While Saga's recent announcement that they were giving up online ad insertion attracted a lot of press, they weren't the only broadcaster to make that decision. They were just the group that went public with the decision to run their over-the-air spots, despite potential royalty issues. In recent years, I had learned not to congratulate PDs on the quality of their online sponsors or the smoothness of their transitions, because more than once the explanation was, "We're not replacing our over-the-air stopsets. But don't tell anybody."
For years, having a streaming experience that was "no worse than what over-the-air listeners are hearing" was the best that online listeners could hope for. There's a wider variance now. Some stations have put considerable effort into addressing the stopset issue. Some streams are still clogged with the downer PSAs that made online listening such a chore in the mid-'00s.
Broadcasters can always take encouragement in knowing that almost anything that replaces McGruff the Crime Dog, whose PSAs have taken a bite out of station streams for years, will be an improvement. But that may also be one of the reasons that it's so hard to agree on what constitutes best practice for covering a station's stopsets. And as a heavy user of station streams, I admit to widely varying priorities.
As a journalist covering the radio business: I wish station streams were simulcasts of what over-the-air listeners hear. It's harder to get a sense of a radio station when you're not having the same experience -- when the big-sounding promo for the cash-and-cars giveaway is quickly truncated by a daily deals ad, as I heard recently on one station. Or when you're not hearing a station's promos and sweepers at the beginning and end of stopsets at all, as still frequently happens.
Often, the stopsets are a key source of insight into a radio station. It shouldn't be the case, of course, but the spots are sometimes the most "local" element of a radio station. Beyond that, the quality and tenor of the station's advertisers often speaks volumes. A year or so ago, I listened to a now defunct radio station over-the-air and was stunned at the one-time-powerhouse's client list, or lack thereof. Listening online, I probably would have written off the debt relief and other bottom-feeding ads as an ad insertion issue. Hearing the station as most listeners heard it was devastating.
As a programmer: I like the approach that some Clear Channel stations have taken over the last year, reducing the amount of available inventory, adding music to stopsets and, subsequently, replacing random fill gold titles with new music showcase features.
For years, Pandora, Slacker and other online pureplays have had the ability to irrevocably redefine the number of spots that listeners will willingly sit through -- either from music radio's online simulcasts or even, eventually, over-the-air. Yet most FM broadcasters have given every indication that they would rather let the streaming experience remain cluttered, just in case they are eventually able to sell 14 minutes of online inventory. Even now, one major broadcaster runs filler on its Web-only stations. There's no FM simulcast to cover, but it's there anyway.
As a vendor whose livelihood depends on the strength of the radio industry: I'd like to hear stations successfully sell out their streams, develop the additional revenue, and find solutions for local advertisers who wouldn't normally be on the radio. Even though I depend on the over-the-air spots for some sense of the market, if stations were able to cultivate a second tier of streaming advertisers, it would probably convey an even better "audio tourism" experience.
Streaming ad insertion became a hot topic in the trade press after Saga's announcement in late August. By the time of the September 18 RAIN Summit Dallas, it had cooled -- barely coming up on the panels that would have been an obvious forum for potential solutions. And this was at an always provocative meeting, populated by the sort of attendees who have a more considered opinion on ad insertion than many others in the industry.
The PPM era brought with it the micro-management of every over-the-air moment of a radio station. Yet, for a not insignificant number of listeners, ten to fifteen minutes of every hour is barely tended. And it's that much more frustrating because there is no shortage of viable options.