Many of my long-time readers know that my roots in broadcasting run deep. I started knocking around radio stations before I could vote or buy alcohol (legally anyway). And while I haven’t done radio full-time since 2003, I continue to host a specialty music program called Chillville, which airs Sunday mornings on Austin’s alternative rock station 101X.
Back in 2007, April Fool’s Day fell on a Sunday, so my sidekick/producer Jason “Full Monty” Montemayor and I decided to play the a prank on our listeners. In retrospect it was a horrible idea. And when you understand why, you should be able to take away a couple of valuable lessons that will serve your marketing campaigns well (on April 1 and the rest of the year).
At the time, April 1, 2007, we had been doing the show for over a year, and we had cultivated a rabid following that manifested itself in calls and emails to the Program Director and General Manager. It was unlike anything I’ve ever been associated with, and I started doing radio in 1986. Chillville was a consistent top three Arbitron performer in our target demo (we’ve since strung together 7 straight ratings periods at #1 among 18-34 year old listeners). Two weeks earlier, at Austin’s annual South-By-Southwest music/film/interactive conference, we had placed second in the Austin Music Awards in the “Radio Music Program” category (which we won the following year).
I’m still not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to tell our listeners that the show was being cancelled.
But that is exactly what we did. And within moments, the phone calls started flooding in, as I expected they would. And we’d mess with the callers for a minute (not airing them live of course) before springing the gotcha. Most people took it well. A few took it poorly. As the show progressed, we kept milking it on-air and the calls kept flooding in (though as people finally got their coffee in them, more of the calls skewed toward people who had already figured out we were pulling their leg). And right before Noon, two-and-a-half hours into this long-form drama, we revealed the prestige. And as we stuck a fork into that week’s show, Monty and I high-fived each other and figured that the matter was done.
In the days that would follow, we came to realize that the joke, quite literally, was on us.
For starters, there was the matter of the mass memo from our Operations Manager (101X is part of a six-station cluster in Austin) specifying that any April Fool’s pranks needed to be cleared through the programming department. And as the irate calls and emails continued to trickle in throughout the following week–to our boss (the Program Director), and his boss (the aforementioned OM), and everyone’s boss (the GM)–it became very clear that we had not gotten the memo. Ouch!
One especially devoted listener told our GM that she was going to start calling the station’s advertisers and organize a boycott if they cancelled Chillville. Double Ouch! And while you have to appreciate the level of enthusiasm and evangelism on behalf of a listener, these are clearly not the kinds of calls you want senior management getting on behalf of a poorly-conceived joke.
And there was no way to un-ring the bell.
See, as much as we strive for Time Spent Listening in radio–and as much as we’d like to think that people hang on our every word and song, and listen for the full three hours every week–the truth is that most people still listen to radio in their cars when they are trying to get from Point A to Point B. The other undeniable truth is that most people are only half-listening in the first place, and that any message is really the result of what was heard, regardless of how the message was intended or delivered.
You should factor that into all your marketing conversations, and you’ll be more successful in making sure that what you say and do is received and retrieved in the manner you intended.