listening when a station receives at least five minutes of exposure within one of the four 15-minute periods in the clock hour (:00-:15, :15-:30, :30-:45 or :45-:00). The five minutes of exposure do not have to be contiguous, but they do have to occur in the same quarter-hour.’

Protect your best quarter-hours

One could spend time arguing why a meter signal from 6:06 to 6:11 gives you 15 minutes of credit while 6:11 to 6:19 results in 0 minutes of credit, or one could focus on respecting the rules — and winning the game — by making the best of the current status; our goal with this article. The idea is to place commercials strategically, using different break sizes, thus maintaining music sweeps in essential quarter-hours and improving your odds of getting full credit there.

Offering a modern variant of a classic 15’/45’ bow tie, we’ve placed a short, floating break before 30’ (example: it starts at 25’ if five minutes long, or at 26’ if four minutes long), and a longer, also floating break before 00’, creating a structure that’s a homage to another famous programming structure for commercial breaks; the so-called ‘hourglass’. It may increase your chance to get very easy credit for quarter-hours I & III and relatively easy credit for II & IV. In addition, floating stop sets could become an appointment-listening USP once people learn that your station always is back in music from your top & bottom of the hour.

Power your music format

Maximising your potential in quarter-hours I & III, as well as II & IV, is connected to great content; audience-engaging bits (effectively teased with a time stamp) and great music. Your ratio of power vs. secondary songs obviously depends on your competitive situation. You probably want at least 50% of your log to be powers, or even 66.6% like in the above example clock, which I’ve created for a Modern AC playing an equal mix of current, recurrent, and gold titles. (Note: one Secondary Current position per hour could be replaced by New Music; one Power Recurrent position per hour could be replaced by Stay Current; they’re not included for the sake of a basic example.)

The above clock example is based on a recognisable, ongoing ‘Current-Recurrent-Gold’ category flow, and a ‘Power-Secondary’ popularity flow (kicking off every top and bottom of the hour with a great song to reward appointment listening). We want to get listeners as deep as possible into a quarter-hour full of commercials (and play those at the very end). Hence the 3 power songs back to back in quarter-hours II and IV. (If there’s no time for the pre-break ‘Power Gold’, you can manually swap it with the ‘Secondary Gold’, so then that one can be dropped.)

‘Optimised for diary & CATI markets’

This diary market format clock for Modern AC radio stations could entice your stations’ listenership to bridge your quarter-hour segments (format & image: Thomas Giger)

This diary market format clock for Modern AC radio stations could entice your stations’ listenership to bridge your quarter-hour segments (format & image: Thomas Giger)

Keep your audience hooked

The funny fact that 8 minutes of listening may result in 0 minutes of credit, when bridging two quarter-hours, is a way smaller issue if you’re programming in a diary or CATI world, where ‘recall is all’. Panelists using a diary or receiving a call are less precise than meters, especially regarding TSL. Hardly anyone will remember they’ve actually listened from (to use our previous example) 6:11 to 6:19, and instead think they’ve listened from 6:10 to 6:20, or even from 6:00 to 6:30!

In a diary or CATI environment, we want to increase listening occasions and Time Spent Listening, and promote our radio brand. It’s rewarding to get people from one quarter-hour into the next (and next), hoping they’ll give us credit for a lot of perceived listening time. On the content side, appointments (“listen today at 6:10 for your chance to win…”) certainly help, just as contests or bits bridging quarter-hours (e.g. a question of the day at 6:10, and a contestant/winner at 6:20).

Optimise your music flow

When you’re a music station, your audience predominantly tunes in for your format’s playlist. How to use music scheduling to make listeners (believe that they) stay tuned from at least 5 minutes before until at least 5 minutes after a new quarter-hour? You want to play only strong songs during quarter-hour transitions — and ideally play those back to back without interruption, meaning no jock talk and only brief station imaging anytime you pass a quarter-hour mark.

Adjusting our previous PPM format clock to this strategy, we can reposition our previous ‘triple play’ of power songs to incentivise diary or CATI panelists to stick around the 15’ and 45’ mark — placing them like a ‘bow tie’ (but in this case for great songs; not commercial ads). We still kick off the top & bottom of the hour with a best-testing title, from the previous USP-idea of being reliably back in music at 30’ and 00’. With a slightly different ‘Current-Recurrent-Gold’ category flow and ‘Power-Secondary’ popularity flow, we’ve got our music clock optimised for diary & CATI markets. I hope these ideas have inspired you to create your own strategy for your market and your brand!

31a8ca497da06282eb497b8005c82431 (1)Thomas Giger is a European radio broadcasting specialist and publisher of Radio))) ILOVEIT, based in the Netherlands, and serving the radio industry worldwide.