Programming At, Near or Away By Andy Meadows

Anytime you’re programming a station in a crowded market you only have three options, to program away, near or at the competition. Just like it sounds programming away, or counter programming, entails doing something completely different from the competition. Programming near is doing something similar with a strategic difference to hang your hat on and programming at would be doing something very similar in the hopes that you could do it better. 

There are a handful of criteria to look at to help make that decision starting with the basics. Determining the population breakdown by age, gender, ethnicity and income. Then assessing whether every major format that fits that demographic is covered. If not, then a format hole exists and the process stops there because there’s room to program away simply by choosing a mass appeal format. In most medium and almost all large markets that’s obviously not going to be the case. 

If no major format hole exists things get a little more complicated, IE fun. It might be that because of shifting demographics in that region a new, yet to be identified, format hole is emerging. One way to help identify this is to look at online data for that area to see if there are songs/artists people there are listening to more frequently then elsewhere in the country. A great free tool for this is Spotify’s Music Map of the World, that shows just that, what people are searching for on Spotify more in that region than nationally and globally. So, songs that are popular everywhere don’t really show up but a few that are having more regional success do. In most markets there’s only enough of these songs/artists to create spice categories for existing formats but sometimes there’s enough to build an entire format around. 

When neither an obvious major format hole exists or a new hole emerges in data, then the decision comes down to whether or not to program near a competitor or directly at them. The answer to that will lie in identifying how many vulnerabilities the market leader in a major format has. Do they have strong on-air talent in all day parts, only a few or none? Are they running incredibly long stopsets jam-packed with units? How event intensive are they? How involved are they in the community? What’s their online presence and social engagement look like? Are there a handful of songs they aren’t playing that they should be or, vice versa, are playing that they shouldn’t? Do they offer compelling on-air contests? How well is there station branded on air and in outside marketing? Are they clearly defining their benefit to the listener? 

If they’re lacking in a few of those areas then there’s room to program near them with a small, but well defined, point of difference. If they’re falling short in several of those areas then a station with the resources to do what they’re trying to do, only better, can find success as a direct competitor. 

As a programmer I thoroughly enjoy niche formats created by forcing a hole in a market that doesn’t exist, but generally its an exercise in working countless hours, and killing tons of brains cells, to maybe pull a one share. Resisting that programmer’s urge to create something truly unique is hard, but it’s usually the right answer. 

If you need help determining which direction to take format-wise, email me at

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