An Insight into Jon Coleman: Part 1

Jon Coleman founded Coleman Insights in 1978. Through much of the 80’s, Jon also served as a vice president for Capitol Broadcasting Company. Prior to forming Coleman Insights and leading Capitol’s radio group, Jon held various positions with TM Programming in Dallas, Frank N.Magid Associates in Marion, Iowa and The Media Associates in Dallas.

Jon holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Arts degree in Communications from the University of Oregon. He is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Greg Smith: Jon, as a teenager what did radio mean to you?

Jon Coleman : I think I was like a lot of teenagers at the time.  Listening to the radio was a part of the way we felt connected to what was cool and what was happening.  I remember going to radio station events that seemed fun or cool.  Radio was clearly a part of my identity and a part of the way my friends and I knew what was “cool”.

One thing that was a little different about my experiences with radio from that of many of my contemporaries was that I was more attracted to the personalities than the music.  For sure I had favourite music and I followed the Top 40 of the time but I did not buy a lot of music or go to concerts.  Looking back that is kind of funny since my company and I have spent the better part of 35 years studying music and developing systems for tracking its appeal and determining the most sophisticated ways of determining the ideal format for individual radio stations.

GS: When did you realise that radio was going to be a major part of your life? 

JC: I realized when I was a teenager that I really liked radio, but it was not until college that I started to think that it might actually be a career

GS: What do you remember about your first day in radio? 

JC: I remember how nervous I was. I remember how I felt that everyone around me knew more than me. But, at the same time I remember how exciting it was to be at a radio station and to be involved, even if at the gopher level.

One thing I felt the first day was that everyone in the station seemed to know things about how to program and promote a station that I did not. As a result I asked a lot of questions.  I remember gently questioning people regarding their assumptions about how or why people listened to radio.  It seemed to me that some of the assumptions of many of the radio people back then did not fit how I thought about radio and consumer behaviour.  At the time, I did not know that the questions I would ask and my interest in finding answers for those questions was going to be the basis of my entire career and my entire company.

When I formally got into research my questions became more sophisticated.  I found that many things that programmers at the time believed were true were based on false assumptions about the audience.  Those assumptions were often based on an unrealistic or inaccurate interaction with the audience.

 GS: Take us through your early career & how research became your passion.

Allan Hotlen at KNBRJC: One of my first jobs after college was working for Allan Hotlen at KNBR in San Francisco.  I was one of his assistants or gophers, depending on who you were talking to. As a part of that experience I was involved in doing Comm\unity Ascertainment.  Community Ascertainment was an outreach program required of all radio stations in the U.S. in order to get their FCC license renewed.

Since I had actually done work on Community Ascertainment as a part of my Masters Degree in Communications and had been awarded a National Association of Broadcasters grant on that topic, I was the perfect person to help KNBR with the work they were doing.

Well, Community Ascertainment was really just talking to people about the radio station.  Sometimes those people would be community leaders, other times the general public.   It was basically listener research.  I still do Community Ascertainment today, it’s just that it’s about ascertaining programming strategies.

That experience led me to a job at Frank N. Magid and Associates.  At the time Magid was about the only company in the U.S. that specialized in research for radio and TV.  It was at Magid that my passion for radio research developed.

Within a few years I left Magid and after a short stop or two I formed my own radio research company in Dallas, Texas in 1980.

It was in the 80s that the first of many questions I had about radio, listeners and consumer motivation were answered.  It was then that the basic philosophy of our company and how we approach radio programming and positioning began to develop. The Image Pyramid which drives much of our philosophy to this day was developed during those years.

Thirty years later we have not stopped learning about how to build great radio stations.  Our ideas and techniques have evolved for over thirty years now.  I expect they will continue to evolve in the future too.

GS: Coleman Insights really started with you & your wife Linda writing research questionnaires and analysing studies from your home, while subcontracting all of the data processing. How did your company go from a two person operation into the powerhouse research organisation that it is today?

JC: The way you describe it is exactly how it started. It was 1980.  I was very fortunate that before I started my own company, I had developed relationships with Nationwide Communications and Swanson Broadcasting.  I was able to strike a deal with them to essentially guarantee enough projects that I could pay the bills and get by for a year or two.

Because my clients Swanson and Nationwide really only paid my bills and not anyone else’s, initially I could not hire support staff.  Instead we used subcontractors to do some of the fielding and data processing.  That allowed me to worry about client needs and not worry about the logistics of completing studies.

And, oh yeah it allowed Linda and me to write and code questionnaires in bed at night.  I have not told very many people that story, so you have a good memory.

At the time it seemed like a pain, but being that close to the data did positively contribute to the research we have done ever since.  It contributed in the sense that by doing very basic level work with listener responses to our survey questions I was able to see how consumers were responding to radio stations at a very personal level.  When a person is talking in an individual study you get a different sense of who they are and what motivates them than you do in a large impersonal perceptual study.  This was one way we learned that listeners were not as involved in radio and radio station programming as everyone in radio at the time had thought.

After a short while we ditched the “bedroom” model of doing research because there were things we wanted to do to enhance our services that we could not do by subcontracting data processing.   We wanted to do custom analysis of our perceptual research and our auditorium music tests that could only be done with our own software.  So, we began developing our own custom software to perform special analyses that others had not thought of or could not perform.  Our computer software programming efforts were the first significant financial commitment that we made to taking radio research to a higher level than standard run of the mill market research.  I think we have lead the way in this area ever since.

The company really took off after I hired Pierre Bouvard in 1989.  Pierre came to us from the Arbitron ratings company.  His specialty was client service.  Pierre brought a new culture to the company and a client outreach program that had not existed prior to his arrival.  So, in the 90s we grew by six or seven times.  Even though radio in the U.S. was consolidating and forcing some consultants and researchers out of business, we thrived.

In the last ten or fifteen years the company has continued to thrive.  I think there were two keys to our success that continue to this day.  First is a strategic or brand approach to radio that was lacking prior to 1980 and second is a service orientation that puts us in the role of ongoing interpreter of consumer sentiment.

An example of the strategic approach would be focusing our clients on the big things that really drive behaviour.  I tell a story about the two numbers in a ratings share. The two numbers are the number to the left of the decimal and the number to the right of the decimal. (As in 4.7 or 6.2) The number to the right goes up or down in a narrow range based on changes in music rotation and category structure and things like that.  The number to the right of the decimal goes up or down based on things the audience does not notice.

The number to the left of the decimal is much different.  The number to the left goes up when you impact people’s perceptions of your radio station.  That is, it moves when people do notice what you have done.  We try and remind clients of this dynamic all the time.  Big things move the ratings in a big way.

GS: What important lessons did you learn in those early days?

JC: I think the most important lesson is one that is often overlooked.  That lesson is that radio stations need to listen to their customers and respond to their needs and wants.  That may seem obvious, but is often ignored.  Somehow companies have bought into the idea of doing research, but have also found a way of ignoring the messages, especially when the research delivers a message they don’t want to hear.

Another lesson is one that has proven to be true for over 35 years and that is the one I alluded to before; regular people are not always paying attention to radio station programming.

We have found over and over again that listeners do not engage with radio the way we in radio engage with it.  We want them to love us and to pay attention to everything we do.  But they don’t.

The practical implication of this is that radio stations sometimes need to stand back and program in broad brush strokes that listeners can follow.  By this I mean that stations need to be very clear in defining their music position for listeners because the audience will not figure out your music position on their own.  Stations need to do contests and promotions that are easy to follow and easy to play and not try to force listening that is not feasible given the way consumers use radio today.  I will give you an example:

As former DJ’s many radio programmers get a lot of feedback on the phone from listeners who are very involved with the station.  The feedback from these very involved listeners can suggest or imply that people are paying very close attention to everything that goes on at the station. So, the station puts on creative promotions or contests, but contests which require people to pay attention and at times jump through unrealistic hoops to win.

One contest which comes to mind and which some stations in the U.S. and Australia still do is called the “High Low Game”.

Listeners are supposed to listen once each hour and if they are nth caller and they can guess the prize amount, they win.  The station tells them if their guess is high or low. As the game goes on each guess slowly narrows the range for the correct answer until finally one lucky listener guesses the prize amount.  When we ask listeners about this contest they always say “that contest is way too hard to win.  I can’t be a slave to radio.  So, I don’t even try to play, in fact I switch stations whenever I hear that contest”.  The radio station thinks people are playing the contest because they get winners, but the reality is the winners are coming from a very narrow group of super fans. For the rest of the audience the contest is a tune out.  The problem is that the original design of this contest is based on incorrect assumptions about the involvement listeners have with the station.  The assumption is based on a faulty understanding of how listeners interact with the station.   They don’t listen every minute of every day and they don’t pay attention to every contest or give away.  They are not a slave to our programming.

The last lesson is that not every radio station can be all things to all people.  Most radio stations win or lose based on a limited number of programming strengths.  Rarely can you win the images for music, personality, contesting all at the same time. Stations need to focus on what they can win, and if they don’t focus, they will not win anything.

In part 2 of  An Insight into Jon Coleman, we explore how Coleman Insights has been the invovator when it comes to media research. We will look at case studies & the strategy used to build ratings success and Jon talks about Amp in Los Angeles. where Amp attacked long time market leader Kiss.

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